On her first day of freedom after a year locked up in Camp Scott, teenager Stephanie Valdivia headed straight to San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Mission Hills. She began crying as soon as she turned the corner and saw her grandfather’s name etched on a bronze plaque.
Daniel Valdivia was 69 when he was killed in a car accident. Stephanie was doing time at the detention camp for L.A. County’s most serious juvenile female offenders and wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral.
She clutched the blue rosary around her neck as she sobbed on that day a year ago.
“Stop crying,” said her father, Miguel Valdivia. “Promise him that you’ll be good.”
She nodded, then looked back at her grandfather’s grave.
“Did you promise him?” her father asked.
“In my head,” she replied.
Stephanie was stoned on crystal meth when she walked through an unlocked screen door in North Hollywood in May 2013, confronted the one-armed, elderly woman inside and stole nearly $30,000 in jewelry and clothes.
She was also implicated in a residential burglary that day and, a week later, was arrested for burglary at K-Mart.
Stephanie was 17 with a long history of problems. Boozing since she was 9, then on to weed, ecstasy, cocaine, mushrooms, acid, methamphetamine. A Sun Valley High report card riddled with flunking grades and truancies. And a rap sheet of burglaries reaching back to 2010.
The Juvenile Court judges had given her plenty of chances. They had placed her on probation. They had put her under house arrest. They had sent her away to a drug rehabilitation group home. But she had failed to turn her life around.
So when Stephanie got caught for the North Hollywood crimes, L.A. prosecutors had had enough. They moved to try her as an adult, which could have meant years in state prison.
Eileen Pasternak, the North Hollywood robbery victim, also wanted tough action.
“What she did was horrific,” Pasternak said. “I wanted them to throw the book at her.”
But L.A. County Superior Court Judge Robert J. Schuit decided to give Stephanie a final shot at rehabilitation in the juvenile system. In September 2013, he sentenced her to a year at Camp Joseph Scott, a probation facility for girls enclosed by barbed-wire fences amid sagebrush and rolling canyons in Santa Clarita.
Stephanie would be entering a system forced into dramatic change after federal and local investigations found widespread mistreatment and neglect of incarcerated youth.
Since county officials settled a class-action lawsuit involving one of the camps five years ago, the education office has rolled out an award-winning school model that transformed camp instruction, among other reforms. The nation’s largest probation department, meanwhile, is attempting what Chief Jerry Powers calls a sweeping “culture shift” from a disciplinary boot-camp style to a therapeutic approach.
But would it work for Stephanie?
Oh no. Not again.
That’s what probation officer Sam Uweh thought when Stephanie first reported to him at Camp Scott in September 2013. He looked at her rap sheet, drug addictions and failing grades and cursed his bad luck for getting another loser.
“I thought she was going to be a bad, bad kid. The worst kid ever. When I saw her I said, ‘Please, no. Reassign her,’” he said.
The teaching team faced formidable challenges: For starters, she was a high school senior with sixth-grade math and seventh-grade reading skills.
Stephanie had hated school from an early age. On the first day of kindergarten, she recalled, the teacher told her she couldn’t speak English and didn’t belong in her class. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Stephanie learned English over the summer but still had trouble reading and writing.
By the time she got to Sun Valley High, she was deep into drugs and had lost all interest in school.
“I didn’t know how to do nothing. Like I was dumb,” Stephanie said. “Even when I tried to pay attention, it wouldn’t click in my head.”
But the Road to Success Academy, an innovative educational model launched at Camp Scott in 2010, offered an entirely new experience.
Hands-on lessons are linked by five themes — beauty, power, hope, transformation and new beginnings — which help the girls, most of them victims of abuse, build the self-esteem and introspection needed to change their lives, said Diana Velasquez-Campos, the county education official who led efforts to create the blueprint.
Stephanie was quickly captivated by the engaging curriculum and dedicated teachers. In Stephanie’s math class, for instance, students created mini-bridges, mosaic art and solar-powered rockets to learn geometry, algebra and trigonometry.
Math teacher Charlie Phelps found her to be a fast learner with a great memory.
“I used to hate math, but now I love it,” Stephanie said. “It looks hard, but it’s actually easy.”
But her most powerful learning experience, she said, were lessons about the Holocaust.
