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

Chapter 17:
Counselors and Community-Based 
Treatment Programs

In spite of the many and changing varieties of gang subcultures that can be found, a common denominator among them is that most of these groups are comprised of youth who share somewhat similar values and a keen sense of personal failure and low self-esteem. (Kane, 1992, page)

Field Note: One of my interview subjects was the director of a multi-million dollar community-based treatment initiative. I asked her about the local gang situation. She said "We do have a gang problem here, but it's not out of hand. The problem is that a gang presence is symbolic of the fact that our kids are not at the center of our attention - either in the community or in some of our community's families.

"I think we emphasize programs too much. We emphasize them over the quality of the relationship between the adult and the child who needs help and guidance. The mentoring relationship is where change occurs, that's where the impact is made. We've gotten away from that and we need to return to it."

The following is not a review of literature on what counselors and community-based treatment programs do for gang youth. It is a review of the comments made to me while interviewing counselors and community-based treatment workers regarding their work with gang members. There are some common themes which run through their comments and some obvious connections between their views on the gang situation and what you read about why gangs form

Click on the topics below or 
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A Professional Counseling Office


Community-Based Services

A Drug Treatment Program


A Center for At-Risk Youth


A Middle-School


An Alternative Middle-School


A Federally Funded Gang and Youth Violence Reduction Programs 


A Youth Treatment Program


An Anti-Gang Program


A Neighborhood Betterment Program


Issues Facing Community-Based Programs









Interagency Cooperation and Coordination


Community Mobilization


In Closing

A Professional Counseling Office

I visited the office of two therapists who have counseled gang youth individually and as a group. Victoria Carrico and Graham Horst are husband and wife and have been professional therapists for over a decade. They are the primary providers of counseling services for gang members sent to their firm by area probation and parole officers.  

Carrico is a detoxification specialist and an expert at substance abuse intervention. She is a recovering alcoholic (16 years sober) and knows from whence she speaks. I asked Carrico to describe her gang clients for me. "Gang clients are always resistant to counseling. Any 'Mr. Happy' is simply in denial. I'm supposed to be a positive reinforcement for them. I usually start our sessions with a question.  I ask them 'What do you want to do while you are in counseling?' and they say a variety of things. Usually they say they want to stay in their gang but that they'd like to reduce their drug use. The young ones, in particular, want to reduce their drug use."

I asked her why some youths join a gang. In what seemed like one breath she said "Their dad did prison time, the home is broken, they feel like a nobody, no one stood up for them, they are always abused - either physically, sexually, verbally or emotionally, or they were neglected. Their moms are on drugs, they're school drop outs, they have no degrees, most have been in a boy's home and some did time. They are throw away kids."  

I was stunned. She's seen so many gang members, and they've shared so much in common, that the list was apparently on the tip of her tongue. The list also confirmed everything I had been hearing and seeing for the past two years.

When counseling gang clients, Carrico said she tries to "get the angry, defensive gang member persona put aside so I can talk with the hurt, scared person inside. I tell them that, in a way, they were set up to be sent here. You know, they had no controls at home. So I ask them 'When do you want to take control?' They aren't under control so they look for control and find it in a gang. But it's a false sense of security in a gang because, if a gang member gets in trouble, the gang won't be there for them. That's been my experience in listening to their stories."

Carrico defines "wannabes" as "misfits looking for a place to be." She finds gang members "easy to identify. The way they sit and what they wear. The white gang member clients are the hardest to work with. They talk tough and try to be like and talk like Blacks. If a Black is in their group, they try to be like them. And they're all so skinny and eaten up by meth."

I asked if she could do anything to help someone addicted to methamphetamine. "Yes," she said. "You have to ask yourself if it's progress to move from meth to alcohol. I have learned to accept the fact that, for my meth clients, progress may be defined as self-medicating with alcohol. After all, that brings about a major change in behavior in that they don't use the needle anymore, they had to change who they associate with and, overall, they made a change in their pattern of behavior. But they have to want to change."

Carrico told me child abuse is the "only cause of gang affiliation I always find in my gang clients." I asked her if there was any hope for abused children. She believes that "this is real hard for gang members. I think they'd have to move away from the family. And that means they may have to move away from the gang. They'd have to leave the gang clothes and signs behind. They need a change of playmates and playgrounds. But they have to want to change. I can't emphasize that enough!"

What kinds of changes are needed? "I think there are several things which can bring about change," she said. "First, they need self-disclosure. They have to admit, to themselves and others, that their family life is bad and that their response - joining a gang, violating the law, abusing drugs - is inappropriate and wrong. Then they must learn to make choices. It's important that they begin to see that they have choices of action to take and they have the power to determine which action to choose.

"One of the choices they have to make is deciding whether to come to counseling and pay for it or not come to us for counseling. We charge for our services. They could get free counseling elsewhere, but I don't believe it would be as good for them as compared to allowing us to work with them. They can decide to talk freely with us or withhold things. If they begin using drugs again they can decide whether to report the relapse to us or their probation officer or not. It is important that they begin to see they have choices of action to take and they have the power to determine which action to choose."

She told me that among the other factors which help bring about a change in a client's behavior is the willingness of the therapist to become an ally to the client - someone who helps facilitate change. She also emphasized the importance of respect when she said that "Respect is unfamiliar to them. They've gotten none from their family. In fact, they've learned that they are not to be respected. They need to know they are respected by people outside the gang. It wins them over! That's where hope is."

Carrico noted that "For many of my gang clients, they missed their childhood. Instead of a childhood, they had to be the dad of the family. In almost every case, my clients' criminal behavior and use of drugs and alcohol are symptoms of a bad childhood."

