VIDA'S END LEAVES YOUTHS IN THE LURCH.
SANTA CLARITA - More than 300 Santa Clarita Valley youths have graduated from VIDA, the sheriff's boot camp-style intervention program aimed at turning around kids headed for trouble.
And more than 85 percent of those graduates had stayed out of trouble since the program began three years ago, according to informal calculations by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, said Sgt. Michael Griffin, who coordinated VIDA countywide.
VIDA - Vital Intervention and Directional Alternatives - fell last week to budget cuts by the Sheriff's Department. But advocates believe VIDA saved the department more than it cost by keeping hundreds of kids in line.
``That's our thinking, that if we get to the kids before they are in real trouble we're ahead of the game,'' Griffin said.
VIDA cost $100,000 at each of the 20 stations that participated, money that covered the salaries of the deputies who worked full time on the program. The expense was minor compared with the success of the program, said Deputy Tim Ferrone, who ran VIDA at the Santa Clarita Valley sheriff's station.
``VIDA's all about working with kids before they get in too deep,'' he said.
The end came suddenly, two days before a new session with 40 Santa Clarita kids, 11 to 17, and their families was scheduled to begin. Most had been on a waiting list.
``I get literally a call an hour in Santa Clarita from distraught parents who want to get their kids in the program,'' Ferrone said.
Hours after the announcement came down that the program was slashed, Ferrone heard from a county probation officer who works with local youths.
``He has nowhere to send his kids now,'' Ferrone said. ``This is the only kind of program where we incorporate physical training with drug counseling and community service.''
Participants underwent stringent physical training with Marines who volunteered their time and took part in drug counseling.
The group had met Saturday for two hours in uniform - sweat pants and T-shirts with the VIDA logo - and weeded parks and paseos, spread mulch, placed sandbags to guard against erosion and took part in other public projects.
Ferrone said he went to VIDA participants' homes regularly, checked their bedrooms for any drugs, weapons or other problems, conducted random drug testing on site, monitored their clothing and music and offered on-the-spot counseling. Deputies even visited their schools to make sure the youths were attending class.
The department was refining a tracking system of graduates, but officials said informal surveys showed that fewer than 15 percent got in trouble again, Griffin said.
The cut came as a surprise because VIDA was the brainchild of Sheriff Lee Baca. The sheriff, however, faces deep budget cuts in his department and has said layoffs are likely. VIDA deputies were needed on regular patrols to make up for any lost positions.
``This program was conceived by Lee Baca,'' Ferrone said. ``During the last budget cuts, it was suggested it might get cut, but they kept the funding - this was his baby. Nobody really thought he was going to cut this.''