Longform

Net Loss

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Elsewhere, walking to community centers, YMCAs or Boys and Girls Clubs means passing through some other gang's turf or encountering drug dealers.

"The problem is you try to go there with little kids," says Angelica, 13, who used to live near 31st Avenue and Van Buren and now lives near Glendale, "and there's all these tweakers there smoking and using and offering stuff. So I don't go to the parks."

Manuel Ramirez, principal at Garfield School, at 13th Street and Roosevelt, says turf is a big concern for his students. In his neighborhood, the Boys and Girls Club is on the north side of the I-10 freeway. "There's a pedestrian bridge there, but kids won't go over there because they know better."

Current programs also lack consistent funding for gang-intervention and prevention.

"One of the big difficulties with that patchwork," says Cathy Colbert, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney for Arizona, "is you've got federal money, state money, local money, foundation money. And most of this money comes in at different times. Everybody's fiscal year may be different. You may apply for a grant and not get it for six months."

And grants don't last forever. Colbert notes that good programs seeking renewal have to compete for shrinking dollars alongside bad programs, even after they've been in existence for several years.

The failure to develop a comprehensive vision for children's programs has also led to significant duplication of services and costs.

In the Westwood neighborhood, for instance, the Phoenix parks department plans to build a community center. Donna Neill says the neighborhood badly needs the center, but only because nearby Westwood school has been relatively inaccessible.



"It really doesn't make any sense," says Neill. "Here we're building a community center and there's a perfectly good school sitting there, locked down with a fence around it. It should be open and willing to be a partner with us."

Dr. Carol Peck, superintendent of the Alhambra school district, which includes Westwood school, says the school is doing everything it can to involve the community. But it's sometimes difficult to meet the demand. "There are hundreds of organizations who want to use our facilities," she says. "It's not just one."

Last year, for the first time, Phoenix officials used a computerized demographic mapping program to correlate high juvenile crime areas of the city with programs designed to combat that problem.

"What we saw was the west side of Phoenix was underserved," says Deborah Dillon, education program coordinator for the city.



Critics say the city doesn't need an expensive mapping program to determine that. But Dillon says it was the mapping tool and the graphic results that finally convinced the city council the deficiencies were real.

Now that policy makers are finally ponying up the cash for programs for troubled kids, the experts are starting to argue more vociferously over how that money should be spent. Many worry that substantial amounts of dollars are being wasted on programs that just keep kids busy after school and in the evenings, but aren't preventing them from joining gangs.

"Recreation can be a good hook," says Dwayne Baker, assistant professor of recreation management and tourism at ASU, who has been studying after-school programs in Arizona and Texas. "But what happens after you get the kids in the door? What happens after their interest in basketball wanes? There's got to be some emotional meat to these programs if they're really going to do the job."

The growing consensus is that programs need to address the family and parental troubles behind many youth problems.

More important, kids need to be reached at a much earlier age. Some say 10 years old is too late to deal with serious but basic issues such as implanting a sense of values, teaching right from wrong and warning of the consequences of gang-banging.

"I would argue that these programs should start at and prior to birth," says Baker. "We do very little in this society from a parenting perspective. We have higher expectations and more rigorous standards for getting a driver's license than we do for becoming a parent."

The difficulty in shifting the focus to prevention and away from intervention, says Rick Miller, the former Boys and Girls Club director who now heads a program called Youth at Hope, is that the well-worn phrase "at-risk youth" has the most credibility when it comes to getting money from most government agencies.

"If I said I'm going to provide a program where kids can have fun and grow into productive members of society, they're going to laugh me out of the board room," he says. "They want you to tell them how many kids you're going to stop from taking drugs, how many kids you're going to stop from joining gangs, how many kids you're going to stop from dropping out of school, or getting pregnant."

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Patti Epler
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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow
Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.