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

Topic 2:
Absence of a Family and its Unconditional Love, 
Positive Role Models, and Proper Discipline

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. (Lees, et al, 1994)

[After completing a ten-year study of gangs in New York, Boston, and Los Angeles, Jankowski wrote] I found that there were as many gang members from homes where the nuclear family was intact as there were from families where the father was absent." (Jankowski, 1991, p. 39)

Why Gangs Form

What Gangs Provide Why Youths Join
Gangs form due to the absence of a family and its unconditional love, positive adult role models, and proper discipline. A surrogate family. The need for a family, unconditional love, positive adult role models, and proper discipline.

Explanation in Brief: 
Gangs form as a substitute for having no family or for having a dysfunctional family which failed to provide unconditional love, positive adult role models, and proper discipline (not too lenient and not excessive).

The National Science Foundation recently summarized the current state of affairs regarding families in the United States. Their report portrays the family as being in the midst of a struggle to survive the impact of social and economic changes.

There is widespread agreement that the well-being of American society depends on the health of America's families. Consensus also exists that the social and economic changes of the last generation or more have made it increasingly difficult for families to raise the next generation successfully. 

The list of changes is familiar - real incomes have declined since the early 1970s and have become more polarized, public schools are less able to meet the challenges of preparing a well-educated citizenry, married women have joined the work force in large numbers, divorce rates have increased dramatically, and a rising share of American children are being raised in single-parent households. 

These changes have posed challenges particularly for poor families, and also for racial and ethnic minorities. However, no segment of our society is immune to the effects of these changes, which have produced a growing sense of crisis even among the well-to-do. (National Science Foundation, 2001)

The Family as Socializing Agent

There are several factors that contribute to the formation of youth gangs: lack of parental guidance, lack of love and respect from the family, and deterioration of the family unit. It is these factors that drive the youth elsewhere to satisfy their needs to be accepted and to belong. (Campbell, 1992, p. 58)

"The family is the most important agent of socialization in the United States, especially for children." (Schaefer, 2001, p. 101)  The socialization process may be briefly defined as the way in which a culture's values are transmitted from one generation to the next. If a culture values human life, that value will be transmitted from parent to child through the process of socialization. If respect for another person's property is valued, that value will also be passed along. If adherence to society's laws are valued, the child will probably become be a law abiding adult because that value was passed along. A myriad of values are transmitted in this fashion if there are family members or guardians present early in a child's life who believe in those values and who are willing to spend the time to pass them on.

Other individuals, groups, and social institutions participate in the socialization of a culture's youth such as schools, peer groups, mass media, and faith institutions. But the family is the first and primary socializing agent. Terence P. Thornberry (1998), in an excellent summary of family-related risk factors for gang membership, wrote:

In general, poor family management strategies increase the risk for gang membership by adolescents (Le Blanc and Lanctot, in press; Moore, 1991; Vigil, 1988). More specifically, low family involvement (Friedman, Mann, and Friedman, 1975; Le Blanc and Lanctot, in press), inappropriate parental discipline (Winfree et al., 1994), low parental control or monitoring (Bowker and Klein, 1983; Campbell 1990; Le Blanc and Lanctot, in press, Moore, 1991), poor affective relationships between parent and child (Campbell, 1990; Moore, 1991), and parental conflict (Le Blanc and Lanctot, in press) put youths at risk for becoming gang members. These family-based risk factors are quite consistent with those generally observed as increasing risk for involvement in delinquency (Hawkins, Catalano, and Miller, 1992; Loeber and Stouthamer-Loeber, 1986).

Gangs take root in schools for many reasons, but the primary attraction of gangs is their ability to respond to student needs that are not otherwise being met; they often provide youth with a sense of family and acceptance otherwise lacking in their lives. (Burnett and Walz, 1994)

If the family is absent, if there is a dysfunctional family, or when there are competing value systems being presented to a child, the transmission of mainstream cultural values may be endangered. The values may not be transmitted or those which are may run contrary to the values of the mainstream culture. 

