SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Chris Mulitalo understands the lure of gangs for local children. As the county's only paid mentor for gang-affiliated youths, he sees a common thread.
"They're lacking guidance. A lot of them, they're looking to gangs because they seek belonging, and because it provides some kind of direction," said Mulitalo.
"I see a lot of kids starting off very young and developing the mentality that it's a lifestyle.
Mulitalo works for Youth Impact, a nonprofit serving at-risk youths. He has a caseload of 35 gang-affected youths, ages 12 to 18. Most are on probation.
"A lot of these kids come from broken homes. A lot of them have no male figure in their lives," he said. "I try to show kids that there's somebody outside of their gang family that cares about them."
After a lull of several years, state and local gang activity is rising and including younger kids.
During the past 10 years, the Marion County Juvenile Department has seen a 50 percent increase in its gang-linked caseloads.
It's becoming more serious because the types of activities are becoming more dangerous. The community is stepping up law enforcement and creating innovative programs but people in the trenches say it's not enough.
"If we don't get a handle on it now, give it three more years and see what happens," Salem police Sgt. Doug Carpenter said.
Salem is home to the states only residential treatment facility for Hispanic gang-affiliated youths. Ten boys live at the Cavazos Center, a large old house in southeast Salem, instead of at state juvenile correction facilities.
Rival gang members learn to live together, attend local schools and participate in intensive counseling including drug and alcohol treatment.
The program is funded by the Oregon Youth Authority and run by Catholic Community Services. The house is staffed day and night at a cost of about $135 per day per child, slightly less than the correctional facilities. About 70 percent of youths who enter the program graduate. For those who do, their recidivism rate is 2 percent against about 31 percent statewide in 2006.
There are several keys to the programs success, center director Rich Westerland said. The boys are treated with respect. They get to practice their skills in the community, get weekend visits home, and family members can visit at the center. About one-third of the boys are fathers themselves.
EURStudents at four Salem middle schools and two high schools participate in Life Directions, a 35-year-old national nonprofit that came to Salem in 2003.
"The teachers send us students — both students doing really well who can motivate other people and students who need to be motivated and challenged by their peers," program director Leo Rasca-Hidalgo said.
About 400 students have completed the program.
In southeast Salem, the Southeast Neighborhood Center was built in 1997 with $460,000 in donations, in response to growing gang problems there. It now provides after-school activities for as many as 250 neighborhood children.
EURCommunity groups including Mano a Mano (Hand in Hand), Latinos Unidos Siempre (Latinos United Always) and the Salem/Keizer Coalition for Equality are working at the school and neighborhood level to fight gang influences and will teach 45 workshops this school year, teaching primarily Hispanic parents how to watch for signs of gang involvement.
Most Marion and Polk school superintendents say gangs aren't a problem in their schools or communities.
Only Salem-Keizer and Woodburn acknowledge a growing gang influence in schools. Salem-Keizer doesn't have specific gang- prevention programs, said Cheryl Page, the district's prevention specialist. But that could change, she said. "Every city in the nation is kind of starting to look at these things," Page said. "In our district, were looking at programs right now."
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.