Moroccan gang youth in Amsterdam, Hans Werdmolder, a Dutch social
scientist, found "Work played a
key role in [the gang members'] reintegration [into mainstream society]
and the establishment of new relationships." (Werdmolder,
1997, p. 95)
job ... implies getting involved in conventional things and ... means that
you are being forced to manage your time rationally. Work provides ... a regular income and ... determines a person's social
interactions and financial opportunities." (ibid.,
p. 107) It is a protective
factor against gang involvement.
In today's world of prevention and treatment of social problems the term risk factor refers to "individual or environment hazards
that increase an individual's vulnerability to negative developmental
outcomes. A risk factor approach assumes that there are multiple, and often
overlapping, risk factors in an individual's background that lead to adverse
outcomes. Furthermore, it posits that it is the cumulation (sic) of risk in the
life course that is most strongly related to adversity." (Thornberry,
2001, p. 32)
In Into the Abyss we are dealing with risks related to becoming involved
with a gang. Some of them are no different than the risks of getting
involved in other socially inappropriate behavior. Examples of risk factors which may lead to gang
involvement include non-attendance at school, school failure, substance abuse,
being abused, unemployment, and living in a single-parent household or one
which exhibits considerable dysfunctionality.
Not all children exposed to risk factors become involved in youth
violence or gangs due to the insulating effect of protective
factors. Protective factors are conditions which
shield a person from risk. What, in other words, are the
factors which shield or protect a child from entering a gang? Reflecting on
the risk factors identified above, they would include regular school attendance and academic success, remaining drug free,
being gainfully or legally employed, and being raised in a loving, functional,
non-abusive family setting.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration recently
published their 1999 Pilot Training Manual (2000)
which included their list of risk- and protective factors. I have adapted
their list - which uses the term "problem behavior" in a generic
sense - to use the word "gang."
Risk and Protective
(Adapted for "Gangs"
as the Problem Behavior)
Friends who engage in gang behavior.
Favorable attitudes toward gang behavior.
Early initiation of gang behavior.
Rewards/recognition for prosocial involvement.
Healthy beliefs and clear standards for behavior.
Positive sense of self.
||Family history of
Family management problems.
Parental attitudes and involvement in gang behavior.
Healthy beliefs and clear standards for behavior.
High parental expectations.
A sense of basic trust.
||Early and persistent
Academic failure beginning in elementary school.
Low commitment to school.
Rewards/recognition for prosocial involvement.
Healthy beliefs and clear standards for behavior.
Caring and support from teachers and staff.
||Availability of drugs.
Community laws and norms favorable toward drug use.
Transition and mobility.
Low neighborhood attachment and community disorganization.
Extreme economic and social deprivation.
participation as active members of the community.
Decreasing substance accessibility.
Cultural norms that set high expectations for youth.
Social networks and support systems within the community.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health
Services Administration, Center for Substance Abuse Prevention,
National Center for the Advancement of Prevention, Washington, D.C.
There are a multiplicity of risk and protective factors. Ideally,
for each risk factor there is at least one protective factor. There are many
communities in the United States that are continually assessing the risks to which their youth are exposed and determining if
there are sufficient protective factors in place for each of the risks. Where missing,
efforts to provide protective factors/programs are being implemented.
Lisbeth Schorr noted that "No one
circumstance, no single event, is the cause of a rotten outcome ... But
each risk factor vanquished does enhance the odds of averting later serious
damage." (Schorr and
In a similar vein, the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and
Delinquency Prevention stated that:
Minimizing risk factors and maximizing
protective factors throughout the developmental cycle from birth through
adolescence can give all youth a better chance to lead productive,
Early intervention programs and services for
juveniles engaged in high-risk and minor delinquent behaviors are
significantly reducing the number of juveniles penetrating the juvenile
and criminal justice systems.
