SCYSP works to address local violence among youth
Recently, Santa Barbara County has seen a tragic uptick in violence, especially among local youth.
On Jan. 7, 19-year-old Enzo Marino Rastelli was shot and killed in unincorporated Goleta, and on Jan. 3, 17-year-old Angel Castillo and 18-year-old Omar Montiel were fatally shot, along with two other teens who got hit in the attack without any fatal injuries.
In addition, a nonfatal, gang-related stabbing occurred at Anapamu and De la Vina Streets on Dec. 31.
On Jan. 11, the South Coast Youth Safety Partnership, a collaboration of youth-serving sectors in the community administered by CommUnify, released a statement regarding this increase.
“We are devastated by the recent tragic loss of youth in our community from violence,” the statement said. “Youth and gang violence is a community issue, requiring a community response … We will be continuing to assess the needs and necessary responses of the community as we gather more information.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the SCYSP only met every other month, but when the shutdowns began, the partnership began meeting weekly.
The organization consists of three teams: the Policy Team, whose members are policy and decision-making community leaders, co-chaired by the mayors of Carpinteria, Goleta and Santa Barbara; the Strategy Team, which acts as an advisory body to connect agencies; and the Community Engagement Team, which includes direct service providers, crisis response teams, educators, law enforcement, probation officers and more who interact directly with neighborhood youth.
Ali Cortes serves as the co-chair of the CET. She is also an employee of the Santa Barbara Unified School District, a board member for the Santa Barbara Response Network and the executive director for Different Point of View, which mentors youth through aviation.
“My main role is holding space and letting all these community agencies come together and collaborate,” Ms. Cortes told the News-Press. “When things shut down, we were able to collect the resources that were open and available and at what capacity each agency was running. At the time, that was very helpful in informing the community.”
These resources consist of mental health and wellness services, violence prevention and intervention services, educational training programs, social services, financial aid, food banks and basic needs of families during the pandemic.
Ms. Cortes said the CET also brought in youth voices and asked them what they needed, giving them the ability to share their concerns and needs with the school district staff. She said the kids simply wanted some pizza.
“One of our main goals with the CET is to engage the youth voice — advocate for them but also listen to them,” she said. “They did want pizza, so all we needed to do was feed them.”
Members of the SCYSP have delivered food to families in need and beds to families who had to relocate.
“During the recent uptick in events, we are working really hard to provide the positivity in the messaging here,” Ms. Cortes said. “These are youth at the end of the day. Please don’t label them. Please don’t criminalize them. They’re our youth — we all need to take care of our youth.”
She said that during COVID-19, many kids and teenagers lost access to “safe adults” who are willing to have a healthy relationship with them.
“It speaks volumes about the importance of having mentors, having safe adults that care and listen and are willing to meet them where they’re at,” Ms. Cortes said. “There’s a lot of adults that are doing that, but with all the restrictions … It’s just not the same.
“A lot of our youth are really, really stressed. There’s an increase in anxiety, depression, but it’s so important for youth development for them to interact and socialize,” she said. “(Not having) that builds up a lot of mental health issues and isolation.”
To address this issue, the CET has been doing guardian-approved home visits to teenagers just to check in.
“Home visits have been the most helpful. That’s where we really see what’s going on,” Ms. Cores said. “It’s a message of, ‘You’re not alone. I’m here,’ even though it’s a little glimpse or we’re just meeting outside.”
Members of the CET bring packages of food, gift cards and clothing to the teens, and even help type up resumes for the older teens so they can apply for jobs and college.
Dr. Jill Sharkey, associate dean at the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at UCSB, co-chairs the Strategy Team and helps guide the Policy Team and the CET. She coordinates bringing on new members with different perspectives or training, such as individuals who have helped with the 100-Day Challenge to Reduce Homelessness or those who have assisted youth experiencing sexual exploitation.
“I definitely believe that COVID-19 has very much to do with the recent uptick in violence,” she told the News-Press. “We’ve been trying to figure out, ‘How do I reach you when we can’t be together in person?’”
She said that when kids don’t have the ability to engage with meaningful adults cheering them on or have anything to look forward to, they feel hopeless.
“They’re experiencing layers of trauma — losing jobs, income, potential housing, missing school friends and social interaction,” Dr. Sharkey said.
She said with all hands on deck, Santa Barbara residents can support the youth population during this troubling time for them.
“We’re really working on trying to help the community recognize that this is a community effort. We all need to work together, every person in the county, not just the people working in nonprofit agencies and schools,” Dr. Sharkey said. “Every person can play a role in helping the community stay safe.”
Deputy Chief Holly Benton with the Santa Barbara Probation Department also co-chairs the Strategy Team. She’s been working in juvenile justice for more than 30 years now.
“Problems like gang violence and youth violence stressors in our community are complex problems and not solved by one agency or any one approach,” she told the News-Press. “There are obviously a number of stressors that are hitting these families right now. They don’t have ready access to some of the programs and supports that were out there pre-COVID.”
She pointed out that during the last 10 years, youth violence has been steadily decreasing throughout the state and county; however, the county has seen a little bit of an uptick in gang-related incidents.
“When you have a high-profile incident, people react to that like, ‘What is happening?’ You have to put that in the context of what’s been happening over time,” Ms. Benton said. “The high-profile incidents obviously require response, concern and attention because they’re horrible and tragic, but the case loads have been coming down over time.
“That says that there are things in our community that are working, interventions and strategies that have been working.”
Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo chairs the Policy Team and told the News-Press that the Policy Team will hold a public meeting at 3 p.m. Wednesday to allow people to be heard on this topic. At the meeting, there will be information about law enforcement response and work being done by community members to stop the violence.
She said local churches are offering counseling and referrals to services as well.
“This is important intervention work in itself,” Mayor Murillo said. “Troubled youth come from a family unit.”
She added, “Our community has been relatively free of street violence for many years, but the pandemic and other factors have brought on these latest fatal incidents. My heart goes out to the parents and families of the young men who have lost their lives.”
The mayor released a statement on her social media following the shooting fatality in Goleta offering her condolences.
“I want the public to know that several efforts are underway in response to this street violence. First, the Santa Barbara Police Department is actively investigating several incidents and has increased patrols in our neighborhoods. As these investigations are ongoing, more information will be forthcoming,” she wrote.
Mayor Murillo said the city is helping with funding and other resources, and “even as there were relatively quiet years free of gang activity, that has now changed.”