I asked if she thought her community had a gang problem. "Yes," she said. "I don't know what the actual problem is but I hear about the drive-by-shootings and feel sad about that because I know these kids are scared little kids. They do what they learned from their parents. It's too easy to throw kids away today. Single parents and all that."

I asked if she knew of a solution.  Something that would lessen the problem. "Education, education, education," she repeated. "We need to educate the community as to why children join gangs and there need to be more resources for families to go to when their child is acting out. More education for the kids hasn't worked - in the end, they will do what they see their parents doing - drinking, using illegal drugs, committing crimes, fighting."

"Gang mentality is really a society-wide phenomenon. It's not just a mentality of the gang. We used to see right or wrong through our parents. That's all changed. Success is now defined as money. It used to be family, tradition, job and career. Now, it doesn't matter how someone gets money so long as they have it. That's a bad change." (Graham Horst)

Graham Horst is an internationally certified drug counselor. He's spent the past two years counseling gang members. "We focus on their life experiences," he said. "Why they did what they did, about the decisions they have made in the past and what the consequences of them were. We look closely at the decision-making process they use and try to teach them new ways to make decisions. Rather than reacting to situations without thinking, we emphasize thinking first."

We started talking about how a community deals - or fails to deal - with gangs. He said "I think there are at least five different approaches to gangs a community may adopt. They may deny there is a problem and do nothing. Or, they may attempt to prevent gangs from forming or prevent specific youths from joining them. For existing gang members, or their associates, a community may try intervention and, for gang members who refuse to modify their behavior to be lawful, there is suppression - arrest and eventual incarceration. The most extreme approach would be extermination and may include life-long imprisonment without parole or imposition of the death penalty."

The reason that convicted gang members, among others, are sent to Horst is so they can be treated. I wondered about which interventions work successfully and asked him about that. He said "Most of the successes we have seen are when the gang members are dealt with through the criminal justice system. They simply get tired of going through the process - arrest, jail, court, release, arrest, jail, court, release, etcetera. They get tired of that and begin to be amenable to counseling. I think suppression makes them take responsibility and become accountable for their behavior.

"It's difficult to intervene because gang members don't have a lot of social support. Still, we try to change their decision-making process. I ask a client about what he wants to do with his life. 'Is what you are doing going to help you reach that goal?' It's important that he becomes accountable for his behavior. I try to help them learn from their past behavior. But, like I said, they have to be tired of being in trouble."

In summarizing what causes a youth to join a gang, Horst said they are "under socialized. They lack family structure - it's real chaos in their families. They don't know any other way! I have to work with them to show them how to structure their lives. For them, they write their own rules since no one else was writing them - which is what their parents were supposed to do. They need to be helped to understand what the rules are. What I do is like 'Joining the Human Race 101.'"

Horst's perception of the gang issue is tied to another issue. He said "So much is dependent on substance abuse - that's why I get them as clients. And recovery is the key. They're getting in trouble because they are in relapse - they're abusing substances again. They are most likely to relapse when they get together with old friends who are still into substance abuse and gang behavior. The recovery process requires that they stay out of old and unproductive relationships and get new friends - people who are not into alcohol or other substance abuse.

"My clients have a choice. They can say 'No' to participating in substance abuse - especially if they have other relationships." This confirms concerns expressed by other interview subjects who spoke of the need for positive support groups for gang members who want to get out of the gang life. "Gang members don't have a lot of social support," he added. "Humans are herd animals - they are dependent upon having other people in their lives."

I was intrigued by Horst's statement that the family life from which many of the gang members come was filled with "chaos." I asked him to elaborate on that comment and he exclaimed "It's the parents! Most of them didn't parent! They lack social skills and are part of the problem. I encourage my clients to move away from them. But the family members are economically dependent on everyone else in the family and the father is usually gone. What I find is that the child often has to become the parent!

"Look, I'm working with the adult children of dysfunctional families. There is an irrational allegiance and unhealthy bonding between these family members. Individual boundaries are not recognized. I refer to this as 'enmeshment.' Everyone's problems become everyone else's problem to deal with."

I asked if he had any hope for change in his gang member clientele. "Occasionally," he replied. I asked him to tell me about a success story - about a gang member who got out of the gang life. After taking a few seconds to think about this, he said "Well, success for a client can be having fewer violations than he had before counseling. If he was being arrested or was involved in an unhealthy episode weekly and, after counseling, that changed to once a month, that's success.  

"I had a gang member client who moved here from California. After he got into counseling he made a legitimate attempt to change. He has a job and he stays away from gang associates. He started in gangs when he was eight years old - it was all that he knew by the time I got him. The change is slow, but the desire was there. But I have a problem knowing whether my clients have been successful because I lose contact with most of them after the counseling is over. We don't have any follow-up."

Community-Based Services

As opposed to services provided to offenders who are incarcerated, services available in the community are referred to as community-based services. They are typically supported by private and corporate contributions and a mixture of federal, state, county, and/or municipal funds. The services they provide include education/prevention and intervention with individuals who are already involved in delinquent and/or criminal behavior. As mentioned previously, probation and parole officers send many their clients to these agencies for assistance. In this regard, community-based services are an extension of treatment provided by probation and parole officers.

Some community-based services are offered through non-profit organizations that serve specifically defined populations. For example, one agency may offer assistance to those who need job- and life skills training while another offers services to those who need substance abuse counseling, and so on for each group of clientele with a different constellation of treatment needs.

