Thursday, February 21, 2008
Rafael Hernandez was doing his best to keep his son Zuri on a straight path. But as the Seaside High 10th-grader began hanging out with new friends, getting disciplined at school and closing himself off from his parents, Rafael began to worry.
When Zuri was caught stealing, Rafael – who works two jobs, goes to school and shares custody of his children – wasn’t exactly surprised. “I cannot be with him 24-seven,” he says. “I realized that it could be one thing after another.”
Instead of pressing charges, police referred Zuri to Seaside’s Youth Diversion Program. He began seeing counselor Minerva McNabb once a week, alternating visits alone and with his parents. Soon Zuri’s grades improved, and the calls from the high school stopped. Rafael made more time for his son, and Zuri opened up to his father.
Then, three months into the six-month program, Zuri and his parents learned that the funding had dried up, leaving his case in limbo.
During the diversion program’s nearly five-year run, McNabb, a psychiatric social worker for Monterey County, says she counseled more than 300 kids and their parents. The youth were also required to complete community service at a horse stable and offer restitution for their actions.
McNabb says she’s been able to close all but a dozen of the 34 cases she was handling in December, when the funding ran out. But she can’t shake the feeling that the county health department’s Behavioral Health Division has yanked a rug out from under the community.
“They said they were gonna fund this, and they were just not honest,” she says. “It just didn’t feel right, because I was trying to teach these kids boundaries, and then I said, ‘Oh, I have to go now.’ It was just unethical, in my personal opinion.”
Working from an office in the Seaside Police Department, McNabb talked with her clients about anger management, accountability and the law. She reminded them that they could get probation or end up in juvenile hall if they didn’t go to school. It worked: Of the 300 youth she counseled, only four re-offended, McNabb says. “I’m not doing any magic, but if the kid has a connection with me and I respect the teenagers and hold them accountable, these kids respond very well.”
After the money ran out, McNabb reluctantly took another job with the health department, working with families out of an office in Salinas, where she says services are clustered. “You want to be where you can make a difference, and for me, Seaside was a great place,” she says. “That’s my passion, to work with these teenagers.”
Behavioral Health Division Director Wayne Clark describes the bureaucratic process that left the diversion program dry. In partnership with the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District, the Behavioral Health Division secured a five-year grant for the diversion program through the federal Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, he says. But when the grant ended in July 2007, the school district chose not to re-apply. (MPUSD Board President Bettye Lusk could not confirm that decision by press time.) The county agreed to fund the diversion program through the end of 2007.
In a letter to Seaside Police Chief Steve Cercone, Clark pledged to find ongoing counseling for McNabb’s clients and refer new clients for triage. The county may also include the diversion program in a state-funding request through the Mental Health Services Act, he says. But even if approved, that funding wouldn’t be available until July 1 at the earliest. “There’s no guarantee,” he says. “This is a community process.”
Seaside City Councilmember Thomas Mancini, for one, is pulling to get McNabb back into the city. “She is one sharp lady,” he says.
He has a personal stake in the matter: Mancini’s grandson was among the youth who lost McNabb’s counseling services. Though his grandson now gets counseling through the nonprofit Community Human Services, Mancini worries the Youth Diversion Program’s closure will leave local teenagers more prone to trouble. “It allows a possibility that somebody who would’ve been responsive to the program will slip through the cracks,” he says.
Without the diversion program, Seaside’s offending youth will be routed through the traditional juvenile justice system. “That can either scare them straight or add more fuel to the fire,” Mancini says.
Meanwhile, Rafael Hernandez hopes his son will continue to focus on school and stay out of trouble. “He finally understands that being around the wrong people can get him in trouble,” he says.
“I started being nicer to my family and more respectful to my teachers,” Zuri agrees.
Rafael holds up his fist in a gesture of respect. Zuri grins and gives him a pound. But the love in Rafael’s expression is mixed with concern.
“There is more work to be done,” he says. “He’s still on that border – it could go either way.”