Many interventions geared toward
serious and chronic juvenile offenders have had positive effects on
subsequent reoffense rates. (Coordinating
Council, 2000, pp. 9 and 12)
As identified by Glick (1992),
at-risk youth entering a gang may have encountered racism, poverty, the lack
of a support network, and media influences. Each of these were discussed in
greater detail in Why
Racism: When young people encounter both
personal and institutional racism (i.e., systematic denial of privileges),
the risks are increased. When groups of people are denied access to power,
privileges, and resources, they will often form their own
Poverty: A sense of hopelessness can result
from being unable to purchase wanted goods and services. Young people
living in poverty may find it difficult to meet basic physical and
psychological needs which can lead to a lack of self-worth and pride. One
way to earn cash is to join a gang involved in the drug trade.
Lack of a support network: Gang members often
come from homes where they feel alienated or neglected. They may turn to
gangs when their needs for love are not being met at home. Risks increase
when the community fails to provide sufficient youth programs or
alternatives to violence.
Media influences: Television, movies, radio,
and music all have profound effects on youth development. Before youth
have established their own value systems and are able to make moral judgments, the media promotes drugs, sex, and violence as an acceptable
1992, blue color added for emphasis)
C. Ronald Huff, a nationally recognized expert on gangs and
youth violence, tells us that
In addressing the problem of youth
violence, several important points must be noted. First, violent
behavior by youths is a complex phenomenon that results from multiple
factors. Therefore, it is important that we approach the problem of
youth violence from multiple perspectives and disciplines, because
violence stems from multiple sources of risk including neurobiological,
individual, family, neighborhood, ecological, and socio-economic
Second, we must view violence as
occurring along a developmental continuum. Different points along this
continuum represent different opportunities for prevention or
intervention efforts. Longitudinal research suggests that there are at
least two different kinds of life-course trajectories leading to
violence - early onset (violence beginning prior to puberty) and late
onset (violence beginning after puberty, or around age 13). These two
life-course trajectories have very different implications for prevention
and intervention strategies, as noted in the U.S. Surgeon General's
(2001) report on youth violence. Youths who become violence before about
age 13 generally commit more crimes, and more serious crime, for a
longer period of time. Their violence tends to escalate throughout
childhood and sometimes continues into their adult years.
Third, an integrated, systematic,
longer-term approach that includes multiple disciplines and intercedes
at multiple levels is necessary if we are to have sustainable and
generalizable change. We will not effectively prevent or substantially
ameliorate youth violence if we depend on rigid approaches from any
single perspective. (Huff,
2004, pp. 323-324)
The 2001 report from the U.S. Surgeon General to which Huff
refers concluded that
|Most youth violence begins in
adolescence and ends with the transition into adulthood;
most highly aggressive children or children with behavioral disorders do
not become serious violent offenders;|
|Surveys consistently find that
about 30 to 40 percent of male youths and 15 to 30
percent of female youths report having committed a
serious violent offense by age 17;|
|Serious violence is part of a
lifestyle that includes drugs, guns, precocious sex, and
other risky behaviors. Youths involved in serious
violence often commit many other types of crimes and
exhibit other problem behaviors, presenting a serious
challenge to intervention efforts. Successful
interventions must confront not only the violent
behavior of these young people but also their
lifestyles, which are teeming with risk;|
|The differences in patterns of
serious violence by age of onset and the relatively
constant rates of individual offending have important
implications for prevention and intervention programs.
Early childhood programs that target at-risk children
and families are critical for preventing the onset of a
chronic violence career, but programs must also be
developed to combat late-onset violence; and|
|The importance of late-onset
violence prevention is not widely recognized or well
understood. Substantial numbers of serious violent
offenders emerge in adolescence without warning signs in
childhood. A comprehensive community prevention strategy
must address both onset patterns and ferret out their
causes and risk factors. (Surgeon
page, as found in
Huff, 2004, p. 324-325)|
The following table identifies the risk factors for youth
gang involvement according to Howell. (1998, pp. 6-7)
Each risk factor is categorized by the "domain" or sphere of
influence in which it may be found.
||Social disorganization, including
poverty and residential mobility.
Organized lower class communities.