Observations in the field revealed that some communities with gangs had very limited services due to the fact they were in denial about the gangs. Most of the communities I visited, however, had a wide range of services including substance abuse intervention, counseling (family, marital, and individual), child abuse detection and treatment, anger management and conflict resolution classes, and literacy training. Only a few had employment training and placement or provided assistance in residential placement. That seemed to be a major problem. Without a legitimate job, illegal behavior was likely.

Family breakdown, school failure, substance abuse, gangs, and related problems can cause children and families to get into trouble.  Throughout the country, communities are working together to eliminate abuse and keep young people out of trouble. (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, circa 1998)

"Poor parenting is responsible for the gang problem." (Tyrone North)

A Drug Treatment Program 

Tyrone North is an ex-convict. Having left a life of crime, he is now the director of a drug treatment program in a city with 453,000 inhabitants. Nearly 52% of the city's population is African-American. The program is licensed and has branches in several other cities. While interviewing probation and parole officers in this community I was told that the program he operates "has been helpful." 

The program offers a variety of services including individual and group counseling, family therapy, life skills training, and referrals for vocational training, employment and housing assistance, child care, and medical care. Services are offered seven days a week and clients may be in the program for up to two years.

According to North, "The program is not very effective." There was no data available indicating whether clients passing through the program continued to abuse drugs or not. As he said, his own evaluation was based on the fact that "I see the same faces coming through here again and again." I asked why he felt the program wasn't successful and he gave the following three reasons:

1. It lacks a vocational component. Most of the clients in the program lack work skills and a work ethic. Nothing in the program addresses these needs. The location of the program in the inner-city would require private or public transportation to a work site and neither are affordable for the clientele.

2. It doesn't have an "effective education program," North said. "The reason why the  education program doesn't work is that program participants need money now. They don't have time to take classes for years, pass the tests, then find a job. This is a big problem."

3. The participants do not understand the consequences of their inappropriate behavior. He noted that the courts place offenders on probation time after time. "This leads offenders to believe that the system is soft, so the consequences threatened are seldom enforced, so they become ineffective as a means of controlling behavior."

North said "Poor parenting is responsible for the gang problem." He believes parents are too ready to give up their children to the courts and the justice system.

A Center for At-Risk Youth

"No one cares enough." (Mary Michaels, Counselor)

I visited a center for at-risk youth in a suburban community of 1,500,000 people. Mary Michaels, an experienced counselor in the program, used to work in a hospital emergency room on the East Coast of the United States. While viewing the nightly toll taken by gang members on the street as they shot and stabbed one another, she developed an interest in and concern for gang members. 

I asked Michaels what she had learned about gangs and gang members. I sat back and listened as, for nearly 15 minutes, she ran through a multitude of observations. Among the most poignant and oft-repeated by other counselors were:

"When children at risk sense that someone cares about them, they open up and change can take place." 

"Their parents are ineffective as parents, often not participating in their child's life. They're ineffective through neglect as well as actively."

"There is little emotional stability in the lives of children at risk."

"The kids and their parents seemed hopeless. They held out no hope of their situation improving."

"When a gang member wants to get out of the gang, they find it very difficult, and the rival gangs may not recognize they've [sic] quit. In the Boston Street Worker Program, we had support groups for youths wishing to leave their gangs. Without a support group outside the gang it's hard to leave it."

"When asked to think about problems associated with being in a gang, few gang members recognize that negative things are happening to them - things like poor performance in school, getting a bad reputation among administrators and teachers in school, negative stereotypes by others in the community. They often say 'My gang isn't like that.'"

"They sometimes don't realize their family members are no longer safe." Michaels shared a story of two rival gang members. One threatened the other with death. Later, as the one who made the threat walked towards the home of the gang member be threatened, the threatened boy stepped in front of his mother, hoping to protect her. The rival shot and killed both of them with one bullet."

"I see a lot of post traumatic stress syndrome among the children."  Called PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), it is a result of traumatic events in a child's life and has negative psychological, behavioral, and biophysical consequences if left untreated.

"Mere occasional social association with a known gang member may be taken as membership by rivals and results in negative consequences for the casual associator."

"Kids are naive when they get involved in gangs, but by that time it's too late. They can't see what's happening to them while others around them may see what's happening quite clearly."

Talking about gang members, Michaels said "When they joined, they had already rejected many people outside the gang and probably were not close to family members. The gang became their new family and, in time, were the only people they associated with regularly or intimately. Getting out of the gang means cutting off all remaining meaningful contacts. Why would anyone quit under these circumstances? And, if a gang member does quit, who will be in their social world?" 

I asked why there weren't more programs to encourage kids to quit gangs. "No one cares enough," she said. "The problem is not perceived as being serious enough, no solutions have been imagined and created, no one knows where to get the resources which may be needed, those who could help won't because they are fearful for their own security, and the problem is seen as being so overwhelming that no solution seems possible."

As to the future, Michaels believes "Bad parenting seeds bad parenting" and she used this as a way of discussing the possibility that gang members are going to be parents. She held forth little hope that as parents they will raise healthy, socially responsible children.

At the end of our visit, Michaels told me about a social program she conducted with young children in the community. None of them claimed to be members of a gang. "During the program I put some folders on a table. They each contained coloring paper and other projects for the kids. Some of the folders were green, others were red, and some were blue. When I had the children pick up the folders only the blue ones were taken. For another program I used colored M&M candies. Only the red ones were taken." Colors. 

A Middle-School 

 "Some of these kids are afraid to go home after school. They're afraid to walk through gang territory or they're afraid of how they're going to be treated when they get home." (Marsha Cartwright, Treatment Program Director)

Marsha Cartwright is the director of a middle-school-based treatment program for at-risk kids. According to Marsha, "They're all at risk here." The school is one of 16 in this inner-city that offer after-school programming until nine in the evening. A school counselor was sitting in on the interview and said "This is taking a toll on the teachers. They're the ones who stay here after school hours and provide the programming for the kids. And there's no extra pay for what they do. They do it because they believe it's the right thing to do."

