Getting Out

The kids are on probation. Teri Cueva's in it for life.

Sometimes Teri Cueva forgets she's an old Anglo lady. She's 35, married to a cop, the mother of three kids, definitely white, and prone to wearing low-key, almost church-going clothes. But as she spends her days talking with teens on probation, all that recedes.

She might lose herself as she tries to figure out why a kid shaves a small piece from each eyebrow. She might wonder where he got his last meal, or whether he's dealing drugs again, or if his girlfriend's still in the picture. She'd probably look to see how, exactly, his shoelaces are tied to signal his gang affiliations.

"You can't go on looks all the time, though, because a lot of fashion comes from what gang members wear," Cueva says. "You can't get down on someone for wearing baggy pants."

Kid stuff: Probation officer Teri Cueva says teens need someone to listen.
Kid stuff: Probation officer Teri Cueva says teens need someone to listen.

On Thursdays, she meets with clients in a curved cinder-block room inside the Denver Police Department's District 4 station. One day she showed up for work and found a bright-green iguana sitting in her office; it had come to the station with three runaway boys. Cueva likes animals -- she owns three dogs and, until recently, a pig -- and she allowed the big lizard to hang out all day. It wasn't a bad way to get a person's attention, and that's her biggest on-the-job challenge.

"Oh, she's good at it," says District 4 commander Rudy Sandoval. "She's not a screamer. One of my lieutenants is a screamer, so I know. She does it in other ways."

Cueva's been a juvenile probation officer for nine years. Her clients are mostly male, mostly Hispanic, mostly interesting, and not necessarily stupid kids sidelined by having done stupid things.

"Theft of a motor vehicle," she recites. "My kids love the Escalades, and then they don't understand why cops catch up with them. Hello! Have you ever heard of OnStar?"

They're car thieves and committers of assault -- "girls are usually here for that; they're so mean, and it's always over a boy" -- and one or two chilling perpetrators of sexual abuse on a child. All show up every other Thursday until they are cut loose or put back into the correctional system. Cueva's job is a matter of nudging them onto the right track and of bringing the hammer down when they don't listen.

"This system is an amazing crap shoot, and I wouldn't want to be on the other side of it," she says. "I try to get them to see that they should get out now."

She doesn't screw around, either. "I might ask them: Why are you making me feel wiggy-jiggy? Why do you have lots of cash and no work? Are you dealing drugs again? And what about that drug test? Will it come out clean?" She hands down an assignment: Go back to school, get a GED or a job. "Then come back here on time," she'll say, "and stop making me feel wiggy. I don't want to have to tighten up on you, but you're linked to me. Do you understand that?"

She chose the District 4 station, near South Federal Boulevard and West Evans Avenue, for her outreach office because it's safe and conveniently located near where most of her clients live. Cops there know her kids and their families, Cueva says, and they share information. She makes no appointments on Thursdays -- kids simply show up when they can, sometime between one and five. But Cueva usually ends up staying until seven, because something always comes up. Recently she spent that part of the day talking to a Cambodian kid who'd joined a Vietnamese gang.

"You don't speak their language," she pointed out. "How do you know they're not planning to roll you?"

The kid was unhappy with this question and shut down. "I shouldn't have said it," she decided. "He can't trust me if he thinks I think he's stupid."

Then the phone rang. A girl who once argued constantly with Cueva was now calling because she had pinkeye and wanted to know what to do.

"They're so grateful for little things," Cueva said afterward. "I like them. I wish I had more time for them. Some of my cases I'm supposed to see every sixty days. As a teen, I saw my orthodontist more than that. It's not good for my kids."

Her work kids, anyway. When she drives home from work, she shifts the focus to her biological kids, who have two parents at home and lead what she hopes is a normal life.

At her official probation office in Highland, Cueva attempts to cut a straight path through one of the most tangled bureaucracies in existence. It irritates her.

"There's always a newfound therapy thing around here," she observes, "almost a religion -- like this one will really work.This year it's some kind of family therapy, just like what we already had in the '80s, where the whole family is supposed to change. It reminds me of that cultural-diversity crap we had to learn a few years ago. A kid isn't a particular culture; a kid is a big jigsaw puzzle. Dragging the race issue into that just sucks."

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