During a virtual field trip to the Museum of Tolerance, Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone addressed the girls via video hook-up.
After Firestone described living through the horrors of the Auschwitz concentration camp, Stephanie began sobbing uncontrollably. “How can you forgive?” she asked.
Firestone told her it was for God to forgive. Stephanie’s thoughts turned to her robbery victim.
“I thought about that lady and how she was older,” she said later. “I felt like I was one of the Nazis hurting people. I can’t turn back time and not do what I did. I can only make my future better.”
One by one, Stephanie began logging academic triumphs. A’s on tests. “Student of the week” honors. Selected to the academy’s team in the annual Academic Bowl competition among four juvenile facilities.
Fiercely competitive, Stephanie studied hours with her team six days a week for more than a month. One day in March 2014, the girls held hands as the winner was announced before more than 100 county officials, educators and parents at the Autry National Center: the Road to Success Academy.
“Oh, Ms. Bea, we smoked!” Stephanie exulted to her English teacher, Bea Rulli. “We’re not just criminals; we can actually be something in life.”
In less than a year, Stephanie had advanced five grade levels in reading and six grade levels in math. She earned her high school diploma and got A’s and Bs in online courses at Mission College.
Paulette Koss, the academy’s principal, said about 80% of girls progress, on average, one grade level every 60 days. The results have prompted officials to expand the program to several boys’ camps.
Stephanie also quickly proved herself a leader. Outside the classroom, she volunteered for camp jobs. She scrubbed floors, folded clothes, ran the student store.
“Whatever the staff tells her to do, she does,” said Lizete Barboza, a probation officer who coordinates the county’s interagency services at Camp Scott. “She’s the go-to person.”
She even won over Uweh, her skeptical probation officer.
“She’s the best kid I’ve had in 26 years,” he said.
Stephanie credits the camp staff and her own maturity for her progress. “Being away, growing up, made me realize a lot of things,” she said. “I don’t think life is a joke anymore. I want to be something better for me and my family.”
Finally, on Sept. 20, 2014, the journey ended. It was time to go home.
Her camp mates gathered to give her goodbye hugs. “Bye, Diva.” “Be good.” “Like Nike, just do it.” Phelps, her math teacher, gave her a poem he had written for her and a compass to keep her on the straight path.
She gathered up her medals and award certificates, her journals and toiletries, the $100 bond won in a career-tech competition. As she walked into the reception office, her father and sisters — Angie, then 12, and Jasmine, then 9 — lit up when they saw her. She buried herself in their embrace.
Jasmine kept her arms around Stephanie as they headed to the family Expedition to restart their lives together.
“I’m still hugging you,” Jasmine said. “Forever and ever and ever.”
Freedom was sweet. On that first day out, Stephanie bustled from one place to another. Steak and shrimp for lunch at Denny’s. A black top and jeans from a thrift store to replace her county-issued sweatpants and T-shirt.
At home, she lined her large, dark eyes with makeup and styled her auburn hair with a curling iron — activities generally banned in camp. She fretted over her 35-pound weight gain in camp — she used to be long and lean, a size 0, she said.
Her parents had separated while she was in camp, and Stephanie eventually decided to live with her father, who rents a three-bedroom rambler with a neatly tended garden of cactuses and flowers in Sun Valley.
Unlike many youth on probation, Stephanie benefits from a relatively stable family life with her father. Miguel Valdivia has worked as a delivery man for the same company for 14 years. He lays down rules for Stephanie: One beer a night but no drugs. Help with housework. Study hard.
“I tell her, study, study, study. Don’t be the person who just does the minimum,” he said.
Soon enough, however, the reality of Stephanie’s return began to hit.
As she walked to the bus stop a few days after her release, a car rolled to a stop next to her. The driver called out, then filled her in on the latest gossip. Friends on heroin. Friends being hunted down. His own problems with gang members.
The encounter unnerved her. “I feel I changed and everybody else hasn’t,” she said later.
Shopping at a store, a $10 notebook caught her eye. She thought about stealing it. But she fought off the urge.
“I thought, ‘I could just take this,’” she said. “But I’m scared. None of these things are worth your freedom.”
A team of therapists, educators and probation officials had charted Stephanie’s progress throughout camp and crafted a plan for her release. They made sure she had stable housing, got her registered for Mission College with financial aid and set up counseling. Previously, many youth foundered without a clear-cut plan, officials said.
Early data suggest the after-care program, along with smaller camp populations, new incentive systems and other changes, is making a difference. The recidivism rate for youths six months after release from camp has stayed steady from 14% in 2011 to 15% in 2014, even though the latter group was a much higher-risk population, said Dave Mitchell, a probation official.
Despite her progress, Stephanie wasn’t a sure bet for success. Barboza, the probation officer, had assessed her as a high risk for recidivism when she entered camp and still scored her a medium risk when she left.
“This is easy in here,” Barboza told Stephanie as they said their goodbyes on her day of release. “You got to turn around and do it out there.”
There were some stumbles, including a brush with police after a night of drinking and fighting. But Robert Stoutemire, the field probation officer assigned to supervise her, didn’t slap her with a probation violation because, he said, she promptly told him about it.
Once, though, when Stephanie called just before a 10 a.m. appointment to say she couldn’t make it, he lit into her.
“I’m not making any special circumstances for you,” he said. “Getting here is part of demonstrating maturity, that you’re ready to get off probation. It’s not meant to be convenient. Figure something out.”
A key connection was Maisha Robinson, a Department of Mental Health therapist. They worked through difficult moments — a major argument with her mother, relationship heartbreaks, decisions over medications for her ADHD, pressure from friends to return to drugs and crime.
Robinson said Stephanie’s busy schedule and strong personality helped her push back peer pressure. So did fear of a dirty drug test, which would violate her probation and send her into the more harrowing adult criminal justice system.
“One dirty drug test and no more Camp Snoopy,” Robinson said. “It would have been time to hang out with the big girls.”
“They would eat me alive,” Stephanie said.
She needed new friends. Barboza connected her with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, a Los Angeles-based support and advocacy network for formerly incarcerated people. Members pledge to live free of crime, drugs and gangs; work or attend school; and serve the community.
Old friends circled back. Erick Barrios, a 20-year-old neighbor, said he began avoiding Stephanie a few years ago when she got deep into meth and told him to steal beer for her. Now they’ve reconnected.
“Before, she talked about getting high. Now she talks about college,” said Barrios, who is taking vocational classes with dreams to launch his own T-shirt company.
“Stephanie, finally you’ve changed,” he told her on a recent afternoon at their neighborhood park. “I knew you had it in you.”
But Stephanie still had unfinished business.
In April, she was back before Schuit in Sylmar Juvenile Court to settle the restitution owed to her victim. Stoutemire had told Stephanie she would need to pay only $220 to the county restitution fund because Pasternak never pressed a claim. Unexpectedly, however, Pasternak showed up in court that day to testify.
Pasternak, who lost an arm in a lion attack two decades earlier, described the family heirlooms stolen and said the robbery had felt like rape.
At some point, Stephanie laughed. Later, she explained that she often laughs when she is nervous.
Schuit appeared displeased. He ordered Stephanie to pay the full $29,770 demanded.
“You’re an adult now and you need to behave like an adult,” he told her.
Despite the reprimand, however, he allowed her probation to end.
Stephanie walked out of the courtroom, pushing aside worrisome questions about money to savor her newfound freedom.
“I’m off probation! I’m happy. I’m doing good. I’m not tripping. Probably in my lifetime I can pay it off.”
Stephanie began a $12-an-hour job as a student intern for Unite L.A., an affiliate of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, but found herself too restless for a desk job and quit. But Unite L.A. will continue a scholarship fund to help pay for her restitution and educational expenses.
She’s excited about her criminal justice classes at Mission College, and she hopes to transfer to San Diego State University and become a probation officer.
But she admits that camp was easier, because she lived under strict rules enforced by authority figures. Outside, she’s still struggling: She has an explosive temper. She’s afraid she’ll always be an addict – at least in her mind. She’s squandered many opportunities to grow.
And she just learned that she’s pregnant. She’s decided to keep the baby – and continue her education.
Still, Stephanie believes she’s kept her promise to her grandfather.
“It’s been up and down, but I’m straight,” she said. “I’m not in jail.”