Cartwright told me "Kids love their gang with a passion. It gives them love, acceptance, caring and is always there for them. It's reliable ... not like what they have at home. There's a lot of nurturing from other gang members. O.G.s accept younger members whether the younger members are fat, skinny, ugly, beautiful, strong or weak as long as the young member shares and meets the objectives of the gang."

Cartwright once encountered a gang leader and confronted him about what he was doing to one of the young members of his gang. He replied saying "You gave him to me so don't go criticizing me." She explained this to me as his way of telling her that she had failed in taking care of the child, as did the child's parents, school, church, and community. So the child came to the gang and the gang took care of him. "The gang leader didn't create the problem," she said, "the rest of the community did that."

She told me the school sponsors trips for the students to movies, the theater, sporting events, horseback riding, picnics, and elsewhere. This is done as a proactive and preventive step. "The school is doing what the parents and the children's families should be doing." 

While talking about how one goes about reducing gang activity, Cartwright suggested this can only be done "with the involvement of the entire community. The community gets involved by making alternative activities available - things like transportation to events and the events themselves. Activities like Double Dutch [rope jumping] teams and competition, drug treatment programs, education and job training."  

Cartwright, using Double Dutch as bait, drew a dozen or so young gang girls into a new life free of gang activity. Like others who work with gang youth, she had successes, although she never considered there were enough of them.

An Alternative Middle-School

Emanuel Flores is the counselor at a predominantly Hispanic alternative school in a large metropolitan community. The school is nestled in the center of the community's Latino population and has, as its mission, "Educating and empowering at risk youth to graduate and become effective, productive citizens through an individualized program of study."

Flores is Hispanic and described some of the negative experiences he has had with police in the community and some of the negative experiences he knows Mexican gang members have had with them. "Police have been rude, offensive, hurtful and physically abusive towards Mexican gang members," he said. He felt that some of the police were racist in their attitudes toward Hispanics.

While in the field I heard several treatment workers say they had no desire to "put the gang down, but to put down the negative behavior they exhibit." I asked Flores about this. "This thinking is not correct," he replied. The gang is the problem, not just the negative and illegal behavior of its members." Flores doesn't accept the notion that one can stay in a gang, without criminal behavior, and have something positive come out of it. 

He believes the problem with gangs is the "gang mentality" they foster in youths who already had that mentality when they joined. Flores defined gang mentality as "The value system that each gang member holds and shares with fellow gang members. It is in opposition to general society's value system.  

"The gang value system supports negative attitudes towards society's laws and holds in high regard those who violate them. It supports the belief that the individual is more important than the whole and that, if a given action does not benefit the individual, it is not worth doing. On the other hand, it is ethnocentric and sometimes fosters group loyalty. It is the way in which gang members look at the world.

"The problem with the police is the way in which they go about interacting with gang members - being rude, offensive, overly aggressive - that is the problem. When they behave that way they are asked to leave by the Hispanic adults in the community. When there's another reason to call the police, they return with even more aggression." 

Flores pointed out that Mexican participation in the American labor force is among the highest of all ethnic groups in the United States, something which flies in the face of a stereotype of Hispanics as lazy. He attributes their work ethic to the fact they are usually Catholic and that "A piece of the philosophy of Catholicism is hard work."

Flores said "We [Hispanics] live parallel lives with general society but the paths of the two never cross. We live near one another but there is little meaningful interaction between us. This had made the situation a problem with Hispanic youth who want to be included. Instead, they feel unwelcome."

He believes that, among gang members, "Anti-social behavior is romanticized. One is not 'bad,' he is a 'bandit' ... 'Robin Hood' ... the 'Underdog.'" He believes Mexican gangs in this community, "are a not-so-well-organized gathering of youths whose primary purpose for existing is to protect their turf, drink beer and get girls pregnant. It's all an expression of machismo - of being a 'man!'"

What the school is trying to do is to raise the students' level of education and to foster in them the belief that they can make a positive contribution to the community. The program discourages gang activity by alerting students to the dangers involved in joining a gang.

Federally Funded Gang and 
Youth Violence Reduction Programs

Field Note: The director of this community-based gang and youth violence reduction program believes "The local politicians go to the inner city folks and tell them 'Isn't this program nice. We created and funded it to help make your community a better place to live.' In fact, whether it works or not, it was created to get votes and to get complaining constituents off their backs!"  

Program #1

Jeanne Keller is the director of a federally funded anti-youth violence and anti-gang program located in the center of African-American gang territory in a community of nearly one-half million people. The program is designed to reduce youth violence and gang activity in the local neighborhood. There are other programs in the area which attempt to aid wayward youth, among them services provided by the State Division of Youth Services and the Division of Family Services. "They're a mess," Keller said. "They're a part of the problem, not part of the solution. They're understaffed, underpaid, and overworked. They really don't have time for these youths."

When asked if her program was reducing gang activity and youth violence Keller said "Gangs are a lure for neighborhood youth. For our program to work it must offer caring, acceptance, job training, education and lots of activity." There was no hard data to show that the program was either a success or a failure.

The gang members Keller talks with tell her they want a legitimate job. But, according to Keller, the youths have "too few job skills, a poor or no work ethic, poor work habits, and their expectations for pay are too high. They think they deserve to start at $20 an hour! One of the things our program tries to do is teach youth to be smart in seeking employment. For example, hospitals pay about $12 an hour for janitorial work whereas McDonalds pays only $5 for the same work."

