My O.C.: A Probation Officer Witnesses a Wayward Teen Turn His Life Around

An early hunch, plus a lot of discipline, leads to unlikely success.
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Illustration by Cassy Dale

He wasn’t at all what I anticipated, and I definitely wasn’t what he wanted. Yet we changed each other in ways we didn’t foresee.

No, this is not a love story that began on an online dating site. This story predates the internet and began in an Orange County courtroom, where 16-year-old Armando was ordered into a custody program I supervised.

As a probation officer, I met many adults and juveniles whose criminal activity resulted in court-ordered probation. I usually kept a fine line between professional judgment and personal involvement, but some cases simply touched my heart. My intuition, tempered by experience, led the way. One such challenging probationer was Armando. When I think of that time, I always think of him.

When his file crossed my desk, I suspected he might be a big challenge. He’d been committed to a custody program meant for boys who’d already experienced several bouts with the law. Boys earned their release by accruing points for good behavior based on following strict guidelines. Once home, I supervised them until continued good behavior allowed me to end their probation.

Armando’s Anaheim address told me he lived in a neighborhood known for gangs. His penchant for settling arguments with his fists had frequently brought him to the court’s attention. The youngest of several combative brothers, most of whom were now in prison, he seemed destined to follow.

When we met in my office I expected a surly young man. Instead, I encountered a bright-eyed, pleasant boy, eager to tell me about his life. He had nice parents, but they couldn’t control his brothers, whom he thought were cool. Because they were in prison? No, because they did what they wanted. Armando knew prison wasn’t cool.

Armando adapted amazingly well to the structure of the program, quickly earning points and progressing through each stage. In a few months he earned his release. Back in the community, he wasn’t as compliant.

He re-enrolled in school but attended only when he felt like it. He was stopped by police for driving his father’s car without a license and was cited. I filed a probation violation and recommended a few days in juvenile hall, but Armando failed to appear in court. A bench warrant was issued for his arrest.

Armando had potential. His time in the custody program proved it. Yet back in his old neighborhood, he regressed. When he learned I’d have to arrest him to clear the warrant, he shrugged. So be it. I met him at his house, spoke to his befuddled parents about what would come next, handcuffed Armando, and started out the front door. An angry growl stopped me.

A large German Shepherd was crouched and ready to pounce. Armando said a few words, convincing the dog he didn’t need protection. The dog walked away, and we went to my car. Here I was arresting Armando, and he saved me from being the dog’s lunch. My fondness for him grew.

After Armando’s court appearance and a few days in juvenile hall, he returned home, duly chastised. Back in school, he did well for a while until a lunchroom fight brought in the police. His probationary status meant he’d be taken to juvenile hall and would have a violation hearing. As I prepared his violation report and recommended more custody time, I knew I needed to come up with something different.

Once the hearing was over, Armando’s disposition sheet was returned to me. When I received it, I saw a note. Armando had advised the judge he wouldn’t see him again because his probation officer was getting him into the Marines. Really? Where did this come from?

The Marines were looking for a few good men. The consensus was that Armando wasn’t one of them. He disagreed. Now nearly 18, with little direction or discipline, he thought joining the Marines seemed like a good idea, except he needed approval from a recruiter and me. As a convicted felon on probation, this would be a challenge. The Marines weren’t looking for felons.

When I spoke to Armando about his comments, he insisted he was serious. He knew he needed to leave his environment and liked the idea of being a Marine. He pleaded with me to make it work.

I thought it over. I believed Armando’s intelligence could take him in a new direction, and he had responded well to structure. Once he crossed the threshold into legal adulthood and had no pending violations, his juvenile probation would end. He was ill-prepared to navigate the adult world, and the Marines made sense. I needed a plan.

I found a Marine recruiter who listened to my story and agreed to test Armando. He did well. The recruiter believed Armando could meet the rigors of boot camp, but he needed to complete the full application process, including the physical. If he passed, I would recommend to the court that his probation be terminated on his 18th birthday. On that day, the recruiter would deliver Armando to boot camp, guaranteeing he’d make it safely to the Marines. We kept our fingers crossed.

Several weeks later, the recruiter called to tell me Armando not only completed boot camp, but graduated first in his class. It was beyond my expectations, and I felt very proud.

Years later, as a division director, my job was administrative. Meetings involved county officials or probation supervisors. The probationers I dealt with in my supervision days left a barely lingering memory. So when my assistant came into my office one day with a puzzled look, saying a young man wanted to see me, it puzzled me also. I asked if he gave a name. She shook her head.

“He said, ‘Just tell her the Marines are looking for a few good men.’ ”

Hardly believing my ears, I went out to greet Armando. He looked wonderful. Now a career Marine, home on leave, the years had been kind to him. He wore his maturity well but still had that mischievous look in his eyes that promised something more. He told me about his experiences, how proud he felt to be a Marine, and that he’d soon be out on a new assignment. We chatted a bit, then he said he had to go. He gave me an awkward hug and asked, “Did I ever thank you for what you did for me?”

“Yes,” I replied. “You’ve thanked me more than you know.”

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