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Families First helps parents and children

It was a pain that Lina Archuleta already knew too well.

The mother of five carries in her heart the agony of losing a son to prison, and it all started with gangs.So, when she suspected her 12-year-old son was becoming involved with gangs, she was determined to do anything she could to prevent it.

"I've made myself a promise that I wouldn't let him go through what my other son did," she said.

Archuleta said the attitude of her son, Bobby, changed when he started hanging out with older boys whom she suspected were gang members.

"He wouldn't come home after school," she said of her youngest child. "He was acting out." She couldn't persuade him or control him.

Desperate and determined, she asked someone at her son's school where she could get help. Archuleta was referred to Project Hope which, in turn, referred her to Utah Youth Village.

There she was placed in a program called Families First, which provides intensive in-home help. The program has been so successful that 3rd District Juvenile Court recently awarded Utah Youth Village a three-year contract to provide the services to families referred to the court.

Program director Mike Pearson said the new concept is based on an age-old dilemma.

"(The system) takes a child out of his environment and heals him and then sends him back to the environment and what happens?" he asked. In most cases, the old habits quickly erase any new training.

Instead of healing one part of the family a number of times, he said, Families First aims to "heal all of the family, one time."

There are only two criteria for getting help from Families First:

- Children must be in imminent danger of being displaced from home.

- One parent is willing to work with a counselor.

Each family has a counselor assigned to it. The counselor spends time in the home and on family outings helping parents and children learn their respective responsibilities.

Lina Archuleta said the lessons she learned were invaluable and have made her a better parent and brought her family closer together. She said her family's counselor was compassionate without being condescending.

"She made me feel comfortable," Lina Archuleta said of Shannon Ancell. "It was a six-week program, but I wish it was longer."

Bobby said he wasn't involved in a gang when his mother sought help, but he admits he's been tempted by gang members. "It was kind of hard to resist."

The boy said he's learned not to get into fights, not to talk back to teachers or his mother.

Since they began the program, Lina Archuleta said, Bobby comes straight home after school and his grades have improved. He's also more cooperative, and that makes Archuleta's life much easier.

She feels more confident after completing the program, but she still worries she won't be able to steer her children through these modern times.

"I'm kind of scared," she said, "but I think I'm ready, too."

What does she think would have happened without the help?

"He'd be in a gang," she said. "When you turn a certain age, (gang members) peer pressure is so hard to resist . . . He's so young and he's got a whole life ahead of him.

"I'm going to make sure he has that life."