“In the hood, being untouchable and feared earned you points and it attracted me. I liked the respect they got from people and how they protected each other. They always seemed to have each other’s back. If one of them needed to go somewhere, even if it was just to the store, they would all go with him to make sure that he was safe. If one were to fight, they all fought. They seemed to me like a family.”
“Youth Violence: ‘I Want Out Of My Gang Family’”
Dealing with Gangs as a Foster Parent: The Threat of Gangs
This young woman, like so many enticed into gangs, saw a sense of protection and belonging that her family wasn’t providing her. The threat of gangs can be so insidious precisely because of this sense of security and family they provide. Over the last decade and beyond, the national crime rate has continued to drop in every area except one: violence related to gang-based activity. With the rate of incidences of gang violence on the rise, it’s important to familiarize yourself with what gangs are, how they affect youth and what you can do to protect you and your foster child.
You might not even realize that gang activity is taking place in your town. It might seem like gangs are an issue restricted to urban areas, like New York or Philadelphia, and that in New Jersey, a suburban safehold, we’re relatively safe from the crime and destruction gangs can bring. However, according to a 2007 report by the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), gangs exist in every setting – urban or suburban – and within each of our 50 states.
Dealing with Gangs as a Foster Parent: Gangs, New Jersey and Risk Factors
New Jersey is no exception. A 2010 report from the New Jersey State Police indicates that of our 21 counties, 33% reported gang activity including over 100 different gangs. Specific gangs were also tracked in this study, and it was found that the Latin Kings were present in 42% of towns statewide and the Sex Money Murder Bloods were present in 37%. With these numbers, it’s clear that gangs are a problem in New Jersey, and if they’re a problem here, then our youth will need guidance and direction to help them steer clear of trouble. According to Youth.gov, as of 2008, 2 in 5 gang members were under the age of 18. This is an alarming statistic – if 40% of gang membership is made up of juveniles, your foster child belongs to a large target demographic for gang recruiting.
According to a report by the OJJDP, there are several risk factors that can predict an increased risk for gang involvement. These risk factors cover the 5 areas of social development: family, peer group, school, individual characteristics and community conditions. This means that there are indicators of risk in every environment your foster child occupies, including his own innate personality, and so there may be some that are harder for you to pick up on. Though there are 89 total risk factors provided, it is not necessary for all to be present in a child for the threat of gang involvement to be very real. The OJJDP has found that the more risk factors present in a child’s life, the greater the likelihood of that child becoming involved in a gang. More specifically, the OJJDP found that “elementary school children exposed to 7 or more of 19 measured risk factors were 13 times more likely to join a gang than children exposed to none or only one risk factor.” Here are a few risk factors which may be at work in the life of your foster child:
- Family Poverty
- Broken Home/Changes in Caretaker
- Poor Parental Supervision
- Victimization and Exposure to Violence
- Medical/Physical Condition
- Parental Substance Abuse
- Early and Persistent Noncompliant Behavior
Important to note here is that girls actually have a few more risk factors that affect their gang involvement, including early dating and negative labeling. Additionally, violent family environments which can include physical or sexual abuse were identified as being consistent predictors of girls getting involved with gangs. The comprehensive list of these risk factors can be found at the end of this post.
With the threat of these risk factors, it may seem like gangs could be an insurmountable problem for foster parents, but the truth is, it’s the other way around: foster parents can be a problem for gangs. The OJJDP also determined a number of protective factors which we, as caregivers, can employ to help lower the risk of foster children becoming involved in gang activity. The study found that parents can begin fighting risk factors in each of the five domains mentioned earlier: family, peer group, school, individual characteristics and community conditions. In order to help your foster child, it will be important to protect him from potential gang influence across all areas of his life at once by ensuring he feels protected and loved by his family, that he develops and maintains educational goals and builds self-esteem and that he knows that his caregivers are consistent and present supervisors. According to the OJJDP overview of the Risk Factors Study, a key finding here is that “research suggested that increasing the level of positive feelings youth have for themselves and their parents, and empowering parents to better supervise teenagers’ behavior and choice of friends, are important protective factors.”
Dealing with Gangs as a Foster Parent: Fighting Back
So how does this all translate into everyday life for you as a foster parent? We call this the LIP strategy: Learn, Inspire, Protect.
LEARN all that you can about gangs in your area and the signs that your foster child may be involved. It’s important for you to be able to identify gang signs, graffiti tags and gang colors so that you can readily assess the risk in your town or determine if your child has taken up with a gang. It’s also valuable for helping you to identify if your foster child’s friends or friends’ relatives are involved in gang activity. This will allow you to make educated decisions about the people yourfoster child interacts with. Remember, interaction with gang members can be a risk factor! The National Gang Center has a great pamphlet to help you get educated about gangs which you can find at the end of this post.
INSPIRE your foster children to value educational success, and expose them to activities outside of their usual environment. Activities such as visiting a museum may help open your foster child up to different possibilities and allow him to think about the world in a way that doesn’t involve the gangs he may consider a normal part of life. Exposing him to positive influences through a church, synagogue or mosque, or teaching him skills like fishing or camping is a good way to increase the positive influences in his life. Encouraging teens to find a part-time job is another way to help, as it not only teaches them about employment but also provides them with extra spending money which can help disincentivize gang membership.
PROTECT foster children from the negative influences that encourage gang involvement. Once you’ve learned about gangs (along with the various indicators that they’re operating in your area), you need to take steps to protect your foster child from interacting with them. Work with your community and other parents to raise awareness of gangs, and be sure to keep your foster child from emulating gangs or wearing their colors and displaying their signs. The OJJDP study determined that fear of safety, whether in the community or at school, was a primary reason for youth to join up with gangs. By ensuring that your foster child feels safe and protected, you’re combating a major risk factor.
We hope that you can use this information to better serve your foster child and to strengthen your communities against gang-related crime. For a closer look at the information provided in this blog post, you can check out our Resource Parent training, “Gangs” (available online and as a home correspondence course) or visit these helpful resources:
National Gang Center
Overview of the Risk Factors Study: https://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/SPT/Risk-Factors
List of Risk Factors: https://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/SPT/Risk-Factor-Matrix
Parents’ Guide To Gangs: https://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/Content/Documents/Parents-Guide-to-Gangs.pdf
NJ State Police
“Gangs In New Jersey” Study: http://www.njsp.org/info/pdf/gangs_in_nj_2010.pdf
Huffington Post/Represent Magazine
Story, “Youth Violence: ‘I Want Out Of My Gang Family’”: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/06/youth-violence-i-want-out_n_1190312.html
Frank Alvarez is the Digital Media Coordinator at Foster and Adoptive Family Services.