Gang prevention cop Jeff Norat drives a bunch of sullen teens through the gang-riddled streets of a Los Angeles neighborhood, not because they're in trouble with the law - but so they'll stay out of it.
"These kids are all at risk of joining gangs - look where they
live," said Norat, motoring through Boyle Heights where some gangs
are in their third generation. "But some kids don't."
What prompts some kids to join gangs and their neighbors not to
join is a question that has long baffled experts. City officials,
who have made little headway denting the ranks of street gangs, now
think they'll find the answer through a multiple-choice test.
"If you could identify who those at-risk kids were, then you
could microtarget them with resources," said Jeff Carr, director
of the mayor's office on gang reduction and youth development.
That premise marks a new strategy in the city's fight against
gangs, which claim roughly 40,000 members in Los Angeles, making it
the nation's gang capital.
The city spends about $20 million a year on gang prevention and
intervention. Until now, much of that funding has gone to what the
anti-gang czar calls a "shotgun approach" to prevention -
flooding gang-infested neighborhoods with social programs under the
theory that any kid raised in these "hot zones" could wind up a
But Carr points to research showing only about 15 percent of
kids in a given neighborhood join gangs, according to University of
Southern California social psychologist Malcolm Klein and others.
Klein found 10 factors that channel children into gangs, including
poor parenting, justifying delinquent behavior and traumatic
Researchers at USC's Center for Research into Crime used those
findings to develop the 74-question survey called the Youth
Services Eligibility Test. A kid with at least five factors is
deemed "at risk" and offered programs such as counseling, anger
management, and tutoring.
Rather than reject a test that could stigmatize their kids, many
struggling parents embrace it as a means to get their children
Frustrated mother Lorena Monzon was almost happy when her
chronic-F daughter, Andrea, "failed" the test.
"I want something that's going to help her. Her grades are so
low and her attitude is so bad," said Monzon, 29. "I'm afraid
she'll get into drugs. She needs counseling."
Andrea, 12, said she likes the self-esteem enhancement programs
she enrolled in. "It's pretty fun. It keeps me out of trouble,"
Gangs are always a risk in Boyle Heights, Monzon said. "I don't
even want her to go out," she said. "There are so many gangsters
On the eastern fringe of downtown LA, Boyle Heights is famed for
its bright murals of Latino symbols like the Virgin of Guadalupe
and pre-Columbian deity Quetzalcoatl, but it's also notorious as
housing L.A.'s densest concentration of gangs.
After a gang prevention program at the Hollenbeck Police
Activities League, LAPD's Norat takes the kids home. One lives a
couple doors from a White Fence gang house. Two blocks later, in
Evergreen turf, he drops off two brothers whose gangbanger dad was
recently killed. Another boy gets out a street away from the house
where a "shotcaller," or gang boss, lives.
The test found several of those kids at risk of joining a gang,
but not others. Some critics say that's one problem with the test.
In such a high-poverty, gang-saturated milieu, it excludes a lot of
less-troubled kids who still need help. Fewer than a third of
interviewed kids were identified as potential gang members.
"Any kid, if you're living in this environment surrounded by
gangs, is going to be at risk," said Lorraine Garcia, Hollenbeck
PAL program director.
Others suggest that kids ages 10 to 15 will tend to lie on a
test that asks about drug use, parental abuse and criminal acts.
Although kids are told answers are confidential, it's a lot to
expect honest responses, said Jorja Leap, a gang expert at
University of California, Los Angeles.
"These are kids who are afraid of arrest, afraid of being taken
away from their parents," she said. "They've been schooled in not
being truthful. It can take years to get their confidence."
Leap and others point to the low percentage of kids deemed at
risk as a sign they're not being honest. Numbers should be higher
because they were already singled out as troubled by teachers and
counselors, they say.
USC's Karen Hennigan, director of the Center for Research into
Crime who oversees the questionnaire scoring, said the test is a
reasonable, data-supported approach and she believes kids are
Nevertheless, USC has advised case workers to build a rapport
with youths by meeting with them before the interview. Agencies
report that seems to be working. Hollenbeck PAL has seen the number
of eligible kids triple from 15 percent to 45 percent since
starting the new strategy in May.
No one knows if the test works. The city has contracted for a
study in three years to see if kids the test failed to identify as
gang-joiners went on to become homeboys.
"In some ways it's an experiment," Carr admitted. "But the
gang problem has been endemic in LA for 25, 30 years. We have to
innovate our way out of it."