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 4:
Abuse, Fear, and a Lack of Security

"There is one aspect of female gang life that does not seem to be changing - the gang as a refuge for young women who have been victimized at home." (Moore and Hagedorn, 2001, page)

Why Gangs Form

What Gangs Provide Why Youths Join
Gangs form due to abuse, fear, and a lack of security. Security. To escape abuse, reduce feelings of fear, and to feel secure.

Explanation in Brief: 
Gangs form because some children fear abuse and lack a sense of security. The forms of abuse to which they are exposed include neglect, emotional and psychological abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. The sources of abuse are many and include, but are not limited to, family members, strangers, peers, gang members, school personnel, and police. 

James Garbarino is a nationally-recognized expert whose research focuses upon the impact of family, community violence, and trauma on a child's development. He defines maltreatment of children as "acts of omission [neglect] or commission [emotional, psychological, physical, and sexual abuse] by a parent or guardian that are judged by a mixture of community values and professional expertise to be inappropriate and damaging." (Garbarino, 1997, pp. 8-9)

... children who are maltreated are much more likely than non-maltreated children to develop a chronic pattern of bad behavior and aggression. (ibid., 1999, p. 80)  

If you haven't seen the latest data on murder and other forms of maltreatment of children in the United States, here's a brief summary of the findings:

bulletAccording to Finkelhor and Ormrod (2001), "In 1999, about 1,800 juveniles (a rate of 3 per 100,000) were victims of homicide in the United States. This rate is substantially higher than that of any other developed country." (Finkelhor and Ormrod, 2001, p. 1) 

In addition, they found that "Most homicides of young children are committed by family members through beatings or suffocation. Although victims include approximately equal numbers of boys and girls, offenders include a disproportionate number of women. Homicides of young children may be seriously undercounted."
(ibid., p. 1)

bulletThe incidence rate of children victimized by maltreatment [in 1999] ... declined to 11.8 per 1,000 children, a decrease from the 1998 rate of 12.6 per 1,000. (Administration for Children and Families, 2001, page)

bulletThe United States Department of Health and Human Services estimates that child protective service agencies received approximately 2,974,000 referrals of possible maltreatment in 1999. Of the 60.4 percent of these reports that were investigated, states found that there were an estimated 826,000 children who were victims of abuse and/or neglect. (ibid., page)

bulletParents continue to be the main perpetrators of child maltreatment. Almost nine-tenths (87.3%) of all victims were maltreated by at least one parent. The most common pattern of maltreatment (44.7%) was a child victimized by a female parent acting alone. Female parents were identified as the perpetrators of neglect and physical abuse for the highest percentage of child victims. (ibid., page)

bulletAlmost three-fifths of all victims (58.4%) suffered neglect, while one-fifth (21.3%) suffered physical abuse; 11.3 percent were sexually abused. 1,000 child fatalities were caused by maltreatment. (ibid.., page)

bulletThe highest victimization rates were for the 0-3 age group (13.9 maltreatments per 1,000 children of this age in the population), and rates declined as age increased. (ibid., 2001, page)

bulletRates of many types of maltreatment were similar for male and female children, but the sexual abuse rate for female children (1.6 female children for every 1,000 female children in the population) was [four times] higher than the sexual abuse rate for male children (0.4 male children per 1,000). (ibid., 2001, page)

A country in which nearly 12 out of every 1,000 children are confirmed as maltreated has a problem, and we're not alone. Other cultures have similar difficulties, China among them. In a recent study conducted in Hong Kong researchers found, "When compared to U.S. families, Chinese families showed ... much higher rates of severe violence toward children (461 versus 110 per 1,000 children). Children aged 3-6 years were the most vulnerable victims, and female caregivers the most likely abusers in both U.S. and Chinese families." (So-Kum Tang, 1998)

Have you ever driven or walked through an inner-city neighborhood where gangs dominate? If you haven't, I'll guess it's because you were afraid to. If you have, then you know why some of the children living there are frightened.

Field Note: A Kansas City community-based treatment worker spoke of youths he knew who joined gangs as a means of protection against physically abusive fathers. He spoke of other children who join gangs as a means of getting help in protecting their mothers against their abusive fathers.  