Family disorganization, such as single-parent families or conflict between parents, does not as such predict gang membership. A variety of other variables must accompany a weak family structure to produce a gang problem youth, including [failure to complete developmental stages] and the availability of a peer group that does not fully support family and school. (Spergel et al., 1994, p. 4)

In their study of juvenile females, Fejes-Mendoza, et al, found

The family relationships of juvenile female offenders were characterized by mother-daughter friction, criminal role modeling of siblings, and multiple sources of abuse. Although familial abuse and modeling of criminal activity is typical in the history of most delinquents, what was most striking in profiling family dynamics of juvenile females studied was the stormy relationships with adult females, such as mothers and teachers. (Fejes-Mendoza, et al., 1995, p. 318)

Many gang youths come from dysfunctional families. Among the dysfunctional traits are child abuse, spouse abuse, substance abuse and addiction, parental gang membership, the absence of one or both parents, internal family strife, and poorly blended families (a family made up of two adults, each with children from relationships other than the current one). If a child is raised in a family in which the parents are themselves gang members, there is little hope the child will escape being socialized into a gang and adopt the values of its members.

Family problems and parenting difficulties can increase the risk of kids joining gangs. Many kids who join gangs come from middle-class families with two biological parents at home. However, many of these youth come from homes that are deeply troubled. They seek from the gang what they are not getting (or will not accept) from their families. 

They are looking for acceptance, love, companionship, leadership, encouragement, recognition, respect, role models, rules, security, self-esteem, structure and a sense of belonging. When children's emotional needs are met in families, the results are positive; otherwise they may look to gangs, and the outcome is usually negative. (Lingren, 1996a)ingren

Unconditional love

Unconditional love is love that endures through hardship, disapproval, and time. It is not contingent upon some condition or requirement. Those who experience it are fortunate and many of them possess an internal strength and acceptance of self which prepares them for life as contributing members of society.

Fatherlessness in America is at historically high levels. Four out of 10 children - an estimated 24 million - do not have their fathers present in their homes. Research shows that children from father-absent homes are more likely to do poorly in school or drop out; suffer from lower levels of self-esteem; get involved with drugs, alcohol and gangs; become teen parents; get into trouble with the law; or become incarcerated.  (U.S. Department of Education, 2001)

Those who seldom or never experience unconditional love seem bound to seek it out or face a life of self-doubt. A visit to the Psychology or Self-Development section of an American book store should provide sufficient evidence of the seemingly overwhelming desire of people to be loved unconditionally, accepted, and to feel as though they are wanted.

Field Note: I observed a court case in which a sixteen-year-old male was taken to juvenile court on a complaint from his mother. He had no prior record. She was angry with him for persistently refusing to clean up after himself in the house. The last time he discarded an empty container of soda in the wrong place was the straw that broke the camel's back. 

She filed a complaint with juvenile court that he was "incorrigible," an offense which may be committed only by juveniles and which asserts the alleged culprit was incapable of being corrected or reformed.

The judge asked the mother "What do you want us to do?" to which she yelled "I don't give a shit! Do what ever you want. He doesn't listen to me anymore!" The judge found the boy to be delinquent and sent him to hard labor at the state boy's facility until he reached the age of majority. In his case, that was a one year sentence.

My own experience with gang members suggests few came from a loving environment - certainly not one which offered unconditional love. Even gangs may be dysfunctional in this regard. Their abuse of some of their own members and continual tests of loyalty do not resemble unconditional love.

According to Dr. Mary Appenzeller, a counselor at the Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy and Diagnostic Evaluation Center in Bethesda, Maryland, 

When a girl joins a gang, "her role models are other gang members, and not responsible adults," and although these girls may have poor adult role models at home, the gang members they may idolize are equally poor role models. Often they are led down a path of violence, drug abuse, and casual sex, ending up pregnant or in court before they have graduated from high school. (Winder, 1998)

Positive Adult Role Models

Most youths who become gangsters have had no positive adult role models in their lives. In too many cases, their adult role models are frequently in and out of prison. (Yablonsky, 1997, p. 7) 

Field Note: A federal prison official who has worked for nearly 15 years in some of America's largest federal prisons told me "There are problems in African-American culture that need to be addressed, and men not wanting to be fathers is one of them. What do you think the impact of that is on their children? And on the women who bear their children? They're not around to offer financial support, let alone the other kinds of support a man should provide his wife and child.

