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 7:
Parents of Gang Members

Field Note: A gang unit officer told me "The parents either don't know what their kids are up to, or think it's other parents' children who are the problem. Or they know what's going on and just don't say anything about it." A minister in the same community said "They'll say 'If there is a gang problem, it's not our kids. It's I-70 [the interstate] problem - they're all outsiders." 

I interviewed a woman who was about 40 years of age. She looked like she was in her mid-50s. She had one child, a boy who eventually became involved in gang activity. He was recently beaten by two other members of his gang because he defaulted on a drug-related loan to them. They beat him so badly that steel plates had to be implanted in his skull to keep it from collapsing.

She cried throughout the entire interview as she told of the way in which she was treated by her father when she was a child. It was a very sad, hour-long interview after which I understood why her son got involved in gangs. She had been beaten by her father and swore as a child that "If I ever have children, I will not hit them!"

Field Note: A gang unit officer said "They steal a car or shoot someone, run home, and their mother hides them. When we get there, she says 'He's not home right now.' What can we do when this goes on? Why shouldn't the gang members continue doing their thing when the courts release them immediately and their parents protect them in their wrong-doing?"

During the interview she said she believed her promise backfired when it came to matters surrounding her son. She never found a meaningful way to discipline him so, when he acted out, his behavior continued without restraint. He had become uncontrollable. He began associating with other aggressive children which, she felt, led to his gang involvement. In desperation, she now stands quietly on the sidelines crying and watching her son get in and out of trouble.

Field Note: One of the gang unit supervisors I interviewed felt "Parents have lost all control and they have lost hope."

Some of the parents I interviewed denied their children were "gang members." Instead, their children were perceived of as "acting out" or "just being kids" ... anything to deny their children were involved in gang activity. I think this is the result of some parents not wanting to admit to themselves that their parenting skills have failed and their child has become a serious problem.

Field Note: I spent the late afternoon making home visits with a probation and parole officer. One of her gang clients wasn't home but his mother was. The officer described the mother as being in denial. "Whenever I mention something about the way her son dresses - sagging pants, wearing colors - she changes the subject. She's a truck driver and hasn't been home while her son was growing up."

Field Note: A veteran probation and parole officer told me "Many parents are too young to be knowledgeable or effective parents."

Some children are having children. I remember reading an article in the mid-1980s in which the author stated that "Every day in America, forty teen-age girls give birth to their third child." I don't know what happened to that article or who wrote it, but that statement has never left my thoughts. What quality of parenting or quality of life can be expected in a family in which the mother is a 15, 16, or 17 year old? Maybe successful parenting at such an early age was possible 50 years ago, but today, with the need to finish school and obtain work, the odds of raising a child successfully at such an early age are low.  

Babies born in the U.S. to teenage mothers are at risk for long-term problems in many major areas of life, including school failure, poverty, and physical or mental illness. The teenage mothers themselves are also at risk for these problems. (American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 1977, page)

The girls who are having children while they are children are not, of course, doing this by themselves. The males who are responsible are often the same age and face the same set of problems.

The Rochester Youth Development Study's examination of teen fatherhood was designed to identify early risk factors for increasing the likelihood of becoming a teen father. The study tracked a sample of 615 urban males from 1988 through 1996. 

The study found a high rate of teen fatherhood: more than one-quarter of their sample (28 percent, or 175 teenagers) reported that they had become fathers before their 20th birthdays. The earliest reports of fatherhood occurred at age 15, when seven boys reported becoming fathers, with the rate increasing steadily until age 19. (Thornberry, et al., 2000, page)

Some of the parents I interviewed were gang members since they were children. Some of them wanted their children to carry on in the same tradition while others preferred their children stay away from gang involvement.

Interviews, discussions, and observations of 79 black gang members and 68 of their parents/guardians in Detroit during 1992-96 were used to examine the extent to which parents influence their children's decisions to join and stay in gangs, why many African-American children join gangs, and the structural and racial barriers they regularly encounter.

Most participants lived in apartments (77 percent) and houses (18 percent) that would be targets for condemnation in many of Detroit's surrounding suburbs. In addition, only 29 percent of the gang members lived in households where both parents were present. Parents and guardians had low incomes or were unemployed. 

The 72 male and 7 female gang members ranged from 13 to 17 years. About 40 percent had dropped out of school; 57 percent were in school. Two had completed high school. Fifty-three percent reported becoming involved with gangs through introductions by friends and peers.

Thirty-five percent said that they had no life chances outside the gang. 

All the gang members, parents, and guardians reported experiencing racism to varying degrees. Parents and guardians did not want their children to join gangs and often actively tried to discourage gang involvement, but they realized that their children's life chances outside the gangs and outside the inner city are limited. 

Findings indicated that any analysis of inner-city youth gangs must recognize the structural institutions, social conditions, and lack of opportunities that are part of the social reality for many inner-city residents and thus must address the class and racial discrimination that they experience. (Brown, 1998)

Brown interviewed African-American gang members and their parents or guardians. The desperation hinted at in Brown's research (1998) - the loss of hope, the feeling that their children "had no life chances outside the gang" - is devastating. It is reality for far too many families and their children.

Campbell (1992) studied 40 African-American women who were raising their children as single parents in a housing complex in Southern California. All lived in a Southern Los Angeles public housing project. One group consisted of 18 mothers with children who were in gangs. The other group consisted of 22 mothers of children who were not in gangs. He wanted to determine if there were differences in the family characteristics of children who had and had not joined a gang. 

