October, 23 2014

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Troubled teen turning life around

ELKHART -- Last night, a 17-year-old Hispanic boy finished his Christmas shopping. While that's pretty unremarkable, this TEEN needed a group of caring, committed people to achieve any kind of holiday happiness.

The boy is a former gang member who has been shot by rivals and arrested for burglary. He could have been shipped off to the Department of Correction and surrounded with more seasoned criminals, but he was given a chance to change himself by being around positive role models.

By all accounts, it's working. While that's remarkable, it's not that unusual. People in the local juvenile justice circle -- in this case, Magistrate Deborah Domine, probation officer Tina Pfeiffer, community leader Joe Guerrero and countless others -- do this work every day.

Juvenile issues typically are dealt with in private. The TEEN's story surfaced last month when Domine planned to send him to a rehabilitation center in the Southwest. At a public meeting, though, the Elkhart County commissioners denied a request for a probation officer to visit the boy once every three months.

Utilizing local facilities not necessarily prepared for gang problems and a support system not to be duplicated anywhere, the boy now is speaking against criminal activity and hopes to someday return home. His progress was discussed during a hearing Tuesday morning, and the case will be reviewed again in March.

"Every kid who comes in here wants to go home now. Not many who come in here have patience, including me, at times," Domine told the boy during the hearing. "But I know you understand the goal is for you not to turn around and end up back in the system. The consensus is, even though you're on the right track, it is too early."

The boy won't be home when those Christmas presents, purchased during time spent with his mentor, are opened. But he soon will get visits from his family -- another step in rehabilitation.

Success in this case has been deeply rooted in trust. When the boy entered the justice system, Domine said in November, he felt targeted because "he was 'brown' -- his way of saying Hispanic, but he now has an opportunity to believe there's something better for him." Officials feared his hopes would be dashed when the rehab placement wasn't possible, but the community took on the challenge.

Guerrero wanted to become the boy's mentor. They knew each other from days spent at the Goshen Boys and Girls Club, where Guerrero used to work, so a bond already had been made. Every situation may not have such a lucky start, and that's why the Elkhart County Gang Coalition is bringing together law enforcement agencies, SCHOOLS, court officials and service agencies to develop strategies for helping teens in trouble.

"That's really one of the things we need to be able to teach other people through the coalition's work," said Guerrero, a member of that group. "You have to develop that one-on-one relationship. You need to be a positive influence to show them there's other things besides gang life, besides street life. ... But you cannot fake it. You have got to be real, because the kids are going to pick up on whether there's a relationship here."

With Guerrero, the boy has someone he can deal with comfortably "and not feel like everything he says and does will be picked apart," according to Pfeiffer, the probation officer. "What HELPs these kids most is just being with someone who's not just in an authoritative position, but who really is on their level, understanding, listening. Many times, they have self-esteem issues ... and it's good for them to get encouragement from people who have made it the right way in life."

Underscoring that point, Guerrero took the TEEN and a few others to ring bells for the Salvation Army this month. For 12 hours, minus a few breaks, the boy greeted people with a smile and a thank you. Pfeiffer stopped to chat, then went into a store and bought candy canes for the boy to give to other kids.

The care this TEEN is receiving sounds extraordinary, but Pfeiffer said each probation officer has a stack of cases getting individual attention.

"I'm not against the Department of Correction at all. Some (offenders) need to go there," she said. "But in certain situations, something else might work and rehabilitation might begin."

Everyone involved with the TEEN was complimentary of the facility providing the RESIDENTIAL placement. But out-of-state TREATMENT was considered because of a lack of local PROGRAMs dealing with gang member rehabilitation. Local providers do not have the finances, facilities or personnel to put together specialized PROGRAMS on demand.

But people all over the community have the ability to HELP, Guerrero said.

"We want everyone to be able to recognize a gang kid and know what they can do to HELP," he said. "... We all must set a positive and strong of an example as possible, and let these kids know they have a chance. These kids will say, 'I can do that, too.'"

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Adolescent treatment program to expand 7/24/04


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