"The use of birth control is either unknown or they're simply not willing to use it and there doesn't seem to be much family planning. The women ... mothers ...  have to work because their husbands aren't around. So they have latchkey kids. Who's going to take care of them - their grandmothers? 

"The grandmothers are getting stretched to the limit and, today, the grandmothers were teen moms themselves and don't know what to do and they're sick of doing what they don't know how to do. Gangs end up being the parents or family for these kids."

From 50 to 85 percent of gang members come either from a single-parent home, or one in which no parent resides. If the parent is not available to provide structure, supervision, support, and caring during this crucial time of adolescent development, teens may turn to gang participation to fulfill their needs. (Lingren, 1996a)

As has been noted in much of the literature on gangs, many of their members come from single parent homes in which the mother is the only parent present. As we have learned, in families where the father is absent there may be no positive adult male role model for a young male child to emulate.

'The gang is a product of the broken home' was a popular saying among those who worked with gangs in the 1950's. Research during and after this period appeared to grant considerable support to this belief, although the language was altered somewhat to fit the terminology of the times. The research suggested a causal link between youth gangs and males reared in fatherless households. 

The argument, in brief, was that the absence of a stable male role model in many low-income households created identity problems for males and that the gangs, with their emphasis on tough masculinity, male bonding, and macho values, in essence took the place of fathers in providing a model of male identity for boys raised primarily by women. Gang membership played a vital role in learning and practicing the characteristics and attitudes of male adulthood.

Insofar as the proposed link between gangs and fatherless families is valid, one would expect that communities with gangs would have more female-headed households than other communities and that an increase in the number of female-headed households would lead to an increase in the number of gangs. Available data support both assumptions.

Between 1970 and 1995, the population of gang cities in the United States increased from 21 percent to 50 percent of the city population. Statistics for the periods from 1970 through 1993 and 1970 through 1990 show that the number of households with children under 18 living with 'mother only' increased from 11 percent to 23 percent for the general population and from 30 percent to 54 percent for African Americans.  

A substantial majority of the African American households were located in the inner-city areas where gangs traditionally have been found. While the increase in the number of children raised in female-headed households is smaller than the increase in gang-city populations, both the direction and general magnitude of the changes are similar. The increase in female-headed households would thus appear to be related to the increase in gangs. (Miller, 2001, p. 45 or page, italics added for empahsis)

Field Note: A British intelligence specialist told me "The United Kingdom doesn't have a gang problem like the problem in the United States." I asked him to describe for me his perception of the gang situation in the United States.

"I see the gang members coming from dysfunctional homes," he said, "with only one parent who is poor and probably on welfare. The area in which this family lives is in a culture of street violence. I think youths in the USA join gangs as a substitute for the lack of a family in their own life. At least that's the way I think it is with the core gang members."

Surprisingly, the next thing he said was "In 20 years time we'll have exactly what you have."

A gang can be a functional alternative to having a family. It may provide its members with a sense of belonging, affection, mutual support, and association. Among the differences between a family and gang, however, are the gang's possible initiation requirements, the expectation that its members will violate the law and conceal the criminality of fellow members, conditional love/caring, and the need to present a certain bravado which precludes being vulnerable and opening one self up for examination and guidance. Being threatened with punishment or murder for leaving the gang also differentiates gangs from a family.

Youths often feel that gangs can protect them and keep them safe within the neighborhood, even when lacking parental support for the decision. When children are not monitored or supported by their parents (especially in single-parent households), gang membership becomes more attractive to youth. Joining a gang, therefore, seems to be one mechanism for an adolescent to find both family fulfillment and protection. (Reiboldt, 2001)

"Gangsters often claim that the gang is organized for protection and a feeling of having a family. This is often a hope and a myth rather than a reality." (Yablonsky, 1997, p. 20) That some youths who join gangs hope to find a surrogate family is understandable but, depending upon their level of desperation, this need may blind them to what the gang is actually about and the consequences of joining which may follow.  

In some cases the gang is merely looking for additional members in order to boost its reputation as the biggest and most powerful in the neighborhood. They sometimes have little regard for the welfare of their members. Some gangs seek new members with the expectation that the new members will carry out the least desirable or most dangerous chores of the gang (i.e., transporting illegal drugs, killing people, conducting drive-by-shootings, holding the weapons).

