Today's Agenda

The most expensive possible outcome for neglected, uncontrollable or emotionally disturbed teens is institutionalization. And, depending on the situation, it can be the most harmful option because it uproots the child from community, school and peers.

An alternative that is gaining currency nationally is known as "family preservation." It brings together all sorts of agencies--social services, mental health, schools, police--to try to support the child in a family environment, whether natural or foster.

Critics of the approach charge that it's too often just a veneer for cost control. But in Ventura County, whose program is the subject of Making a Difference, officials believe that they've struck the right balance, putting the welfare of the child foremost. They are using family preservation services, they say, only in appropriate situations where the child has a chance to do well in a family setting. The county's rate of child institutionalization is less than half the state's overall rate, and cost savings have been significant. Only time will tell whether productive lives have been rescued as well.

Without goals, young people aren't likely to steer their lives in a positive direction. But for children of urban poverty, role models can be scarce and "long-term" may have little meaning. Trena Johnson understands that, and offered kids a goal they could immediately relate to--the chance to be in a music video--if they stayed in school and kept their grades up. In her Testimony, former dancer Johnson talks about her Crenshaw neighborhood dance school: "I started seeing children coming from an F to a D, from a D to a C. And I said, 'OK, this will work.' " But last year's riots were the final straw in her financial struggle to keep the school afloat. She's looking for backing to reopen, determined not to let such a promising venture die on the vine.

Should a museum be a building? Should it even be all in one place? In fact, in freeway-obsessed California, couldn't we have drive-through art? In Modest Proposal, photographer Andrew Bush suggests "galleries" of 10 or 15 billboard-size pieces strategically placed along freeways. It would be the ultimate in bringing art, both high and low, to the people, and could contribute as well to the knitting together of disparate communities.

America's justice system is, on paper, absolutely fair. On that point, there's solid agreement among the teen-agers queried for Youth Opinion. But is it fair to minorities as it's actually practiced? To that, the response is more divided.

No way, says Gabriel Villareal of Helix High School in La Mesa: "The courts often see Latinos, for example, as gangbanging criminals when only a minority of them are. Blacks are also treated as crack-dealing animals. It's unbelievably unfair."

Not so, retorts Claudia Gomez of Belmont High School in Los Angeles: "The U.S. legal system may not be perfect, but at least it gives every American citizen--no matter their race, creed or sex--a fair chance."

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