One day, a fellow probation officer handed Irene Davila a new case file on a gang member.
" 'Here, you'll like this one; she doesn't have any problems,' " Davila recalls her colleague saying. "No problems! She was 15, had a 2-year-old, a new baby and a mother who wouldn't sign for birth control . . . so she went out and had a back-alley abortion that means she can't have kids anymore."
Something's wrong with this picture, Davila thought. The more crimes homeboys commit, the more attention they get. Meanwhile, the girls stay home, struggle to take care of babies and receive little attention from the system. She asked to specialize in female juvenile offenders.
Today, the 30 girls she sees range in age from 12 to 17. About half have children; one has three. Of the other half, five are pregnant, several have had abortions and one is sexually promiscuous but not pregnant because she has yet to reach puberty.
While still in junior high, such girls get used to what grown-ups might call the "degradation of women." For them, it's just being called "ho's" (whores) or "OPP" (Other People's Property).
"Girls are considered trash, somebody there to serve the boys," says Bert Davila, no relation to Irene, director of gang operations for the Los Angeles County Probation Department. "Black gangs, Latino gangs--I don't see much difference on this. The same treatment is being afforded girls in Asian gangs."
Yet the girls in gangs often respond dutifully and talk about "making a baby" for their homeboys--sometimes in the eternal search for a boy who will stick by them. But hard-core gang members often wind up in jail and are less likely than law-abiding teen fathers to become live-in dads.
"I got myself a son now," one 16-year-old gang member nicknamed "Mite" brags. "I'm gonna be a good dad. I plan to hang with him and make sure he gets what he wants."
But Mite doesn't live with the mother, a neighborhood girl, nor support his year-old child financially. He sometimes dresses the baby up in gang colors and, if the mother hadn't objected, would have gotten the boy a gang tattoo.
Surveys at Juvenile Hall indicate that about 10% of boys in custody admit to having children. Probation workers, who suspect the real number is higher, are now offering occasional classes in parenting and sex education. Anonymous questions penned by some of the boys reveal not only ignorance but insecurity.
"If I don't have sex 'cause I'm in jail, will my testicles explode?" one boy asked.
"If you (have sex with a girl) five times and she don't get pregnant, are you shooting blanks?" asked another.
Many gang members get almost no sex education, says county probation officer Sharon Spiegel. The gang then becomes a collective male role model, with older members passing sexual myths down to adolescent boys.
Spiegel, who grew up in the South Los Angeles neighborhoods where she now works, alternates between compassion and anger for the kids. Most are gang members who feel so powerless that they have no idea what it is to set a goal and achieve it. Many can't envision the future.
"We are just not raising kids who can deal with the stresses of living in this wild and crazy society," Spiegel says. "We are producing Teenage Mutant I-don't-know-what. . . . We want inner-city kids to make the right choices, but we forget to show them there is a rainbow of choices out there."