A few years ago Keller lived in a area of town known for its gang activity. She was exercising outdoors one day and witnessed some children breaking into a car. She yelled "Get out of there!" and, instead of running, one of the children aimed a shotgun at her as he and his friend starting walking toward her. "Everyday, when I left home for work," she said, "I was approached by youths and asked if I wanted to buy some drugs."

She left the neighborhood permanently when, one night, there was a problem which drew "fifty or sixty patrol cars. A high ranking police commander was at the scene and told the youths who had gathered to disperse. The youths told him to 'Fuck off!' and, rather than do something about them, the police tolerated the verbal abuse. At that point I realized the gang members were in control and no longer respected the police. Order in the community was destroyed."

At the conclusion of the interview my impression was that the program was working reasonably well for youths who were not gang affiliated. But the gang affiliated youth presented a genuine problem. Their attachment to the gang, and the lack of a non-gang oriented support group while not in the program, erased any good which had been accomplished while in the program.

Program #2

Milton Dennis is a veteran gang counselor and Director of a federally funded anti-youth violence and anti-gang program in a large West Coast city. The clientele with whom he works are primarily Asian - Cambodians being the largest group. Born in the United States, they are the children of native Cambodians. The clients are a mix of gang- and non-gang members who are all involved in delinquency or are at-risk for such behavior.

"There's a language barrier between these youths and their parents," he told me. "Because of this, the parents are not credible to their children. The children say 'What do you know!' when responding to attempts by their parents to control them." 

Using a native-born Cambodian staff member, the program attempts to instill some of Cambodian culture into its offerings in hopes of creating an identity for the clients. The staff member feels "They are lacking a meaningful self-identity and that is part of their current problem of trying to fit into our local community."

"One of the programs most significant features is our community room," Dennis told me. "We use it for classes and for after-school and weekend programs for our clients. It's a place to meet and it's large and light. It's a nice place to be for them." On several occasions he said "The kids who come here regard our center as their second home."   

He used the phrase "second home" on several occasions. He considers the program unique in the city for this reason. "The other programs have a center, but they don't provide space for the kids to just hang out and have positive adult role models around. Instead, they have a place to do some sport or something like that. Nothing where they just hang out."

Although 11% of the city's population is from southeast Asia, the neighborhood in which the program is located is seventy percent southeast Asian and "There is an abundance of public housing and lots of single mothers," according to Dennis. 

I asked if gang activity in the area was decreasing. "I think it is," he said, "but the local and national evaluators [of his program] missed the most important aspects of the program when they came through for our most recent evaluation. It's a debacle! There are two goals that have been set for our program. First, we are to develop programs that fill in the gaps in services for these at-risk kids. Where there's a need and no program, we're supposed to fill the gap. 

"Second, we are responsible for 'system reform or change.' That means we are supposed to look at the larger programs and bureaucracies serving clients like ours and try to help them find ways to do their work which are more effective. If we fail to do these two things, and do them well, then we are evaluated poorly. The difficulty with this is that those larger organizations include agencies at city, county and state levels. They include The Division of Youth Services, the Department of Health, County probation, Juvenile Services, corrections, police, the city's Housing Authority, and on and on. 

"Some of these bureaucracies are hard to change. But that's one of our required goals and we have been very effective, particularly with the county agencies. About the only way we were able to convince the other agencies of the need for change was due to our having money. If we saw a need for a new program, we could help pay for it."

As to the second goal, reforming or changing the larger organizations that work with the gang situation, Dennis said "There are two focuses in the reform area. First, either we build a bigger youth detention center or we put more money in the front end and do gang prevention. The second focus is on correcting the disproportionate minority confinement policy that seems to be at work in this city. A disproportionate number of southeast Asian youths, African-Americans, and other minorities are arrested and prosecuted. We'd like to see this changed."

I told Dennis I was going to be riding with the city's police gang unit. He told me to be sure to ride with a certain officer, one who serves in the Asian-Emphasis gang unit. "He's called Buddha by the southeast Asian kids here and they hate him. He's very rough with them and intimidates them all the time. We have a tenuous relationship with the police gang unit. There's so much intimidation, and they do it with kids that aren't really the problem. That officer is the problem."

Dennis gave me a copy of a recent newspaper article describing the problematic way in which the police are handling the Asian children in the community. The article described how the police gang unit was dealing with Asian gang members and focused on Buddha's behavior. The author took a decidedly critical position regarding police behavior. 

Dennis used this story as a segue to an explanation of his latest achievement - dismantling one of the largest gangs in the program's neighborhood. "We found jobs for the oldest members. That was easy," he said. "They were tired of the gang life style. The sixteen to twenty-one year olds were selling drugs because they needed money. Some of them were arrested and locked up and the others have continued to sell drugs as individuals - not as a part of the gang. The younger members, kids twelve to fifteen years old, are here, at the Center. The very youngest are still in school."

I was fascinated to find that, given that gangs sometimes age grade their membership, Dennis' approach was to offer different solutions for each of the age groups in the gang. "And," he said proudly, "it worked!" 

Among the things Dennis learned while working with gangs over the past twelve years were that "Prevention is much more effective where gangs are not intergenerational or highly organized. And when a gang is broken up, the one-time members are vulnerable to attack by rival gang members."

Dennis believes the organization he's working for needs to stay small. There are currently six fulltime employees. He directs, counsels, writes grant applications, and more. The agency is in the process of hiring several more people and he knows they are going to need an executive assistant. "The bigger we get the more out of touch with our clients we become and I don't want that to happen. The kids who come here really enjoy the staff because we know them and we show how much we care." This need for one-to-one contact between troubled youth and positive adult role models was mentioned by several practitioners during the period of my research.

