Fellowship Story Showcase
As a Parent Herself, Prosecutor Von Nguyen Brings Empathy to Job in Juvenile Justice
This article was written by Noozhawk Staff Writer Giana Magnoli as part of Day 6 in Noozhawk's 12-day, six-week special investigative series. Related links are below.
The Noozhawk's Prescription for Abuse series is a special project exploring the misuse and abuse of prescription medications in Santa Barbara County. Our series is a result of an exciting and unique partnership with USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, which awarded Noozhawk a California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship to undertake this important work.
Through our reporting and presentation, we will establish an independent baseline of where our community is with respect to the misuse and abuse of prescription medications; how the problem is affecting health care, education, law enforcement, criminal justice, addiction and treatment, and our culture and society; what we as a community can do to educate ourselves about prevention and controls; and how we can perhaps reverse what appears to be a very troubling trend.
Noozhawk staff writers Lara Cooper and Giana Magnoli are the lead reporters on the project, and they've been assisted by managing editor Michelle Nelson; reporters Alex Kacik and Sonia Fernandez; interns Kristin Crosier, Jessica Ferguson, Tim Fucci, Kristen Gowdy, Jessica Haro, Daniel Langhorne, Alexa Shapiro, Sam Skopp, Erin Stone and Sarah Webb; photographers Garrett Geyer and Nick St.Oegger; content producer Cliff Redding; and Web development staffers Will Macfadyen and Edgar Oliveira.
Ashley Almada, Garrett Geyer, Hailey Sestak and Billy Spencer of the Santa Barbara Teen News Network filmed more than two dozen public-service videos featuring many of our story sources.
The project is sponsored by the Santa Barbara Foundation in partnership with KEYT, sbTNN and Zona Seca. The Annenberg School is assisted by the Renaissance Journalism Center at San Francisco State University.
» As a Parent Herself, Prosecutor Von Nguyen Brings Empathy to Job in Juvenile Justice
Name: Von Nguyen
Location: Santa Barbara
As a Santa Barbara County deputy district attorney who works with young offenders, Von Nguyen knows what the community’s children are up to.
Prosecutors can make the biggest difference in Juvenile Court, since earlier interventions and rehabilitation might help juveniles avoid a life of crime, she said.
“If we can redirect their behavior so we never see them in adult court, that would be ideal,” Nguyen said.
Juvenile court can be a volatile environment since it may be the parents’ first time they’re aware of exactly what their child has been doing.
“As much as you like to think you know, there are a lot of things the parents don’t know, and sometimes ignorance is bliss,” she laughed.
Being a parent herself makes her more empathetic to understanding both sides of the cases.
“I see the parents of the victims or the juveniles, and how painful it is for them because that’s your child,” she said. “I try to think about that when I’m determining a fair and just resolution to a case.”
In more than 75 percent of the juvenile cases she’s handled, she said the child had either tried alcohol or marijuana or had smoked marijuana regularly. And they report that access is easy.
Nguyen has worked drug cases in the North County office and was just assigned to the South Coast’s major narcotics unit, but she is truly troubled by the frequency of drug use in the juvenile cases that she sees.
Adolescents in her cases don’t usually use prescription medications exclusively, but they turn to them to avoid detection for their drugs of choice, which are typically alcohol or marijuana.
“It’s a text away, the drugs,” she said of how easy it is for kids to obtain them.
“The possibility of becoming an addict is so real now, because of the different levels of potencies and type of drugs and how much more accessible everything is,” Nguyen said. “Our kids are in much higher danger of being addicted.”
Nguyen keeps a close eye on her own medicine cabinet if only to make sure her children’s friends don’t help themselves. But she realizes many families don’t share her concerns.
“Part of the problem, too, and I can say this because I am a parent, is we’re scared to know what they’re doing,” she said.
“I’ve seen parents come in and we tell them, ‘We found X, Y and Z on your child,’” she said. “The parents aren’t saying, ‘Oh, my God, I had no idea,’ but they’re saying we didn’t have a right to search, or ‘it’s just pot, it’s just this or it’s just that.’”