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For more than a century gangs have been a significant problem in the United States. Since the early 1900s, the gang subculture has continued to manifest its way into society. The United States has seen a substantial increase in the number of gang members since 1996. In 1996, gang membership was estimated at 846,000 (Egley, Howell, & Major, July 2006). In 2008, there were approximately 1 million gang members (National Drug, 2009). Gangs are a national problem and more specifically a community concern. In 2002, "approximately 85 percent of all gang members" resided in large cities and suburban counties (Egley, Howell, & Major, July 2006, p. v).
As the number of gangs and gang membership increased, the rate of criminal activity, drug trade and violence also increased. Gangs are involved in drug use and sales as well as other illegal criminal activities. According to the National Gang Threat Assessment (2006), gangs are the primary source for the distribution of illegal drugs throughout the United States. Between 1960 and 1991 the rate of violent crime increased by 500 percent (McCorkel & Miethe, 2002). According to Egley (2006), "Gang-related homicides have remained a serious problem, particularly in the gang-problem cities with the largest populations (p. v).
The age range of gang members has expanded suggesting that members are staying in a gang longer (Spergel et al., 1994). According to data from the National Youth Gang Survey (Egley, 2002), 50 percent of gang members were under the age of 18; 50 percent were adults 18 years and older; 94 percent were males and 6 percent were females. The racial make-up of gangs in the National Youth Gang Survey were Forty-seven percent Hispanics, 31 percent African American, 13 percent White, and 7 percent Asian (Egley, 2002). According to Spergel (1994), "gang members remain in gangs longer to pursue economic gain through increasingly serious criminal acts"
While gangs continue to exist throughout the United States, it is an increasing problem in the state of California. It is estimated that there are 1,300 gangs and 150,000 gang members throughout Los Angeles County and 400 gangs and 39,000 gang members residing in the City of Los Angeles (Bureau of Justice, 2001).
Gangs have a powerful and devastating effect on the community due to violence and drugs. The exposure of violence to a child often has a lifetime effect. Risk factors that contribute to a youth joining a gang come from many sources. As the number of risk factors increase in a child's life the likelihood of joining a gang also increases (Hill, Howell, & Battin-Pearson, 1999). Risk factors include the individual, family, community, peers and poverty.
From the individual perspective, risk factors include exposure to violence, substance abuse, child abuse, poor academic performance (Hill et al., 1999). Academic failure is noted as being one of the predictors for gang involvement (Hill et al., 1999). A study of middle school students demonstrated how negative school experiences correlated to gang involvement (Dishion, Nelson, & Yasui, 2005). Those students who adapted well to school and were succeeding academically steered away from the students who were failing. As results, the failing students formed an alliance and developed deviant behaviors which led to joining a gang (Dishion et al., 2005).
Family dynamics is of major importance in the development of delinquent behavior. Individuals who experience ongoing or frequent domestic violence between their parents or guardians, parental substance abuse and negative family interactions with the police are more likely to join a gang (Hill et al., 1999). Families who have generational gang membership leave little room for their children not to engage in the gang lifestyle. Martin Jankowski (1991) agreed that the family structure and breakdown is a key factor in why youth choose to join a gang and that the family is the strongest influence in directing a child's life and choices. Individuals who have peers who engage in delinquent behavior and who view this type of antisocial behavior as acceptable are more like to engage in delinquent behaviors (Hill et al., 1999).
Equally important are the community risk factors. Communities where there is easy access to drugs, low attachment to the neighborhood, transient population, at odds with the police and favor antisocial behavior pose a great risk to the youth (Hill et al., 1999). A longitudinal study of 808 youth found that the highest community risk factors occur when marijuana is available and there is a significant number of delinquent youth (Hill et al., 1999).
Socioeconomic characteristics also factor into gang affiliation. A family's low socioeconomic status does not guarantee that the child will end up in a gang. However, it is another key factor that increases likelihood of a child joining a gang. There is a stigma attached to asking for assistance and many families attempt to make do with their low income. Pride gets in the way. Many of the poor seek other means to survive. The youth want what others have and will find alternative ways of obtaining what they want. Membership in a gang provides them with an opportunity to improve their finances. The choice is often made without realizing the severity consequences. This often means participating in illegal and criminal activities which will provide the opportunity to make money. Since they do not have to ask for money, they do not sacrifice their pride (Barden, 1990).
Gang infested communities, child abuse and neglect, poor neighborhood attachment, drugs and economics all play a role in fostering a delinquent youth. The importance of intervention and prevention is critical to the survival of the child, family, as well as the community.
Purpose of the Program
The purpose of this program is to assess children and families entering the child welfare system for gang involvement and/or the potential gang involvement and to provide prevention and intervention services. DCFS also has a specialized unit, the Multi-Agency Response Team that works closely with law enforcement agencies during their gang and narcotics investigations. The Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) has implemented a policy, Point of Engagement, which is an up-front assessment of caretakers (parents/guardian) where there is a risk due to mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence. However, there is no current assessment in place for gang involved families or youths. The objective of this program is to provide an up-front gang assessment to identify at-risk youth as well as gang-involved families to decrease gang membership by providing services and referring to community based organizations that specialized in gang prevention and intervention programs.
The goal of the program is to deter youth away from gangs, strengthen families, prevent generational involvement with the child welfare system and gangs, provide the family with community based services and secure funding. This program will be designed to give the youth and families of poor communities the opportunity to improve their lives.