Field Note: A Canadian Asian Gang Unit police officer and I visited the Club Dynamic, a pool hall and gambling den believed to be operated by the Triad [Asian organized crime]. As we entered, I was struck by the number of CD covers posted on the walls. There were the covers for CDs of popular Asian music groups.

The officer told me "A man was murdered at the club a few months ago. I want to show you the card room where he was murdered. He was involved in a card game. When we went in we found a man coming out and searched him. He had $80,000 dollars on him - cash!  Must have been quite a game."

We entered the room and looked around. "Well, I guess you had to be there that night. The atmosphere in the room, you know." I looked in a corner of the room and saw a computer and some CD recording machines. As I approached the equipment I could tell it was used to make copies of commercial music CDs. It was a CD pirating operation.

That explained the CD covers I saw posted on the walls. The CDs were being sold at the bar for $10 each. But they were illegal copies costing only fifty cents each to make (a box of 1,000 blank CDs was found next to the computer with a receipt for $500).

While we were looking at the equipment one of the employees came into the room. He introduced himself as a busboy and asked "What are you doing in here?" The officer questioned him about the equipment and the young man said "I use it to make copies of CDs I want." He was asked who owned it and said "I own it, well, I use it." The officer later told me the man said he owned it to take the onus off the real owner - the proprietor of the pool hall and a local member of the Triad.

"This is just another way Asian organized crime makes money - they'll do it any way they can." The equipment was seized and taken to the police station. While packing it into a police van the officer told me "Nothing very serious is going to come from this. Our laws, the courts, are so lax. There'll be little punishment and the equipment will be replaced in days." I estimated the cost of the equipment at about $12,000 to which he said "That's pocket change to these guys."

Dennis continued describing the gang situation in the neighborhood saying "The pool halls are a big thing here with the Vietnamese kids. They're into heavy shit here." Talking about the pool halls and the level of organized crime surrounding them, Dennis said "We aren't effective with thirty-five to forty-year-old gang members. Actually, we have serious concerns about our safety around them." This is the same situation that persists in several cities on the West Coast from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, to Seattle, and San Francisco.

Field Note: On the same day I interviewed Dennis, the Supreme Court of the State of Washington (USA) decided probation officers can be held liable for any criminal damage done by their clients. The decision was based on the belief this would make the probation officers accountable for their inaction in relation to their clients.

A Youth Treatment Program

Larry Russell is a case counselor in a community-based youth treatment program. The program was created in order to offer gang prevention programming through awareness. Its staff target children in both elementary and junior high schools and their parents. According to Russell, the three areas of programming in which they are involved are:

bullet School presentations where five things are taught: violence prevention, conflict resolution, gang awareness, handling peer pressure, and communication skills.

bulletPresentations to teachers and community adults/parents in conjunction with personnel from the city police department. Among other things, parents and teachers are taught what to look for in order to determine if a child or student is involved in a gang.

bulletCase management of individuals and families who are at risk and referred to the program by the school, police, or the courts. Case management of individuals includes informal counseling and the brokering of community services needed by the child. Case management of families is geared to the specific needs of each family.

Among the services brokered are getting utility bills paid, family and substance abuse counseling, obtaining food, and securing job training. Some of these resources are available within the program itself while others must be found outside the program. Case management with families focuses on developing effective parenting skills ... "especially for single parent families."

This program is an example of many operating throughout the United States whose purposes are education, delinquency prevention and keeping youths from joining gangs. There is little direct, hands-on, treatment or intervention with either delinquent or gang youth. If you accept the notion that education and prevention are a more meaningful long-term answer to the gang situation, then you know how important programs like this are. If they do nothing more than "keep good kids good" they have done the community a great service.

Russell currently has three youthful clients. One was a gang member but couldn't get out of his gang due to rival gang intimidation. Russell chose to send that youth out of his neighborhood to receive job training. "That worked, but we were lucky. He was able to find transportation to the training site." While discussing another gang member client, Russell said "I look at gangs like a triangle consisting, mostly, of wannabes at the bottom of the triangle- the most problematic and important group. Then there are the active participants in the middle and, at the top, the hard core gang leaders. If prevention is going to work, it is with the wannabes. They have to be steered to legitimate activities and we have to focus on their home life, especially the twelve to fourteen year olds."

"Getting in to a gang is easy today," he said. "It's not so much being sexed in, beat in, or having to commit a crime as it used to be. Today, among the gangs, its the number of members that counts - bigger is stronger - so getting in is relatively easy. Getting out, on the other hand, is difficult." There wasn't much he felt his agency could do to help gang youths do that.

An Anti-Gang Program

"Probation and parole officers sometimes stereotype all offenders as trying to 'get off' on them - lie to them and manipulate them. The stereotype is not accurate. Not everyone is bad!" (Trent Richardson, Anti-Gang Treatment Program Director)

Trent Richardson is a black ex-convict. He was convicted on a murder charge and served nine years in a state penitentiary. He was born and raised in the inner-city, committed his crime there and, upon release from prison about 26 years ago, moved to another community to start a new life. He now directs an anti-gang treatment program. 

Richardson believes the local gangs are loosely organized and that many of them have been either drawn to the area or were created here due to the large market for crack cocaine. He sees most gang activity in the community as business-related (i.e., selling drugs, stealing) rather than being gang-related (i.e., true to colors, protecting gang turf, protecting gang members).  

One aspect of Richardson's program involves monitoring local gangs and gang members and their graffiti as a means of determining what's going on in surrounding neighborhoods at any given point in time. Richardson fears there is a stereotype of all inner-city youth as members of one gang or another. He sees many youth who are not affiliated and some who try to look like they are simply for their own protection.  

