“We cannot solve today’s problems with the same level of thinking we used when we created them”
I suppose by now the above quote by Albert Einstein is well known, and definitely still relevant, especially when it comes to re-thinking how to approach preventing children from joining gangs. Today it is more popularly called thought-leadership. In their latest effort to provide this type of leadership to the ongoing and growing gang problem across the country, the newest joint NIJ-CDC publication, Changing Course:
“exemplifies the nexus of public safety and public health. In the book’s conclusion, the two federal research agencies extend an invitation to policymakers and practitioners to engage in a new way of thinking (emphasis added) about the intersection of public health and public safety and leveraging resources. Indeed, the need to think more broadly about gang-joining is one of the reasons CDC and NIJ brought together diverse perspectives — from public health and law enforcement, and from researchers and practitioners.”
In my analysis of some of the comments by the various authors I was happy to see the emphasis on parents and the important role of the family and prevention. However, there were also some of the same answers we’ve seen before to which I offer feedback in an attempt to add to a new way of thinking.
The following does not cover the entire book, but just the main topics that the book covered.
1. The Role of Public Health
“Although the public health model is ideal for developing programs to help prevent kids from joining gangs, it does not come without challenges. One is that, in many respects, the idea of “prevention” is not understood or highly valued by our society. Community leaders are strongly invested in strategies that focus on holding perpetrators accountable and that supposedly yield immediate results, as described by Dr. Haegerich and her colleagues. Preventing gang violence through reductions in gang membership will require a long-term investment in research, program development and evaluation.”
- I agree that the idea of prevention is not “understood or highly valued”, but why? Why is it not understood, and why do we continue to think that more study is needed? These issues are not that difficult to understand. I think at this point there is pretty broad consensus that in order to prevent children from becoming gang members it starts in the home with the parents. For example, here is a testimony from a fourteen-year-old girl gang member. She seems to understand the issue very clearly and provides answers to the three important questions communities would like answers to:
- What is a gang?
- Why do kids join gangs?
- What is the best method for preventing kids from joining a gang?
(The testimony is unedited and copied exactly as she wrote it)
“EVERYONE WANTS TO KNOW WHY.WHY DID YOU JOIN? YOU HAVE A FAMILY WHO LOVES AND CARES FOR YOU, WHY MIJA WHY? I JOINED BECAUSE WHEN I WAS A LIL GURL ALOT SHYT HAPPENED TO ME THAT NOBODY KNOWS ABOUT AND I HAVE KEPT INSIDE OF ME ALL THYZ TYME. NOWBODY LISTENED TO ME AND WHEN THEY DID, THEY SAID I WAS LYING. DRUG ADDICT DAD AND WORK ALCOHOLIC MOM, NO BROTHERS, NO SISTERS, A STEP DAD THAT ONLY WANTS TO TOUCH ME. AND A BABYSITER WHOSE SON DID TOUCH ME.MY MOM ALWAYS RIPPING ME OUT OF FAMILIES THAT I THOUGHT WERE MINE, IT WAS ALL LIES.
LIVING IN THA GHETTO WONDERING WHY? CAN YOU TELL ME WHY? CAN YOU TELL ME WHY I WAS BORN IN THIS LIFE OF SEX DRUGS AND ALCOHOL, BACK STABBING OF MY SO CALLED REAL FAMILY? I WAS JUST A LIL GURL DANM. THOSE MEMORIES ARE WITH ME FOREVER I’M SCARED TO LIVE LIFE I’M SCARED TO TRUST N-E BODY, I’M SCARED.
SO WHY DID I JOIN? I JOINED BECAUSE I NEEDED SUMONE AND THEY WERE THE ONLY ONES THERE.I NEEDED SUMONE TO MAKE ME FEEL WANTED AND I NEEDED SUMONE TO CARE. THAT’S WHY.”
Thus, from this young girl we learn what we need to know:
- A Gang is a replacement for the family.
- Kids join Gangs because they can’t trust their family to be loyal to them.
- The best method for preventing kids from joining Gangs is to help parents be better parents.
Is it really more difficult than that? I don’t think so. With all due respect to research and study, more data has not provided more solutions and I continue to be at a loss to understand why we keep studying the problem? From my review and study of the studies and research done over the past few decades, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of different conclusions. As a matter of fact, there are a lot of the same conclusions, conclusions that call for more studies, and in at least one case, an “inconclusive conclusion.” Moreover, we have accepted the fact that gangs are a result of larger social issues that spawn gangs, and therefore we should no longer approach gangs as a problem to be solved, but rather as a fact of life that we have to learn to live with, given the fact that the gang spawning issues of poverty, drugs, racism and broken families are not going away anytime soon. However, learning to live with the facts doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to improve the situation whenever and however we can. This then begs the question: where, when and how should we be focused? The testimony above provides us with some answers, but as you can see by the excerpt below from the book, the “experts” continue to miss the point.
“With some notable exceptions,” they say, ‘state and local health departments have been reluctant to tackle the issue of violence prevention, much less gang violence prevention or gang-joining prevention.’ This may be due to a variety of factors, such as lack of funding support.”