Many gang members come from families in which they are neglected and where psychological, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse are found. Such abuse at a very early age has a particularly negative effect on a growing child. It leaves an indelible impression and often leads to the kind of anger and aggression we see in gang youth today. Does it mean every abused child will become a gang member? No. But these maltreated children will face challenges and will be more likely to suffer from low self-esteem, have trouble at school, and feel terrible about themselves and others.

A survey of thirty-one 12 to 17 year old female, minority, alternative school students found they

might turn to gangs for protection from neighborhood crime, abusive families, and other gangs. Family characteristics linked to gang involvement included a lack of parental warmth and family conflict. (Walker-Barnes and Mason, 2001)

Data in a recent edition of The Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics (1999) reveals 13% of male- and 10% of female teenagers interviewed estimate their friends had been "attacked by a gang or posse" in the last 12 months. (1999, p. 96, Table 2.5)

When some of these children walk out the front door of their homes they find violence on the street as well as in their schools and on school playgrounds. For a six, seven, or eight year old child it is a terrifying universe and one over which he or she has little or no control. How does a child cope with this situation?

I received an email in May of 2004 in which the writer exemplified his concern for his own safety and desire for security.

Mr. Carlie,

I am doing a paper about Hispanic street gangs for school and your website really helped. I am 15 and live in Detroit, Michigan. My high school is a host to about 12 different gangs though it is not really a serious problem. My school is on the North Side of Detroit and is more fortunate than some of the south Side or Soureno Schools. I joined one of the gangs at my school ... when my little brother was beaten up by another gang. For me, gang life consisted of a few scruffles and a broken leg, nothing serious. I decided to leave the gang when most of the rival gang (members) either dropped out of school or graduated. Their was also talk of an L.A. gang coming to take over some "action." I did not want to get involved with any L.A. gang so I left.


If there is a loving, caring family, it may provide the security needed. But if the family is the source of the fear, or if it is a dysfunctional, abusive, neglectful family, the child may be left to fend for him- or herself. Failing any other source of safety, a gang can provide for the child's need for security. At least there's safety in numbers and in the reputation of the gang.

We know some young females use gang members as a way of stopping abuse at home. Gangs may form as a result of young boys or girls feeling threatened by local thugs - sometimes gang members themselves - abusive parents, school teachers, police, and others. There's strength and security in numbers and plenty of anger and aggression to go around.

"Hey, school's a dangerous place. You gotta do what ya gotta do - fist, blade, or pop [gun]," a 15-year-old [female] gang member said. "To view these young women as victims is justifiable," ...  citing dysfunctional families, physical and sexual abuse since early childhood, cycles of poverty, substandard schools, and abuse by their own gangs.

Female gang members also feared violence and sexual abuse from members of their own gang ... A 16-year-old told ... of having to dance scantily clad on tables, make Playboy-type videos, perform oral sex in front of other gang members, and have sexual intercourse on demand. (Molidor, 1996)

Gangs may form to meet the basic human need for safety and security if safety and security are to be found nowhere else. There's no doubt in my mind that gangs can provide some of their members with a sense of security, although it may be conditional (one is protected as long as one follows the gang's rules or stays out of the way of exceptionally pathological gang members), or short-lived.

The security they provide may be a byproduct of the gang's reputation thus preempting an assault by rival gang members and other people. It may also be direct and physical as when one or more other gang members come to the aid of a fellow member whose security is being threatened. A gang member's security is enhanced by a gang if its members offer resources needed for a member's legal defense, provide weapons for self-defense, and alibis when they are needed to avoid prosecution. Gangs may also provide economic security in terms of offering opportunities to make money.  

Abuse, fear, and a lack of security alone are insufficient as an explanation for the formation of gangs. Economic deprivation may assist in their development.


Additional Resources: A wonderful site for learning more about all forms of abuse is managed by Focus Adolescent Services. Does Child Abuse Cause Crime? Do child abuse, domestic violence and youth violence overlap? What are the long-term consequences of child abuse and neglect?

For additional nationwide statistics and state statutes on child abuse and neglect you can visit the site of the Child Welfare Information Gateway. The United States is certainly not alone when it come to the issue of child abuse. You can learn about child abuse in Canada. The National Institute on Drug Abuse sheds some light on the relationship between child abuse and later substance abuse.

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.