When asked what his organization is doing to stem the tide of gangs he said "Hardcore gang members are hard to change, but I prefer not to give up on anyone." His own story is a testament to having faith. He believes he was very difficult to deal with as a youth but, because a few people stuck it out with him, he eventually changed his way of thinking and his behavior. He recently hired one of the most hardcore gang members he knew as a means of gaining the respect of other gang members and to increase communication with them.

Richardson spoke with some passion about the relationship between gangs, drugs, and sexually transmitted diseases. "Gang members sometimes have promiscuous and multi-partner sex without the use of condoms or other protection.  And some gang members are sexed into the gang. Taking drugs intravenously also increases the likelihood of contracting a sexually transmitted disease." His concern had translated into offering free condoms as part of his agency's regular program.

Richardson emphasized that he prefers to use only a few resources to try to reach the hardcore. "I think we have to save most of the resources to help the young and to prevent their entrance into the gang life. Our program focuses its efforts and resources on preschool, elementary school, middle school and high school students. We offer life skills courses in the schools and several outreach programs to children outside the school. Among the outreach programs are anger management and conflict resolution. Our people try to present the same message over and over. This repetition is how one learns values that result in a child passing by the gang experience."

Field Note: Richardson believes some of the suburban gangs are formed to provide protection for suburban youths against inner-city youths who may enter their territory.

Calvin Seale is Richardson's associate in the program. Seale spoke of the "mind set" that is already in place by the time inner city children are ten or eleven years old. He told me a story about a sixteen year old African-American youth who was operating eight crack houses when Seale first met him. He had inherited the eight houses from his seventeen-year-old cousin when the cousin was sent to prison. He spoke of youths he knew who joined gangs as a means of being protected from their physically abusive fathers and of other children who joined gangs to get help in protecting their mothers against their abusive fathers.

A Neighborhood Betterment Program

"What we need is a paradigm shift." 
(Darrel Scott, Neighborhood Betterment Project Director)

Darrel Scott is the director of an neighborhood betterment project located in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in a city with nearly 1,700,000 inhabitants. Scott, an African-American in his late 30's, spent eight years in prison for a crime committed when he was 16 years old. Referring to prison life as "brutal," he escaped some of the brutality by burying himself in the prison's school and, by the time he was released on parole, had earned both a high school equivalency degree (G.E.D.) and a two-year college associates degree.

"As a black male," Scott said, "I thought that prison was a natural right of passage - certainly in my surroundings.  My uncle and cousin were in prison ... it was my rite of passage into adulthood. I was in jail when offenders were put in holding tanks - you know, lots of men in one big cell. When we were fed it was all put in one place with no one's name on any of it. It was dog eat dog. But I know that prisons are necessary. There are certain people who should never, never, never be let out into society.

"When I got out of prison I got a job driving a school bus in the afternoons. In the mornings I looked for other work and one thing led to another and now I'm here. I've been in this position for several years and I've had dinner with the Mayor and some of our state legislators and I was featured in a seminar in Washington, D.C.!"

Through the betterment program, Scott facilitates groups in the community whose purpose is to bring about positive changes in the neighborhood and its people. Included in their activities is a graffiti clean up project. Scott believes the abandoned buildings in the neighborhood are symbolic of its gang situation. They are "broken windows. They're symbols of the problems we have - people not caring for their property, no one taking time to fix things. It's a state of mind and it's the kind of thing that keeps a community down. It's a product of hopelessness and carelessness. The abandoned buildings attract drugs, prostitution, and other crimes, and many of the buildings are located close to our public schools."

Scott believes the community has "lots of good programs, but too many children are being murdered. We need to focus less on the gangs and more on the root causes of gang formation and gang violence." One purpose of Scott's betterment project is to bring the rate of violence down in its neighborhood. The program accomplishes that, he said, "by focusing on the schools and the family as well as the physical community - the buildings in our neighborhood, how our land is used, utilities, the condition of our streets and sidewalks, street lighting, and other city services.  

"Our project takes a shotgun approach to the gang problem [trying to do many things at once]. We work with another organization that provides an ex-gang member as a speaker in the schools and we offer activities for our local youths. We held a youth summit last summer for one thousand people. We invited some rapper groups to entertain and offered seminars on life skills and anger management. We even set up tables for local social service agencies and their materials."

I asked Scott to tell me about the local police and their handling of the gang situation. The police department has 1,200 full time officers, nine of which are assigned to the gang unit. He said "They're ineffective. The issue is how they label youths as gang members. They are too free with their stereotype of youths as gang members. For example, in our neighborhood there is a group of youths 'ten deep' [when they gather together, there are usually ten of them] which appears daily on a nearby street corner. Some of the individuals in it deal drugs and the group loiters, but it is not a gang and they would not call themselves a gang. The police call them a gang.

"The police are mean. They're mean in their interactions with Latino and Black youths. They're racist." He offered examples of when Black and Latino youths were verbally and physically assaulted by the police. He told me he has witnessed some of these encounters. 

Scott believes we should take the label "gang" out of the conversation and address the problem with greater accuracy. They way he described the situation, it's as though the concept of gang, and all the meanings it brings with it, gets in the way of dealing with the real problem - whatever it is that causes children to form, join, and participate in gangs. "For example, if the children are selling drugs," he said, "let's deal with that, not with whether they are in a gang or not."

When asked about probation and parole officers and their approach to gangs, Scott said "They are more innovative in their approaches, including their move towards stationing their officers and offices in the neighborhood." One of the more unique aspects of social services in this community is the establishment of neighborhood sub-stations where probation and parole officers, along with beat cops and a representative from the prosecutor's office, work at least one day a week. This is done for the convenience of the neighborhoods' residents.