- I don’t know what factors they’re referring to as to why the reluctance to deal with youth violence or gang-joining prevention, but one of the factors I see is that “they” continue to put their focus on the rebellious and violent behavior of the youth, and not on the dysfunctional (and sometimes violent) behavior of the parents, which gets at the root of the reason why kids join gangs in the first place.
“Haegerich and her co-authors call for fundamental operational changes in agencies and systems — as well as coordination of funding streams — to facilitate collaboration across sectors and generate sufficient resources to monitor gang membership and to implement and evaluate prevention strategies.”
- The coordinating of funding streams definitely needs to be redirected with a new priority for developing better parents. Most communities focus their policies and programs only on youth-focused programs as if they’re not part of a family system that has the greatest influence on their early development. I question the use of more resources to monitor gang membership and evaluate prevention strategies. What’s to monitor and what will we learn that we don’t already know? Most studies I’ve read tell us much of the same things over and over again about gangs and then call for more research and evaluation. “Well”, you might say, “we need to evaluate so we can know what works and what doesn’t work. We need more evidenced-based programs.” If we’re being honest, there hasn’t been a lot of evidence about the effectiveness of evidenced-based programs. I recall just last year the almost unbelievable headline story about the Government’s study of the Pentagon’s study of their studies:
“The headline, although it sounds like a joke, is completely, 100 percent serious. The government issued a study to study a study done on government studies. We’ll give you a second to figure that one out.
“The Pentagon was inundated with so many studies in 2010 that it commissioned a study to determine how much it cost to produce all those studies,” Alyssa Newcomb writes for ABC News.
But now the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has finished a study of the Pentagon’s study of studies and found it to be “lacking.”
- I’m willing to wager that if a similar study were conducted on all the gang studies and evidenced-based program studies, we’d come to a similar conclusion.
2. The Role of Law Enforcement
“Scott Decker writes in Changing Course that to prevent kids from joining gangs, we must move beyond a “hook’em and book’em” mentality. Police, he says, must enhance their traditional role as crime fighters by collaborating—with public health, school, community, and other public-and private sector partners— on primary, front-end prevention strategies. Dr.Decker argues that the mandate for police to play a key role in gang prevention is clear. “The police have a vital role in preventing youth from joining gangs in the first place,” he says. “In fact, they have a true mandate with respect to efforts to prevent gang-joining: It is, quite simply, a part of their job to serve and protect.”
- I know Mr. Decker has been at this for a long time, but I have to respectfully disagree here. It is not the role of law enforcement to prevent kids from joining gangs. That’s’ the same as saying that it takes a village to raise a child. No, it does not. What it takes to raise a child and prevent them from joining gangs are good parents. Yes, we want and appreciate community help, but not community control. Parents need to step-up and take control and use their authority to raise their children to be respectful, contributing, law abiding citizens. That is their responsibility and not the responsibility of the police, school, church or community at large. Of course when parents don’t fulfill their role, then they abdicate their authority and the community steps in—in a variety of ways. Again, that is where the root of the issue lies. The role of law enforcement is to enforce the law, serve and protect—not raise law-abiding children. Police programs have made, and continue to make great contributions in the gang prevention/intervention arena. But to add another “mandate” to their already full plate is unrealistic, unnecessary and frankly unfair.
3. The Role of Child Development
“The promise of prevention is that most youth — even those most at risk, living in the most distressed urban communities — do not join a gang. The question, therefore, is: Why do some? Every decision we make is influenced_ by contexts that develop over time, and joining a gang is no different, says Nancy G. Guerra. “A 13-year-old does not wake up one day and decide out of the blue to join a gang,” Dr. Guerra and her colleagues, Carly B. Dierkhising and Pedro R. Payne, write in Changing Course. ‘The decision is a consequence of a particular life environment, behavior and way of thinking that leads a child to adopt the gang lifestyle later on.’ Their chapter delves into the individual and family factors in early childhood (ages 0–5) and during the elementary school years (ages 6–12) that increase the risk for gang-joining. ‘Gang intervention strategies often focus on adolescents,’ Guerra and her co-authors write, ‘but to help prevent youth from joining a gang, it is important that practitioners and policymakers address the developmental needs of youth from birth (or even prenatally) to age 12.’”
- Now we’re getting somewhere! No need to comment, they say it all. Read on:
“Joining a gang should be understood as part of a life course that begins when a child is born (or before). Important risk factors for children ages 0-5 include hyper-vigilance to threat, cognitive impairments, insecure attachment to a caregiver and early aggressive behavior For 6- to 12-year-olds, important risk factors include poor school performance and parental monitoring, deficits in social information-processing skills, antisocial beliefs, and negative relationships with peers, including being rejected and victimized by peers Because the age of 12 (which roughly corresponds with the transition from elementary to middle school) can be a crucial turning point where lifestyle decisions are made, it is very important to begin prevention early in life…Very early prevention is possible…Practitioners, policymakers and prevention scientists need to coordinate efforts for scaling up and disseminating evidence-based, family-focused programs, the authors write. Although the path toward gang involvement is complicated — with, as Gorman-Smith and her colleagues note, “multiple determinants and no easy answers for prevention” — strengthening the family can help protect a child who is at risk of joining a gang.”
3. The Role of Communities
“Emphasizing the need for comprehensive approaches that enhance “core activities” such as tutoring, mentoring, life-skills training, case management, parental involvement, connection with schools, supervised recreational activities and community mobilization, Leap outlines key strategies, including:
• Avoid reinventing the wheel by building on programs that already exist.
• Develop strategic plans.
• Identify real and imagined boundaries.
• Make community participation a priority and maximize partnerships.
• Use training and technical assistance to expand organizational capacity.
• Ensure sustainability.
- The author of this section of the book has hit the nail on the head in regards to the role of the community.
- This is what I call “Community Farming.” In other words, everybody “on the farm” has a role to play. The key is to reach out, recruit and provide training for as many community members and agencies as possible willing to learn and participate. Not everybody can do everything, but everybody can do something according to his or her own resources and abilities. But it won’t happen with out leadership. Wherever we see leadership from the top (Mayor, etc.) or from the grassroots, there is effectiveness and results that both prevent kids from gang-joining, as well as, assisting gang members to leave the gang.
4. The Role of Race & Ethnicity
“Adrienne Freng and Terrance J. Taylor look at the complex role that race and ethnicity can play in gang membership, concluding that, although more research is needed, common underlying risk factors — such as poverty, challenges for immigrants, discrimination and social isolation — should be the focus at this point. Emerging gangs have also become much more multiracial, which affects the role that race and ethnicity play in gang-joining, especially with respect to conflicts between gangs But do we need race-or ethnic-specific programming to help prevent gang-joining? Do we need more targeted programs that focus on specific risk factors for different racial and ethnic groups? Or is general gang-prevention programming — which includes some race- and ethnic-sensitive elements — sufficient?”
Freng and Taylor also argue that gang-prevention strategies should focus on “common denominators” that cut across racial and ethnic lines, such as poverty and immigration, social isolation and discrimination, drug use, limited educational opportunities and low parental monitoring. ”
- In regards to gang “prevention” specifically, I don’t think race-or ethnic specific programming is needed. The principles for raising healthy, happy, obedient and respectful children are universal and are what parents need to prevent any desire for gang-joining by their children. Building a child’s emotional “bank account” with affection, verbal affirmation, proper discipline and unconditional love will win the child’s loyalty, which is the key to prevention from choosing to join gangs and other negative lifestyles.
- Of course, there is never 100% guarantee. Great parents can experience rebellion from their children who go astray for a season. And irresponsible parents can have great kids. Nevertheless, in general, when parents of any race or ethnicity practice the principles of healthy child rearing it is the exception for a child to go astray.
- In regards to gang “intervention” and issues of race and ethnicity, I agree that effective methods for reaching and turning youth hearts away from the gang life can include specific ethnic programming and is a legitimate area that probably does need more research. Preventing children from joining gangs is not the same as intervening in the lives of gang members. This is an important distinction to make when policy makers and purse-string holders are at the community decision-making table choosing priorities of where to invest of their limited resources.
5. The Role of Evaluation
“Everyone — from federal and state policymakers to local school board members, and from health departments to police departments — needs to be able to answer the question: “How do we know if we are preventing gang membership?” Anecdotal success stories do not justify creating a new program or continuing the investment in an ongoing one. Decisions should be made on the best available evidence. Therefore, it is crucial that decision-makers understand the key principles of process, outcome and cost-effectiveness evaluations.
‘It is important that policymakers and practitioners understand the components of the most rigorous evaluations and, most important, be able to articulate to their constituents the real-world occurrences that sometimes make an outcome evaluation difficult to execute,’ they write.”
- This continues to be a stumbling block. The whole issue about “evidenced-based” practices has little credibility in my opinion. Speak to almost any practitioner on the front lines and see what they have to say about the so-called “evidenced-based” programs their organization has chosen to invest in and implement. What works in one geographic area, or among a specific racial-ethnic group, does not guarantee it will work with others. The effectiveness of any program has a lot to do with the personnel implementing the program and that is something that is not being evaluated because it is another intangible that is hard to quantify. The above quote says, “Anecdotal success stories do not justify creating a new program or continuing the investment in an ongoing one.” Agreed, but neither have the evidenced-based programs proved conclusive across the board, which puts them in the same category of anecdotal success stories. If we have solid evidence-based programs—why then are we still investing millions of dollars to continue studying the problem? Why are the numbers of gangs and gang members across the country continuing to grow (comparing the 2009 and 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment with the numbers in this book)? And what justifies “continuing the investment” of the ongoing, unproven, unstudied, and yet to see the evidenced-based results of gang injunctions? It just doesn’t all add up.
In conclusion, I applaud the NIJ-CDC collaborative call for new thinking on how to approach preventing children from joining gangs. I’m encouraged to read the emphasis on parents and strengthening families as a valuable, priority strategy to be employed, and not just as another tactic at the bottom of a long list of “other things” to be tried. Placing the role of parents, as the key to preventing kids from joining gangs and building safe communities, is indeed the different level of thinking needed to solve many of today’s community problems.