Getting Out

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."

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."

Other things that suck: fast food in school cafeterias, keeping marijuana illegal. And what's with all these adolescent specialists who have no children of their own?

"My kids get bounced around between these people," she says, "and it's terrible for them. I remember it was tough being a teenager, and I was a good teenager. It can't be about lecturing. You have to listen."

A girl's on her fourth boyfriend of the month, and he's way too old to be dating a sixteen-year-old. The allegedly nice grandfather reveals his scary side. A boy played around with his male cousin down in the basement: Is he gay, or bi, or what? He needs to know.

"That one's not too hard to clear up," Cueva says, "but some are. I sit with them and have my little war. I listen to the little voice inside me, I look at their eyes, and then I look at their paperwork. Do my perceptions match up?"

Observation is crucial, and she tries not to let a single detail escape, even if some are better left unseen. Cueva became a minor expert in Asian youth gangs just to avoid being appointed to a sex-offender task force, she says, remembering a smart fifteen-year-old boy who never missed a session and neatly worked his way out of the system on time.

"He was molested terribly as a kid, he'd sob while he told me this, he would absolutely break down," she recalls. "Then he would shift over and tell what he did to younger kids. He liked to be a toy boy for older women, women with young kids, boys. Describing what he did to them, he'd sparkle; he'd be absolutely empowered, a look of sheer delight. And he could never make the connection -- how he got almost physically sick when he described what had happened to him and then full of joy when he described what he did to other kids. I could not fathom all that."

Most of the stories are much easier to understand. She gets a lot of oldest children -- boys or girls with a single working mom and many siblings. Almost none of the families receive public assistance. The mother relies on her son or daughter for help and support, and the kid gets lonely and resentful.

"They really do some amazing crimes just to get their mothers' attention," Cueva says. "No kids are alike, but that's something they all want -- all of them. When I think about Columbine I think, boy, wouldn't you want to stick your head into your kid's room once in a while to see what they're up to?"

Between clients, Cueva banters with the station secretary, finds out what she can from her cop friends and waits for the next onslaught of kids, many of whom bring parents, social workers or girlfriends. It's best, though, when she sees them alone, in the round windowless office with the door closed.

"Imagine this wall was covered with doors, and imagine you have to pick one to walk though," she'll say to them. "No one will open it for you. No one will come out of a door and hand you a life, so don't wait.

"Get up," she'll say. "Go through one of those doors."

In the coming months, Robin Chotzinoff will commemorate Westword's 25th anniversary with 25 profiles of Denver today. Click here to read these stories.

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff