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By Cheryl SullivanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 29, 1988

Stockton, Calif.

THE first time Vicky D. visited her 16-year-old son at a California Youth Authority (CYA) facility, she could hardly believe her eyes. David had two chipped teeth, two black eyes, a fat lip, and bruises all over his body. He'd been in the custody of the CYA for less than a month. It didn't take David long to figure out that he needed some protection from the more streetwise wards. So he ``claimed'' a gang.

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Like most new CYA wards from northern California, David had arrived at the Northern Reception Center-Clinic in Stockton for diagnostic testing and evaluation.

``At first I was being by myself,'' David recalled in an interview. ``Then a bunch of white guys asked if I wanted to kick [fight] with them. I said, `Fine.' And then for the next few months, I was claiming.''

For almost every Sunday of the past year, David's mother or stepfather has driven the 75 miles from San Jose to Stockton to visit the boy. Neither of them likes what they see.

``The last time we went to see him, he had his back and arms all sliced up from some crazy kid who'd jumped him with a razor blade,'' says Ken D., David's stepfather. ``We fear for his life there - and this is our system for kids.''

But it's an outdated system that fails both the kids and society, according to critics.

``David will probably be worse off when he comes out than when he went in,'' says Daniel Macallair of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA). ``You look at his history and you see very minor delinquent behavior. But we've put him in a training ground for violence, which is what institutions like these are. They condition you to become accustomed to violent behavior, which is exactly the opposite of what society wants.''

Compared with most wards at CYA, David's criminal record is lightweight. His most serious offenses are breaking into and vandalizing a school, along with eight other youngsters, when he was 14. Then, when he was 15, he and two other boys crawled through an open window of a house, where David stole a pocket calculator. That incident, coupled with a jaywalking ticket and a probation violation, earned him a five-month sentence to the Harold Holden Boys' Ranch in Santa Clara County. He started serving his time on Nov. 4, 1986.

With each step deeper into the system, however, David's situation became worse - not better. Shortly before Christmas, one of David's best friends hanged himself in an isolation cell at the ranch.

The boy had handed David a suicide note earlier that day detailing the plan, but David gave the note back without believing it. A probation officer's report would later note: ``David became very upset and depressed'' after the suicide. ``On December 29, David was returned to Juvenile Hall as a Ranch failure as he was suffering from severe emotional difficulties which could not be addressed by the Ranch.''

David was subsequently returned to Holden Ranch and, within 10 days, he ran. Although he turned himself in three days later, his escape had brought him more time at the ranch.

This time, he lasted just seven days. Staff again transported the boy back to the county's juvenile hall, noting in a logbook that David had been carrying a razor blade and had sketched a ``suicidal drawing.'' After a week at juvenile hall, he was returned to the same ranch.