Into The Abyss:
A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs

by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.        
Michael K. Carlie
Continually updated.

~ Table of Contents ~
Home | Foreword | Preface | Orientation

What I Learned | Conclusions
End Note |
| Appendix
Site Map / Contents
| New Research

Up-To-Date Gang-Related News

Part 2:
Risk Factors and Protective Factors

Studying 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) 

  "Having a 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 Factor Models 
(Adapted for "Gangs" as the Problem Behavior)

Domain Risk Factors Protective Factors
Individual Rebelliousness.
Friends who engage in gang behavior.
Favorable attitudes toward gang behavior.
Early initiation of gang behavior.
Opportunities for prosocial involvement.
Rewards/recognition for prosocial involvement.
Healthy beliefs and clear standards for behavior.
Positive sense of self.
Family Family history of high-risk behavior.
Family management problems.
Family conflict.
Parental attitudes and involvement in gang behavior.
Healthy beliefs and clear standards for behavior.
High parental expectations.
A sense of basic trust.
School Early and persistent antisocial behavior.
Academic failure beginning in elementary school.
Low commitment to school.
Opportunities for prosocial involvement.
Rewards/recognition for prosocial involvement.
Healthy beliefs and clear standards for behavior.
Caring and support from teachers and staff.
Community 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.
Opportunities for 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.
Source: 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 Schorr, 1989)  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, crime-free lives. 

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 Gangs Form.

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 anti-establishment group.

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 lifestyle. (Glick, 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 factors.

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

bulletMost 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;
bulletSurveys 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;
bulletSerious 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;
bulletThe 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
bulletThe 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 General, 2001, 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.

Domain Risk Factor
Social disorganization, including poverty and residential mobility.
Organized lower class communities.
Under-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 addiction.
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.
Academic failure.
Low educational aspirations, especially among females.
Negative labeling by teachers.
Trouble at school (including bullying
[Holmes and Brandenburg-Ayres, 1998])
Peer Group
High commitment to delinquent peers.
Low commitment to positive peers.
Street socialization.
Gang members in class.
Friends who use drugs or who are gang members.
Friends who are drug distributors.
Interaction with delinquent peers.
Prior delinquency.
Deviant attitudes.
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 and school.
Social disabilities.
Illegal gun ownership.
Early or precocious sexual activity, especially among females.
Alcohol and drug use.
Drug trafficking.
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, Howell, 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 activity.

While an even more extended list of risk factors could be made (i.e., Esbensen's [2000, page] 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 the Administrator")

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, 1990)

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).

In Closing

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.


Additional Resources: If you've ever thought about whether a child who is violent should be given a second chance in life, read some of these stories.

The Search Institute is nationally recognized as one of the premier centers for research on risk and protective factors. Their Forty Assets is a baseline for programs across the country.  They have a list of assets for 8-12 year olds and for youth 12 to 18 years of age.

Although the topic is drug abuse, there is much to learn about risk and protective factors by reading Risk and Protective Factors for Adolescent Drug Use: Findings from the 1999 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. Chanequa J. Walker-Barnes, et. al. wrote an interesting paper entitled "Identifying Risk Factors for Female Gang Involvement."

Finn-Aage Esbensen's Preventing Adolescent Gang Involvement addresses the issue of risk factors and also discusses related prevention strategies (including examples of effective primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention programs).

The United States Surgeon General's report on Youth Violence provides linked information which focuses on risk and protective factors for children and for adolescents.

You can learn more about a program titled Rainer Communities that Care, a program addressing substance abuse prevention and violence prevention.

For additional information on risk and protective factors visit the site of National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). NIDA also has an extended list and explanation of protective factors.

The National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) offers excellent information on risk and protective factors for youth violence. Among the most significant factors are those which stem from the environment, community, family, and individual.

A rural Nevada community was concerned about its at-risk youth and provides some insights concerning risk and protective factors related to teen violence. You can learn about other programs for children concerning substance abuse and violence at the site of the "Kidspage" of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (choose your topic and click).

If you're looking for a wonderful presentation on risk and protective factors related to substance abuse, here's a site for you to visit created by Steve Delaronde from the University of Connecticut Health Center. And from the Awesome Library comes a list of articles on risk and protective factors.

Police are interested in helping communities identify their at-risk youth so that young offenders don't become chronic and adult offenders. Law Enforcement Referral of At-Risk Youth discusses a number of topics which you may find of interest.

Promising Strategies to Reduce Gun Violence offers a risk and protective factor approach.

2002 Michael K. Carlie
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the author and copyright holder - Michael K. Carlie.