Tuesday, May 31 , 2016, 9:32 am | Fog/Mist 57º

Task Force Coordinator Calls Combating Youth Gangs a ‘Community Effort’

A key focus is improved communication among the involved agencies to help ensure a consistent, efficient approach

By Giana Magnoli, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @magnoli |

The South Coast Task Force on Youth Gangs has been coordinating outreach and intervention efforts for at-risk young people since its creation in 2009, and interim coordinator Saul Serrano gave a full report to the Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday.

Saul Serrano
Saul Serrano

Serrano said collaboration among Santa Barbara County, the Probation Department, the cities of Goleta, Carpinteria and Santa Barbara, and the Community Action Commission is vital to address the issue of youth gangs and gang violence.

“There’s no one agency that can solve the problem ... this is a community effort,” he said.

The task force focuses on the 150 or so juvenile offenders who have gang-related terms and conditions for probation, which means a court found them guilty of a gang offense. There are another 750 young people, ages 12 to 18, who are considered at-risk for gang involvement.

Serrano and his staff don’t provide any services; instead, they coordinate prevention and intervention efforts by different agencies in southern Santa Barbara County.

Former task force leader Gus Frias resigned last August after an injury, and Serrano has been interim coordinator since.

The task force now has monthly meetings for its strategy team and plans to create a database for the related programs to keep track of each agency’s work with clients.

UCSB Gevirtz Graduate School of Education psychology coordinator Jill Sharkey is applying for funding and taking the lead on that project, which would help young people check their probation or court appointments and let agencies look for gaps in service.

Assistant City Administrator Marcelo Lopez said groups providing programs don’t communicate with one another as to who is providing what, and a database would help identify service gaps and track each client from program to program. Sharkey said it would also help the task force measure results and get accurate information on how many people are being served.

Each group works with these kids but doesn’t know how services overlap, Sharkey said, so she’s working with a software developer to create a database to share information but protect secure information. Juveniles with gang terms and conditions on their probation will be recruited for the database project and services, hopefully with help from the Superior Court in the future, according to Sharkey.

Mayor Helene Schneider said having the data available is key to measuring the collective impact of the programs, unlike the individual reports or anecdotes now.

The task force has been funded by contributions from each South Coast jurisdiction and $750,000 worth of CalGRIP grants, and Serrano said the investment in intervention is paying off. CalGRIP grants focus on academic programs to improve attendance and help students graduate.

“These are not the ice cream social kids; these are the kids who don’t go to school and have a really hard time by doing that,” Serrano said.

There is an outreach specialist for South Coast high schools, and parent support services with weekly group meetings, and Serrano said results show improved attendance and graduation rates among students enrolled in the programs.

Santa Barbara’s Neighborhood & Outreach Services is working on a community school for students to make up high school credits and get involved in internship programs, according to Mark Alvarado.

A Bridges to Recovery program through the county Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services provides after care for boys exiting the Probation Department’s Los Prietos Boy Camp. There was never after care for graduates, so boys would go back to the same communities and issues that put them there, Serrano said. Now, case managers meet with boys and their parents and provide treatment through the Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.

In a survey, Los Prietos graduates said they need intervention help, protection and opportunities for education and jobs to make real changes to their lives, according to Serrano.

“They need support and a system that recognizes that there’s a transition period for making up your mind to change your life,” Councilwoman Cathy Murillo said.

Task force members have briefed the Santa Barbara Police Department on resources available to these at-risk or gang-involved young people, so officers can refer people to services, and will do the same with the Sheriff’s Department.

Serrano said the gang problem didn’t start yesterday and will take a long time to change, but a consistent, comprehensive effort is what’s needed to make a difference on the South Coast.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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