Understanding gang involved youth

Young people who are gang involved can present a particular challenge to youth workers not least of all because any intervention needs to take account of the influence of the group in addition to the individual. Research has demonstrated that gang-involved youth pose unique and different risk factors compared to non-affiliated youth who offend. They experience higher levels of substance misuse and more frequent and sustained exposure to violence. Antisocial peers also influence gang members, and their world view is often formulated by negative and traumatic experiences which are in turn reinforced by membership of a like-minded group.  

Are you in a gang? 

It seems like a simple question, but when neither policy makers nor academics can agree to a single definition of what a gang is, then it can be an unhelpful thing to ask a young person. What research has made clear is that gangs are far from heterogenous and that even within the same gang, individuals experience different roles and levels of embededness. In the UK young people are also aware that acquiring the label of gang member can impact on their experiences of the Criminal Justice System, in that they feel they are seen as a greater risk. At the very least it is important to know in terms of safeguarding and supporting a juvenile to a pathway of desistance if they are part of a criminal group with older members. It is also important to understand the potential for peer group or gang rivalry, because the consequences of ignoring such a threat can be catastrophic. 

Youth workers and supervisors

As part of the final phase of my Churchill Fellowship I attended some of the training for Juvenile Justice Youth Workers in Kentucky. The role of a youth worker is to supervise and support young people. This is clearly a challenging job in a potentially difficult environment, and I was keen to understand more about how the new workers were trained in regard to gangs. This training is delivered by the Branch Manager, who is a certified by the NGCRC as a gang specialist. In fact, I had become interested in learning more about Kentucky DJJ training as a consequence of meeting Mr Campbell at the National Gang Crime Research Center conference previously, and we had just presented a training session together on Building Therapeutic Helping Relationships. What impressed me about the Academy’s approach was that the newly appointed staff were presented with crucial information relating to gangs, not with the aim of demonising or labelling young people but with a view to recognising the risk of gang membership and incorporating this into ways to support the young people under their supervision.

Moving from the stereotype to the local reality 

In addition to explaining a brief history and function of street gangs, training was targeted and covered the range of gang affiliations that the youth workers would likely encounter State-wide and regionally. Sharing gang information that is relevant to a city or region is important for two reasons: Local gangs may not conform to national categorisations; the nature of gangs can also change, and this means that the risk and threat they pose to both members and their communities is dynamic. It is also important not to assume that practitioners know anything about street or criminal gangs. A few brief questions at the start of the session demonstrated that most people in the room had a limited knowledge of gangs; in my experience, this is very typical and normal. Why should people who have never been involved in gangs understand how they function? Importantly, such training was and should not be based on a single person’s experience; as I noted at the start of this post no two gangs are the same. This is why it is essential for a trainer to have up to date and accurate information pertaining to such an important risk factor. As I mentioned, the trainer for this session is certified as a gang specialist and attends a national conference each year to ensure that his knowledge is up to date. We don’t have an equivalent annual event or qualification in the UK, nor do we have a single national event to share information and research. Given the increase in youth violence and criminal exploitation it is surely time that the UK invested a similar event to ensure a transfer of knowledge and practice to the range of people who aim to support youth away from violent crime and gangs. That a consistent but adaptable approach is maintained is crucial in order that this can be introduced effectively.

Benjamin McMurdo arrested 17 September 1902. The Shields Gazette 18 September 1902 reported that McMurdo was part of a gang of five 15 year old boys who broke into business premises and stole property. Tyne & Wear Archives (TWA ref DX1388/1).


Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice 

Mr William Campbell, Branch Manager Training Academy and Ms Grace Smith, Director of Professional Development 

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