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This week's feature story, " Meet Mr. Buzzard ," focuses on one man's remarkable efforts to prevent young Latinos from joining street gangs and convince

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How Is King County Spending $1.4 Million to Combat Latino Gangs?

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This week's feature story, "Meet Mr. Buzzard," focuses on one man's remarkable efforts to prevent young Latinos from joining street gangs and convince active members to cut ties with their crew. Of course, there is also a much larger anti-gang initiative underway across King County. As mentioned in our story, after a high-profile shootout this summer in Kent between rival Latino gangs, King County executive Dow Constantine promised $1.4 million to combat the growing gang crisis, devoting additional resources for local law enforcement and for a variety of prevention and outreach initiatives specifically geared toward Latinos. Here's how that money is being spent.

The money comes from the Criminal Justice Reserve, essentially a rainy day fund that Constantine and the County Council can tap at their discretion.

The King County prosecutor's office will receive the lion's share of the cash, but approximately $400,000 will also go toward outreach and prevention initiatives. That is money well-spent. The recipients include:

  • The Avanza Project (price tag: $137,000), which combats truancy among 14-16-year-old Latino youth in part by offering school credits for employment.
  • A "Back to School and Employment Training" program ($230,000), which connects juvenile offenders with paid after-school and summer jobs.
  • The Nurse Family Partnership ($312,000), a program which provides two years of in-home nurse visits for first-time, low-income mothers.
  • The Nurse Family Partnership is truly impressive. Lois Schipper, program manager for parent-child health service at the King County Health Department, calls it, "a multi-generation crime-reduction strategy."

    First-time mothers are paired with a nurse who makes biweekly in-home visits to check up on the health of the woman and her child, Schipper explains. The specially trained nurses also help with "life course development" -- i.e., education and work opportunities -- and try to improve the new family's overall quality of life.

    "It's really intensive support to a very vulnerable group of women who are young and having their first baby," Schipper says. "It's a population that's very open for change at the time of their first pregnancy. They're very open to support."

    The program is not unique to Seattle. It started 30 years ago and is now in place in dozens of cities across the country. Tracking the participants over 15 years, researchers found that there was a 48 percent reduction in cases of child abuse and neglect, a 59 percent decline arrest of children by age 15, and 72 percent fewer convictions of the mothers.

    King County currently has 17 nurses participating in the program, and they worked with 481 families in the first half of 2011. Schipper says the reserve fund money will pay for two additional nurses, which she hopes will be Spanish speakers specifically dedicated to working with Hispanics.

    Rainier Vista Kids.jpg
    photo by Keegan Hamilton
    Kids involved in the Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative work an internship at a café in the Rainier Vista Boys and Girls Club.
    The Avanza Project, meanwhile, was scheduled to end at the beginning of September. With the new money, they will be able to continue offering work training to roughly 110 young Latinos who have previously had problems with truancy.

    Jennifer Hill, manager of the three-year-old project, says Avanza (Spanish for "advances") targets 14-16-year-old Latinos who are "moderate to high-risk" gang offenders. Using grant money, the kids get paid minimum wage to work a summer job for which they also receive school credit. Last year, Hill says, the kids built a trail at Salmon Creek Park in Burien.

    "We call it 'earn and learn,'" Hill says. "People can earn high school credit during the summer, earn wages, and learn work skills."

    The money for those projects offsets $456,000 of additional funding for the Prosecutor's anti-gang unit, plus $180,000 to restore the King County's Sheriff's Office "storefront" in White Center, $30,000 in tactical equipment for the Sheriff's office, and $15,000 for the Sheriff's "Latino education outreach program," which will broadcast Spanish-language radio and TV ads with a message about "keeping young children safe from gang recruitment and activity."

    In this week's feature story, Thomas Ward, a professor at USC who studies Latino gang violence, summed up the current thinking on how to best reduce gang activity in a community. By his standards, the county has taken a large stride in the right direction.

    "You've got to have a carrot-and-stick approach, and any program that ignores one or the other will not be effective," the professor says. "The stick has always been much larger than the carrot. We offer this tiny piece of carrot and we've got this huge bat we're clubbing them over the head with. If we ever change that or balance it out we'd have much more success."

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