Young Guns

Janice didn't know why she tried to kill the other girl.
"She just pissed me off," she told counselor Adolph Montana. So Janice had lain in wait, and when the girl approached, she stabbed her and kept stabbing her until the knife broke.

Montana knew what lay at the roots of that much anger: Janice was born into it.

In her childhood home in California, her father beat both her and her mother on a regular basis. He also raped his daughter whenever the mood struck him.

Janice (not her real name) was adopted by another woman. But she ran away to the streets when she was hardly more than a child and, although blond-haired and blue-eyed, gravitated to Hispanic gangs for protection. The gangs did nothing to change her view that relationships between men and women are violent.

She became aggressive and violent herself. By the age of eighteen, she had a long arrest record for drugs, robberies and assaults. She was brought to a Colorado detention facility in an exchange of prisoners after her home state determined, according to the transfer paperwork, that she had "used up the resources of the state of California."

Janice wasn't in Colorado long before she demonstrated why. Her victim survived, but only because the knife couldn't take the pounding.

She was transferred to a correctional facility for younger offenders where a team of counselors was assembled that included Montana, the director of counseling for Project PAVE, a Denver agency that tries to help young offenders and victims of violence.

"You've been busy," Montana said to the girl when they first met.
Everything about Janice oozed hostility. Her posture, her speech. She took pride in her reputation for violence. Still, she had no real explanation for why she tried to kill the other girl.

Montana decided to take her back to the scene of the crime. There they retraced what had happened, and only then did Janice suddenly realize why it had.

"She stabbed the other girl because the other girl had wanted to be her friend," Montana recalls. "The victim was trying to break through the barriers [Janice] had erected to protect herself and apparently was having some success. But Janice couldn't tolerate that, and so she tried to kill the threat."

For the first time, Montana says, Janice was able to identify with one of her victims. "It brought tears to her eyes," Montana recalls.

But this was no fairy tale--no sudden change from black to white. With someone like Janice, wrapped up in the cycle of violence that began in her home as a child, counselors like Montana can hope only to show that there are other choices, other possibilities.

"I tried to explain that relationships between men and women didn't have to be like those she knew," Montana says. "I explained the world I lived in and how I had lived in her world in the past. That I wasn't getting into fights and no one was shooting at me. I'm not sure how interested she was in a more peaceful world, but I think she at least believed it was out there."

Janice got her GED and was taking junior-college classes from behind bars when she was paroled back to California. For the next eighteen months or so, she wrote to Montana to let him know how she was doing.

She was back living with her adoptive mother and going to school. But she still struggled with drugs and had a tendency to get into abusive relationships. "But at least she was trying to stop using drugs, which she hadn't bothered with before," Montana says. "And at least she recognized that what she was dealing with was abuse...instead of it just being the way it is."

Then she stopped writing, and Montana hasn't heard from her since. "It gets you down sometimes," he says of his job.

All Montana can do is try to show kids another way and then give them back to the world--and hope that they make it.

Ask almost any domestic-violence activist for measurable proof that the myriad of programs used to combat the problem are having an effect, and he'll shrug. There is no such proof, he'll say--just anecdotal information and blind faith.

Advocates will add, almost to a person, that such proof may not be forthcoming until it's clear whether the next generation of domestic partners will be as violent as the current one.

That's Montana's challenge.
Some of the kids at Project PAVE are gang members or have been brought into the program because of other violent episodes. But most are either victims or perpetrators of domestic violence.

The project began twelve years ago as an educational program taught in schools. It covered, and still covers, such issues as conflict resolution and the "elements of violence." But over time, the need has grown to offer counseling, some of it court-ordered for juveniles convicted of domestic-violence-related charges.

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Steve Jackson