Presence of gangs in the neighborhood.
Availability of drugs in the neighborhood.
Availability of firearms.
Barriers to and lack of social and economic opportunities.
Lack of social capital.
Cultural norms supporting gang behavior.
Feeling unsafe in the neighborhood; high crime.
Conflict with social control institutions (schools, police, etc.)
||Family disorganization, including
broken homes and parental drug and alcohol abuse.
Troubled families, including incest, family violence, and drug
Family members in a gang.
Lack of adult male role models.
Lack of parental role models.
Low socioeconomic status.
Extreme economic deprivation, family management problems, parents
with violent attitudes, sibling anti-social behavior.
Low educational aspirations, especially among females.
Negative labeling by teachers.
Trouble at school (including bullying [Holmes
and Brandenburg-Ayres, 1998])
||High commitment to delinquent peers.
Low commitment to positive peers.
Gang members in class.
Friends who use drugs or who are gang members.
Friends who are drug distributors.
Interaction with delinquent peers.
Street smartness; toughness.
Defiant and individualistic character.
Fatalistic view of the world.
Proclivity for excitement and trouble.
Locura (acting in a daring, courageous, and especially crazy
fashion in the face of adversity).
Higher levels of normlessness in the context of family, peer group
Illegal gun ownership.
Early or precocious sexual activity, especially among females.
Alcohol and drug use.
Desire for group rewards such as status, identity, self-esteem,
companionship, and protection.
Problem behaviors, hyperactivity, externalizing behaviors, drinking,
lack of refusal skills, and early sexual activity.
Source: Table 1, Youth Gangs: An Overview,
1998, pp. 6-7)
The risk factors identified by Glick and Howell are those which were
identified in some of the most current research on gangs. Many of them are familiar as we have explored them earlier in Into the Abyss.
Noticeably absent, however, are the impact of discrimination and community
denial of a gang presence. A community which fails to address racial and
ethnic discrimination or one which is in denial about discrimination will do little to
correct the forces which may result in a youth's participation in gang
While an even more extended list of risk factors could be
made (i.e., Esbensen's [2000,
discussion of risk-
and protective factors and gang activity), what
is important to note is that each risk factor needs a corresponding
protective factor in order to prevent the risk from leading to gang
involvement. In the long run, putting protective factors in place will result
in reduced gang activity and youth violence. Realistically, few communities or neighborhoods are going to be able to address
all of the risks identified. But every community
can choose to focus upon the risks it has identified as the most insidious and
develop protective factors to cancel out their influence.
As in any human
endeavor, the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders has its successes and
failures. The successes, however, are more frequent than commonly believed
and can be remarkable in their scope. (OJJDP,
May 2000, "From
In support of the impact of protective factors Werner (1990), from her studies on resilient children, discovered common characteristics among children living in
poverty and adverse situations who seemed to be stress-resistant. Werner's
findings are a powerful endorsement of the protective factor approach.
The children were well-liked by peers and adults,
and they had well-developed social and interpersonal skills. They were
reflective rather than impulsive about their behavior. They had a high
sense of self-esteem, self-efficacy, and personal responsibility. They had
an internal locus of control; i.e., they believed they were able to
influence their environment in a positive manner. They demonstrated an
ability to be flexible in their coping strategies. They had well-developed
problem solving skills and intellectual abilities. (Werner,
Werdmolder, in his study of gangs in the Netherlands, found sporting
activities to be protective factor for at-risk youth. "Generally, the importance of sports
lies within the leisure time sphere, but for unemployed youngsters sports
can also function as an alternative and meaningful pastime. Sports are
not only a means to meet people, they also lend regularity and discipline to
life. Foremost, sports may stimulate a feeling of self-respect." (Werdmolder,
1997, p. 111).
The purpose of this Part of the Into the Abyss is to lay the
foundation for the protective factors which will be discussed throughout much
of the remainder of the book. What we'll turn to now is a look at some of
the protective factors which may be provided by individual citizens, former
gang members, and families.