A Boot Camp for Troubled Youths


For Drew Birtness, the last straw came when he realized he was arresting the grandchildren of suspects he had picked up years ago.

The Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy had been working the streets of East Los Angeles for 21 years, long enough to be hardened by the shootings and deaths and gangs--but also long enough to try something new.

"I was tired of picking up kids' bodies off the street," he said.

Which is why, on this Saturday morning, a group of teenagers is sweating hard in the park outside the sheriff's station, running and jumping until their breathing becomes ragged and their hair is damp.

"Let's go, people!" another deputy yells, his countenance stern.

The young people sigh and turn for one more sprint across the park. As they run, they seem to sweat out their defiance. When they come back and collapse on the grass, all that's left is exhaustion.

This Saturday boot camp for young men and women teetering on the edge of serious trouble is part of the program Birtness created last July in the department's East Los Angeles station. The 16-week VIDA effort--Spanish for "life"--asks judges, probation officers and parents to refer children in trouble for drug use, vandalism, assault or truancy.

VIDA is one of the myriad youth intervention programs tried over the years in crime-weary Los Angeles. But two wrinkles distinguish it: It is the first such effort made by the Sheriff's Department, and it is the vision of a single lawman who, at 52, still remembers what it felt like to run with a gang as a teenager in the San Fernando Valley.

After hearing reports of several hundred children who have gone through the program, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca wants VIDA implemented in other stations throughout the county. Judges are referring droves of young people. Legislators are considering VIDA as a model for statewide use.

What's impressive, said longtime gang expert Diego Vigil, is seeing a law enforcement agency move beyond traditional crime suppression.

"I call it 'soft suppression,' " said Vigil, the director of UCLA's Center for the Study of Urban Poverty, whose students are studying the program. "A realization that these kids are salvageable."

Like most intervention programs, VIDA is an act of faith, gambling that a combination of tough discipline, counseling and community service will jolt youngsters away from gang life and crime. For many in the program, this is their last chance before hard jail time.

Birtness created the Vital Intervention Directional Alternatives program with the help of local counselors, teachers and fellow deputies.

"I know what it's like to look for a need you don't have at home, to go to the street," Birtness said. "What I want to accomplish is to let these kids know that there is more to this world than spraying on the walls."

VIDA takes in at-risk Eastside youths, ages 11 to 17. Each orientation night, about 80 families pack the sparse basement of the sheriff's station. Girls wearing thick black mascara and a look of bravado slouch in their seats. Boys with shaved heads and baggy pants slump nearby. Their parents, worn out with anxious faces, sit next to them.

The session is intense. The deputies haul youths to the front of the room and show them graphic pictures of young people killed by gang violence.

"Do all you kids understand?" one deputy yelled on a recent night. "Once you close your eyes, life does not start again! This ain't no joke!"

Some mothers started crying as the deputies chewed out a few boys dressed in the attire of gang members.

"It makes me sad to see what they do with them," said a tearful Fabiola Valle, 39, whose 16-year-old son refuses to go to school. Valle, a single mother of three who is a garment worker, says she can't get through to her son. "I love him, but I don't know what to do," she said. "I want him to do well in this program. It's his last chance."

The teenagers spend 16 Saturdays in the park outside the East Los Angeles station. They arrive at 7 a.m. and do two hours of boot camp-style exercises.

"By the third week, I started thinking, what do I want for my life?" Bernice Murillo, 16, a sophomore at South Gate High School, said.. She was sent to VIDA as an alternative sentence after she was caught smoking pot. Now, she has stopped ditching school and is thinking about college.

The youths spend the rest of the day in writing classes run by a volunteer teacher, doing community service, or listening to ex-gang members and successful businesspeople tell them there is another way of life.

The young people and their parents must attend weekly counseling sessions provided by a local parent / teenager support group. They go to public agencies and learn about what services they provide. They visit a state prison, handcuffed, and inmates tell them about the brutal realities of incarceration. Once a month, the deputies make spot checks at their schools to ensure that they are attending and raising their grades, and stop by at home to check with their parents.

After they graduate from VIDA, the older youths get job referrals and the younger ones are sent to art programs or youth athletic leagues.

The program is powered by volunteers who spend long evenings and weekends working with the youths. Outside donors and companies have given about $25,000 to help cover the costs. Birtness and his partner, Deputy Vincent Romero, ran it on their own time until two months ago, when their captain assigned them to work on VIDA full time. At Baca's order, the Carson sheriff's station will start a VIDA program later this month, followed by programs at the Century station, in Lennox and in the Antelope Valley.

"What comes through is that these officers and volunteers really care," said Nancy Daniels, a Juvenile Court referee at Norwalk Superior Court who began referring youths to VIDA last summer. "You should see the parents who come in here after VIDA. They are so amazed and pleased . . . by how different their child is. It's phenomenal."

About 400 youths have been in the program so far, and so far only 17 have ended up in jail, Birtness said.

"These kids are here because they need help. And when I lose one, it's like I've lost one of my own kids," he said.

Right now, he hopes to save a 14-year-old girl named Amy who heard about the program on the streets of Compton and came to VIDA out of desperation. Her father abandoned the family when she was young. Her mother is in jail for dealing drugs. Amy and her two younger brothers live with their grandmother.

This year, she started hanging with a local gang and doing drugs. She dropped out of school.

"I sometimes do things because I don't have my mom," said Amy on a recent Saturday afternoon, blinking back tears. "I'm only 14 and I really need her. That makes me do crazy things."

Amy said she needed the discipline she gets at VIDA. She has re-enrolled in school and is trying to get out of her gang--but she is scared of getting shot.

"I know I'm a gang member, but I don't want to have a low life," she said softly. "I don't want to be on welfare. I want to have an education."

These days, when Birtness and Romero go out on patrol, youths on the street call to them: "Hey, you're the VIDA cops!" But the real testament comes from youths like Fernando Morales, 18, who used to run with a local gang and duck bullets until he was caught carrying a loaded gun and sent to VIDA.

Morales finished the program March 20, and now he is back every Saturday, volunteering.

"I don't go to the street anymore looking for trouble," said Morales, who plans to get his high school equivalency diploma and attend East Los Angeles College. "I'd rather be with people who care, not getting shot at."

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