Who Are These People?
Cynthia Llerenas
February, 2005 - Issue #5
Cynthia Llerenas
Cynthia Llerenas
Gangs. Drugs. Graffiti. Not usually words that one would associate with Santa Clarita, but all present in our town none-the-less. Fortunately for us, these plights on our community haven't gone unnoticed. An integral part of the SCV's Antigang Task Force, Cynthia Llerenas, the City of Santa Clarita's 2004 Employee of the Year, talks about the good, the bad and the ugly.

Cynthia Llerenas
Youth Outreach Supervisor for the City of Santa Clarita

How prevalent are gangs in the SCV?

Gang activity is more noticeable now due to the increase in graffiti. However, the City of Santa Clarita has taken a stand to combat gang activity through COBRA, the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's Station Gang and Juvenile Intervention Unit. The Unit's primary responsibility is the investigation of gang- and juvenile-related crimes. In order to accomplish these tasks, deputies spend a great deal of time identifying new gang members, contacting known gang members, and gathering gang intelligence from a number of sources. The team also attempts to identify newly formed and forming gangs before they can take a stronghold in the community. Through quick identification and proactive law enforcement, some new gangs have been totally eliminated.

What kind of impact do gangs have on our community? Have local gangs played a role in reducing our standing in the FBI's "Safest Cities" statistics?

They have had an adverse impact in our community. Although the gangs were responsible for three murders in 2002 and 2003, gangs had a small impact on homicides and assaults. The primary reason for the rise in statistics is due to petty theft and auto burglaries.

Have you ever been in a gang? How do you relate to these youth?

I have never been in a gang. I have eight years of experience working with gang- affiliated youth, troubled teens, and ex-offenders. Prior to working for the City of Santa Clarita, I worked for a nonprofit agency doing prevention and intervention work with gangs and at-risk youth on Blythe Street in Van Nuys. Blythe Street was notorious for gang activity, homicides and drug trafficking. As a prevention specialist, I taught prevention curriculum for youth, ages 9 to 14 years old, to reduce the prevalence and incidence of truancy, academic failure, gang-related activity and violent behavior. In addition, I provided youth and families with referrals for supportive services. In order to relate to any youth, it is necessary for me to do my homework and find out what the latest teen trends are. Being knowledgeable about these trends increases the opportunity to have a trusting relationship with these youth. What eventually happens is they end up calling me for all sorts of information and feedback.

What is your personal motivation for working with at-risk youth?

I understand their struggles because I struggled, too. I worked very hard to learn English and do well in school. I eventually got my Bachelors Degree, and I want to be a role model, an inspiration to young people to say, "You can do it, too!"

You've worked in this field for eight years. What has been your greatest success?

One of the most gratifying aspects of my job is that young people often return to me and tell me how much I helped them. It means so much to me to hear from those I have helped and that they are doing well. Many often refer others to me for help, and that makes me feel great.

Secondly, is creating a comprehensive Youth Resource Directory that assists school administrators, local agencies, youth and families in finding the services they need. Thirdly, is teaching a group of at-risk boys, ages 14 to 16 years old, from Blythe Street, how to play basketball, and ultimately, winning a championship. They will remember that day forever.

Does the city have a multi-dimensional plan for working with kids in trouble?

The City of Santa Clarita Anti-Gang Task Force was founded through the Sheriff's Department in 1991 and is comprised of community members, school personnel, law enforcement and volunteers who work together to develop and refer youth to programs that intervene in their lives to build self-esteem, give direction, develop skills and let youth know they are cared about through anger management and drug counseling, youth and young adult job programs, tattoo removal and sports programs. The City has a Youth Networking Group that works collaboratively to determine resources available and ensure that kids are not "falling through the cracks." The City refers youth to agencies such as SCV Youth Project, ACTION, and Pyles Boys Camp. A big loss to the community was when Vital Intervention Directional Alternatives (VIDA) was cut by the Sheriff's Department. It was an extremely effective intervention tool that we need back.

What should parents do to keep their kids on the straight and narrow?

Parents need to get involved with their kids by knowing what their child is doing, and govern who their child is spending most of their time with. Parents should especially pay attention to unusual behavior, such as a sudden drop in grades, different friends, graffiti on their backpacks, cutting class, mood swings, and disrespecting of parents. If you do not pay attention to these warning signs, it is these kids who get caught up in criminal activity. Do not let that by your child! I have 16 tips for parents.

  • Know your children's friends
  • Know the influence other children have on your child
  • Know what your children do with their time and verify where they are
  • Occupy your children's free time
  • Give your children responsibility
  • Develop good communication skills with your children
  • Spend time with your children
  • Do not allow your children to dress in gang clothing
  • Do not let your children stay out late
  • Develop anti-gang attitudes in your home
  • Participate in your child's education
  • Be knowledgeable about gangs
  • Join Neighborhood Watch programs
  • Teach self-discipline and respect
  • Do not be afraid to discipline your child
  • Keep all weapons locked-up in the house
Graffiti - underground art form or community blight?

Community blight if we do not take a stand in reporting graffiti. There has been an increase of reported graffiti incidents this year, due to the recruiting efforts of gangs and tagging crews. We cannot let graffiti get a foothold in our community, because it has been proven that crime increases when graffiti stays up in a community. Safety, property values, and crime are all negatively affected by graffiti. Citizens are encouraged to call 25-CLEAN to report graffiti within the City. Rewards for information leading to the arrest and conviction of graffiti offenders are offered through the City's Pride Committee.

Will Santa Clarita ever be gang-free?

More than likely, no City will ever be gang-free. When it comes to the proliferation of gangs, any community's worst enemy is denial. Gangs will flourish wherever they are tolerated. While the level of gang activity within the Santa Clarita Valley may be low compared to other areas of Los Angeles County, it is still a cause for concern. The difference is how the citizens and law enforcement of Santa Clarita react to the presence of gang activity. People need to be aware and report suspicious activity. Parents need to be aware, and graffiti needs to be taken down as soon as it goes up. Prevention and intervention programs play a big part as well.
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