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Joining a Gang: How to Help Kids Prevent it, How to Tell if They've Joined One, How to Help Them Out

While youth gangs are nothing new -- they've been traced back to the early 19th century -- the demographic of a youth gang is something that is constantly changing. Many people stereotype gang members as urban, inner city males from racial minorities, but in fact gangs are a problem in suburbs as well as cities, for all races and for girls as well as boys.

There are about 750,000 gang members in the United States, according to estimates by the U.S. Department of Justice, and one-third of them are under the age of 18. And while it's still true that men account for the majority of gang members-more than 90 percent are male-gang membership among women is becoming increasingly common.

Signs Your Child May be in a Gang

  • Red or blue or professional sports team baseball hats worn toward one side or backward

  • Red or blue bandanas worn on the head, tied to a belt loop or sticking out of a pocket

  • White T-shirts worn under plaid shirts, worn open or buttoned only at the collar

  • Jeans or pressed Khakis (along with other items)

  • Colored Shoelaces

  • One pant leg rolled up

  • Baggy, oversized pants with boxers showing

  • Teardrop or spider web tattoos on neck or next to thumb

  • Tattoos or words on knuckles

  • Gang names tattooed on body

  • Hand signs used as a form of communication

  • Drawing gang-related graffiti (crowns, stars, hearts, pitchforks, gang's name)

  • Friends belong to gangs

  • Using a nickname or "pet" name

  • Spending lots of time away from home

  • Doing poorly in school, or dropping out

  • Sudden increases in material possessions

  • Continually wearing the same color combinations

What Exactly is a Gang?

Every gang has its own requirements and characteristics, but the U.S. Department of Justice says that all gangs have one thing in common: "A group must be involved in a pattern of criminal acts to be considered a youth gang."

Similarly, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines a gang as, "A criminal enterprise having an organizational structure, acting as a continuing criminal conspiracy, which employs violence and any other criminal activity to sustain the enterprise."

Additionally, gangs typically:

  • Develop around racial and ethnic lines

  • Are typically male-dominated with some female members, though female gangs are on the increase

  • Center on a specific territory

  • Act as an organization that may be part of a larger group

  • Display symbols associated with their gang through clothing, tattoos, graffiti, hand signals and language

Why do Kids Join Gangs?

According to a White House fact sheet for the new youth initiative aimed at protecting America's youth from gangs, an overwhelming number of violent U.S. criminals like those in gangs grow up in single-mother households with no father around. It's also been shown that kids who are involved with their family, school and community are less likely to be involved in risky behavior like joining a gang.

This may explain why, generally, kids join gangs to feel like they belong and have a sense of purpose. In fact, kids join gangs for many of the same reasons that kids join any group, like a soccer team or Boy Scouts:

  • Looking for a sense of self-worth, belonging and commitment

  • Seeking structure and discipline

  • Companionship

  • A need for recognition, higher status and acceptance

  • Excitement and something to do

Gang Signs

Kids in gangs often use elaborate hand signs as forms of communication. The sign above means "cash flow."

Additionally, kids may join gangs because of a:

  • Need for protection

  • Family tradition

  • Need for money (kids in gangs can earn cash from drug trades)

How to Keep Your Kids Away From Gangs

Since most kids who join gangs do so because they are looking for a social network, for a group to belong to, ensuring that your child gets plenty of love and support at home and through positive activities is key in keeping them away from gangs.

Such was the case with David Danisa, a young man who could have easily fallen prey to gangs himself as friends around him joined steadily. Instead, Danisa and friend Jurell Spivey joined school programs and even got involved into keeping younger kids out of gangs.

"There's a lot of pressures in high school," says Danisa. "If you have people who are helping you out in programs, you start having more self-respect. You can fight through the hard stuff." And, to put is simply, after your day gets filled up with sports, volunteering and other activities, "You don't have time to do anything bad," Danisa said.

Aside from enrolling your kids in community or school youth programs from an early age, the following tips can also help:

    Folk Signs

    These drawings are national symbols of gangs identifying themselves as "Folks."

    People Signs

    These drawings are national symbols of gangs identifying themselves as "People."

  • Encourage your child to think independently

  • Take an active interest in his/her life: Be involved!

  • Get to know your child's friends and encourage healthy friendships

  • Teach your child coping strategies to deal with hard times

  • Support your child with words and actions to instill in them a sense of self-esteem and personal responsibility

  • Discourage too much exposure to media influences that glorify drugs, sex, gangs and violence to kids

Resources That Can Help

If you suspect your child, friend or family member is in a gang and in need of help, there are many resources available. First, according to the Los Angeles' County Sheriff's Department:

  • The member must think and believe that they can get out of the gang, and must want to do it.

  • Reduce the amount of time spent with the gang. It's best to do so gradually, rather than trying to sever all ties immediately.

  • Replace gang activities with positive activities like sports, the arts, employment, religion, education, volunteering, etc.

  • Remove gang tattoos and attire and modify language away from gang communications.

  • Create a new set of friends and an alternative support system, such as boys and girls clubs.

  • Help other youths in gangs to create a better life away from the gang.

Other helpful resources include:

Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member

Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member

This book gives a gripping account of a world most of us will never see-the world of the notorious gang, the Crips. "Monster" follows one boy through a mind-blowing rough start in life on through his remarkable transformation. Once you start reading this book you won't be able to put it down ... but be warned that it can be extremely graphic in its details.

Read More Now

Sources Gangs Fact Sheet

Bush Initiative Aims to Reduce Influence of Gangs on Youth

Gangs: Awareness and Prevention

Mentors, Activities Keep Kids Out of Gangs

How to Get Out of a Gang

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