Scott believes "Probation and parole people are more conscious of what our neighborhood residents' lives are like. Our people are poor, the housing is bad, there's a lot of unemployment and underemployment, abandoned buildings, lack of city services, and more." It was clear to me that this program was less concerned with identify gang members and trying to "treat" them than it was with striking at one of the root causes of gang formation and trying to remove it - the deterioration of the physical infrastructure of the neighborhood and its correction through a mobilization of its residents.

Issues Facing Community-Based Services

The following observations apply to the programs and services mentioned above as well as all the other community-based social services I observed


Salaries for the highest ranking positions in the agencies I visited were sometimes pitifully low when compared to the amount and quality of work the people in them were producing. Salaries for new employees paid for only the barest essentials to satisfy body and soul. Opportunities for promotion were scarce due to the fact that the agencies were not growing or not growing fast enough to satisfy the demand of those in the lower ranks to reach higher levels of responsibility and pay.


Most of the agencies were either insufficiently funded or the source of their funding was unstable. Usually it was both. Grants from government agencies, as well as contributions from caring individuals, businesses, and organizations, do not provide a stable platform from which to provide services. There is, instead, a constant state of stress produced in the agencies by the never ending search for funding and for increased funding as the client base they deal with increases.


Many of the agencies I visited, including those operated by state, county, and municipal entities, were suffering under poor leadership. Although some were exceptionally good at what they did, the norm was an almost numbing traditionalism that squelched the creativity and drive of its line workers.

Many of the agency personnel I visited were frustrated by the fact that they wanted to be able to do more but couldn't. They were, they said, crippled by heavy caseloads, insufficient resources, poor training, and ineffective, intrusive, or bothersome administrators.


Training for staff and administrators seemed insufficient. In several states, if any gang training was provided, it consisted of one or two hours and was only offered once in the career of the worker in question. On-going training - training after employment and throughout one's career in an agency - was practically nonexistent.

Barriers to Lasting Change

It was little comfort to find that, even if or when they could help a client, clients were typically shunned by the community. This is nothing new. "Criminals" have never been welcomed in a community, unless it was a community of other criminals. The labels of "juvenile delinquent" and "gang member" result in the same rejection.  

Inter-Agency Cooperation and Coordination

There was a lack of cooperation and coordination among the various social service agencies in each community due, perhaps, to being in an environment of overwhelming demand for service and a corresponding lack of resources. An agency hoping to expand its services will likely encounter opposition from other agencies who feel threatened by their expansion. It's no wonder that much of the literature of social reform today is filled with pleas for cooperation and coordination among agencies.

Community Mobilization

There's a great deal of talk about "mobilizing" communities to deal with at-risk, high-risk, and gang youth, as well for other issues. Mobilizing a community means raising the awareness of people in it about a given issue and moving them to take effective action. In order to do this, as Spergel (1992) tells us, "The process depends on cooperation, 'cutting through' denial and apathy, as well as managing inter-organizational suspicion and conflict, so that the process leads to changes in awareness and improved response to the problem." (Spergel, 1992, page)

In Closing

Among the themes that ran through the interviews were: substance abuse; poverty and inner-city deterioration; single-parenthood; abusive relationships with parents; parental neglect and the corresponding attraction of the gang; the lack of positive adult role models and the abundance of negative ones; violence; juvenile irresponsibility; the leniency of the justice system, abuse by some of its practitioners, and a tendency to label youths as gang members too hastily; a need for education, job training, and job placement; a lack of positive support groups for juveniles wanting to get away from the gang lifestyle and substance abuse; a lack of community support; and racial/ethnic misunderstandings, stereotypes, and discrimination.

None of the agencies I visited had evaluation data on the success or failure rate of their clientele. In addition, none of the social service providers I interviewed were satisfied with the results their respective agencies were experiencing. "Being successful in treating your clients" is now defined as having clients who offended less often. While none of the interview subjects were happy with this circumstance, they seemed to have learned to accept it.

While some clients were benefiting from the services offered, others were not. There were a number of explanations for this failure including a lack of client motivation to change and limited access to good treatment programs (ones that were adequately funded, well administered, with well paid and thoroughly trained staff).

Perhaps the relatively high turn-over rate of employees in the social service sector can be explained, at least in part, by the factors outlined above (i.e., poor pay, limited advancement, inadequate administration, poor community response). It appeared to me that the communities I visited simply were not willing to pay more taxes or otherwise raise funds in an amount sufficient to assure that social service providers could serve local youth well. It was either that or the  majority of those who vote are simply in a state of denial about the severity of the youth problem in their community.

The comments I heard about various state Division of Youth Service agencies was troubling. Rather than leave the general impression that all Division of Youth Service agencies are inadequate, I want to emphasize that the opinion expressed above are those of a minority of counselors and community-based agency directors. My own experience with several Division of Youth Service group homes for delinquency and gang youth has been very positive. 

Despite all the troubles community-based services are having, the communities they serve are fortunate that so many of the people who work in them care about their clients and work very hard to help them help themselves. There are successes. We do not hear enough about them. And here are failures. We hear all too much about them.

This brings us to the end of what I learned about gangs and the response of various social institutions to them. The next section of Into the Abyss presents conclusions for each of the chapters up to this point. 


Additional Resources: Visit the site of the Safe Futures program (although the Safe Futures program is no longer on the website of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, it looked much like the current Safe Start Program) or learn about the extent of probation and parole in the United States. You can learn how Japan is handling the massive number of offenders on probation and parole.

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.