Street gangs are no longer just flourishing in the inner cities. Current statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice indicate that every state has violent gangs and that there has been a dramatic increase in gang activity in smaller cities, towns and rural areas. The Department of Justice estimates that there are about 25,000 youth gangs in the United States with over 775,000 teens and young adults as members.
Is your child at risk to participate in gangs? It is a far more likely scenario today than it was just a few years ago. Researchers suggest that teens join gangs for many different reasons: seeking excitement; looking for prestige, wanting protection, seeing it as a chance to make money, or finding a sense of belonging.
In many cases, kids affiliate with gangs because they do not have significant relationships at home. The gang becomes "family" for many of its members. Youth gang expert I.A. Spergel wrote in a report for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the US Department of Justice:
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.
Law enforcement officials who watch gangs carefully advise that there are some early warning signs that a child may be leaning to or have early involvement in a gang. But they also stress that parents have to watch carefully and be observant of real and noticeable changes in their child's behavior. Some of these early warning signs include:
- Experimenting with drugs.
- Dropping school grades, particularly if it is rather sudden
- Cutting classes regularly or just not going to school at all
- Avoiding family gatherings or share regular meals
- Changing friends, especially if the new friends don't hang around at your home
- Rebelling at school and home
- Poor family bonding
- Violating family curfew standards
- Having large sums of money or new expensive items of which you were unaware
If, after observing some or all of these changes in behavior and you suspect gang involvement, there are some important steps to take.
Talk to the child or teenager and discuss the consequences of being in a gang. Gang activity is a downward spiral and has major legal and long-term consequences. A criminal record can affect a youth's choices down the road for jobs, education and more. And gang involvement can put all members of a gang member's family at significant personal risk for violence and being victims of crime.
Talk to school officials and counselors. Many local school districts offer gang intervention programs and counseling. Identifying local educational resources can be an important step.
Contact your local law enforcement agency or juvenile authority. Many police and sheriff's departments and county or district attorneys have programs for youth involved in gangs.
Look for community youth programs. Groups like the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs and after-school programs, as well as athletic and sports programs, can often help youth find ways to avoid feelings of isolation upon which gangs prey.
Talk with your religious leaders. Churches will generally have youth programs that can provide a more positive bonding experience with other youth.
Take immediate action on graffiti. If you find graffiti on your property or in your neighborhood, report it right away to police authorities. Take photos and then clean it up as soon as possible. Removing graffiti as soon as it happens is a real key to minimizing the impacts of gang activity; remaining graffiti is a recruiting tool for gangs.
Most importantly, do not ignore the warning signs. The risks of gang involvement for you, your family and your neighborhood are just too great.
Get help and then take action.