All of the mothers of gang-affiliated children were single when the gang-affiliated children were born. (Campbell, 1992, pp. 54-55) The majority of the mothers were between 16 and 19 years of age when they gave birth. (ibid., 1992, p. 55) To a significant degree, family instability contributes to the commission of crime. (ibid., 1992, p. 56)

Through a review of literature, a link is shown between family structure and delinquent or gang behavior. There is a strong positive correlation between gang affiliation and single female-headed households. (ibid., 1992, p. 22)  Children who grow up in a single-parent household headed by the mother appear to be most at risk. (ibid., 1992, p. 33)

Although the factors that lead individuals to join gangs may vary, the backgrounds of these individuals are similar. The majority are minorities that are from poverty-stricken areas. They are primarily from low income or poverty households. Most are from broken homes or homes without any male role models. Many of the youths feel unwanted and unloved by their immediate families and are searching for a sense of belonging. (ibid., 1992, p. 33)

The study found that the families of gang members ... tended to be less involved with the church which, it is noted, is a very important part of the black community. 

Both groups agreed in attributing gang involvement mainly to peer pressure and the need to belong (ibid., 1992, p. 57) but the mothers of gang members were much more likely also to blame the inability to find jobs. (ibid., 1992, p. 58)

The study participants were asked to rate themselves on 11 parenting skills. The gang mothers appeared to have a lack of confidence in their parenting abilities. They rated themselves lower in their abilities to cook, to motivate their children and assist them with school work and to develop and maintain friendships. (ibid., 1992, pp. 1 and 52-53)

Because of the increase in the number of teenage unwed mothers, the number of [Black single female headed] households is growing. More than one million American teenagers each year become parents without the benefits of adequate income, parenting skills, or other supports necessary for the optimum functioning of a family unit. It is only natural that a disproportionate number of unstable family units emerge in these communities. (ibid., 1992, p. 56)

Campbell asked the mothers of gang members in his study why their children joined a gang. "Three of the top four items - need to belong, to feel protected, and insecurity - are strongly interrelated. These factors represent age-specific developmental needs of adolescents." (ibid., 1992, pp. 49-50)  Maslow's hierarchy is once again confirmed.

Earlier in this book the relationship between conditions in the community and gang formation were explored. Some of those conditions are reflected in Campbell's findings as parents defer to economic conditions in the inner-city as a leading cause of their child's gang involvement - using the gang as a means of deriving income.

Observations of and interviews with gang members in their homes suggested their participation in a gang may also have resulted from the fact that they were raised by an incompetent single parent - usually a female (sometimes the mother and sometimes an aunt or grandmother), or because there wasn't a positive adult male role model in the home. Instead, there was no male role model, the male role model was negative (i.e., abusive, a gang member, cold and uncaring), or there were a succession of males in the household which further angered, confused, or alienated the child.

Some of the parents I interviewed expressed a genuine, albeit hopeless, concern about their child's involvement in gang activity. They knew their child was suffering. Milbourne, in his research on 19 African-American, female-headed families with adolescent gang members, found that 

... parental concerns regarding safety, impact of gang involvement on children's values, and impact of gang involvement on children's futures increased as the child moved from "wannabe" gang status to full affiliation. (Milbourne, 1990)

George Knox, one of the few gang researchers who has dealt with the subject of gang member parents, tells us "When the family provides for all the basic human needs of American youths, then we can safely say that the influence on youthful behavior from other sources such as the community will be negligible. But when the family does not provide for all of the needs of its children ... this weight of responsibility will have to be carried elsewhere to produce good citizenship, and if this burden of citizenship training is not taken up, then what we can look forward to is a greater probability of gang problems." (Knox, 1994, pp. 392-393)

One of the needs to which Knox alludes, addressed earlier as part of Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs," is for self-esteem. He refers to self-esteem using such terms as self-respect, autonomy, achievement, and status recognition. Parents who fail to create situations in which their children can develop positive feelings about themselves are hurting their children. According to Maslow, if all humans strive for self-actualization, they must first have self-esteem in order to achieve it.

If self-esteem is not developed in the family, perhaps it can be developed in the school. If not in the school, then perhaps in faith institutions. If not in faith institutions, perhaps it can be developed in the neighborhood as good neighbors reward area children for their good deeds. If none of that happens, from what source will a child derive self-esteem? If nothing else, a gang can offer it.

In Closing

I'd like to close this section of the book with a quote from Knox's monumental Introduction to Gangs (1994).

In the best of all worlds, the family as an agency of socialization and informal social control would be the best "first line of defense" against the gang problem. But dysfunctional families do exist, even more families experience enormous economic stress or feel the effects of residential segregation and failing relationships to other mainstream social institutions ... and these families might theoretically be expected to be less effective in instilling in their youths an internal "buffer" against joining a gang. (Knox, 1994, p. 414)

There is a need for more hard and quantifiable data on gangs in relationship to the family and the many factors involved with what we regard as "family." (Ibid., p. 415)

The parents of gang members do not exist in a void. They are surrounded by a neighborhood and community - albeit one that may or may not be in very good condition. The next section of Into the Abyss offers observations on the community and gangs.


Additional Resources: You can learn much more about the problem of teen pregnancy state-by-state in the USA by exploring this article from the Guttmacher Institute (also). We're not the only nation with a teen pregnancy problem - England - France, among others.

Adolescent Pregnancy and Parenthood offers an intelligent look at this issue.

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.