Field Note: I asked a long-time West Coast gang unit member why he thought some kids join gangs. He replied  "Effectively, none of them have parents and, if they do, the parents have poor parenting skills. Their kids don't take responsibility for their actions. And their parents and the criminal justice system don't hold them responsible for their behavior."


Youths with low self-control levels reported that they were more deeply involved in gangs than youths with high self-control, as were youth who did not receive close parental monitoring. (Lynskey, et al, 2000)

Field Note: The juvenile officer told me "Gangs are the result of poor parental supervision and a lack of discipline."

When used appropriately, discipline reinforces compliance with family expectations. When not used, or used inappropriately, it results in neglect or abuse of a child. Excessive discipline (to the point of abuse), inconsistent discipline (sometimes the result of the discipliner's substance abuse, incompetence, or absence from the home), or lack of discipline (possibly neglect, the most common form of child abuse) encourage the onset of misbehaving and set into motion a cycle of abuse that may drive a child from the family home. It drives some children to form gangs and others to join them.

Field Note: I was wondering why the probation/parole officer was interested in working with gang members. I asked her about this and she said "I love kids and I saw what was happening to them [in the gangs]. I read their files and about the terrible things they have done. Then they come into my office and I realize they are just people, just kids. They're usually beaten at home, so they act out in school. Then they're thrown out of school and get involved in bad things. These kids need structure in their life - discipline. They seek it out and, all too often, find it in a gang."   

What does it drive a child to? Will this child gravitate to other children experiencing the same thing in their homes? Will the misbehavior, played out at school, result in a stigmatizing of the child as a trouble maker and cause him or her to be placed with other such children? Will they form a group, act out, and become a gang?  All of these things can and do happen, many of them as a result of an unhealthy family setting.

Field Note: As to why youths may join a gang, a senior patrol officer said "Its for the money because many of these kids have no family or its a dysfunctional family." He told me some of the parents he is dealing with are "in their twenties - children having children. I don't think some of these families love their children, so the children might join a gang where they think they'll get the attention and affection they need - that we all need. Some of the parents are crack heads themselves."

In Closing

By way of summarizing, I want to share with you what researchers found regarding the relationship between family influences and delinquency in New South Wales, Australia. Their findings may not predict gang formation and gang joining, but they do establish several reasons for such behavior. Their findings also suggest we are not alone in our concerns in the United States.

The parenting factors known to be related to delinquency can be usefully grouped into four categories. 


In the first category are factors associated with parental neglect (e.g. large family size, poor parental supervision, inadequate parent-child interaction). 


In the second category are factors associated with parental conflict and discipline (e.g. abuse or nagging, harsh, erratic or inconsistent discipline).


In the third are factors associated with deviant (parental) behaviours and attitudes (e.g. parental criminality, parental violence or tolerance of violence). 


In the fourth are those associated with family disruption (e.g. chronic spousal conflict or marriage break-up). (Loeber and Stouthamer-Loeber, 1986)

A Note about Change

The structure of the American family has undergone significant change over the past several decades. Where once most children were raised in a family with a mother and father who maintained their marriage throughout the child's life up to at least young adulthood, today fewer children are experiencing such stability.


Almost 50 percent of all children are expected to experience the divorce of their parents and to spend about five years in a single-parent household. 


Of young adolescents in stepfamilies, 28 percent will experience the end of that family within five years due to divorce. 


While studies indicate that adolescents experiencing parental divorce have lower well-being than those not experiencing the divorce of their parents, the well-being of adolescents who experience multiple parental divorces is most compromised (Lingren, 1996b).

This Topic opened with a quote from Jankowski in which he stated that he found as many gang members he studied came from intact homes as from broken homes. What I found was that, regardless of whether a gang member's home was intact or not, they were more likely to be defined as unhealthy than healthy. But the lack of a healthy family setting alone is insufficient as an explanation for the formation of gangs. Feelings of powerlessness may also contribute to their development.


Additional Resources: You can learn more about family disruption and delinquency and about  family environment as a predictor of adolescent delinquency. The Texas Youth Commission offers useful insights and suggestions for policy solutions pertaining to the relationship between family life, delinquency, and crime.

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.