Leaving the Gang and the Role Of the Psychological Professional

Juvenile gangs are a serious problem both in the United States and in other parts of the international community. They are violent and often involved in activities like drugs, prostitution and other forms of street crime. One of the main difficulties for Law Enforcement and Human Professionals, including, psychologists, is how one can assist gang members that wish to leave the gang, to do so successfully. This is one of the more complex tasks in the area of Gang Prevention and Intervention since, gang members who wish to leave the gang are often threatened with violence or even death if they choose to leave. This is highly dependent on the gang and the length of the gang members involvement however leaving may still be difficult due to the necessity of cutting oneself off from the gang entirely, including, all friends and family members who are involved in the gang life.

Juvenile gangs typically recruit from the youngest members of society. They look for the young, the vulnerable, and the troubled, much like other predators, they may groom youngsters for the gang life by assigning them small tasks such as running errands at first, and then gradually pulling them deeper and deeper into a life of crime and violence. It is possible for professionals in the Law Enforcement and Psychological fields to help gang members to leave this violent lifestyle under certain conditions. The main condition being that the gang member is prepared to face the difficulties involved in leaving the gang, and is ready to do so. The main issue to be addressed in this paper is what role the Psychological professional plays in helping the gang member to leave the gang successfully. Successfully in this case could be a long-term, permanent separation from the clients gang, and the gang life.

Problem Statement
One of the main issues surrounding the treatment of juveniles involved in street gangs is how one keeps them out of the gang, once they have left. Young people who are trying to leave the gang face many obstacles in leaving the gang including the risk of violence, or death, and what may seem to be insurmountable odds in terms of social and economic disadvantage, education, and mental health issues associated with the gang life. The main problem that will be addressed in this research study is the question of whether or not therapeutic counseling interventions can be effective in preventing former gang members from rejoining their gangs after incarceration for criminal activity or hospitalization for drug and alcohol abuse or psychological problems.

Vitaro, Lacourse, Williams, Vitaro, and Tremblay (2006) suggest that two of the main risk factors for gang are emotional disturbance, and social and economic disadvantage. They argue that children in socially and economically disadvantaged areas who are already experiencing some psychological issues are more likely to join gangs than either non disturbed juveniles with no disadvantages, or juveniles who are simply emotionally disturbed, or disadvantaged but not both. Gangs provide a sense of support, and a place to fit in for juveniles who are not receiving either the social welfare, or psychological services that they need, resulting in them feeling out of place or rejected both in the home and at school, or work.

Di Placedo, Simon, Witte, Qu and Wong (2007), also argue that counseling offers specific benefits to former gang members if it is started in prison as it reduces the rate of recidivism, and gang related problems in jail. Di Placedo et al (2007) also state that, gang members who receive counseling in jail or juvenile detention are less likely to re-enter the gang life after leaving the facility.

Decker and Van Winkle (1996) state that one of the main difficulties that any parties be they law enforcement, or professionals in the human services face when intervening to prevent gang violence, or to help gang members leave is that they must find an adequate substitute for the family and friends (e.g. the persons social support network) that the gang member feels that they have in the gang. This means the counselors seeking to resolve the problem of gang members returning to their gangs must be prepared to assist the client in areas other than counseling. For instance, a counselor must be willing to provide the social support the client needs, either in their role as a counselor, or by referring the client to social support services for former gang members. The counselor must also be willing to assist the client in connecting with education and employment training services that will provide them with the economic advantages that will prevent them from being drawn back into the gang lifestyle.

Spergel (2007) has had some success in using counseling in order to prevent former gang members from rejoining the gang. His project the Little Village Youth Gang Project operates out of Chicago, a city historically known for having severe issues with youth gangs. Spergel uses a combined method that includes, counseling, law enforcement intervention, and community based education and employment training to prevent juveniles from joining gangs to begin with and to help them to escape the gang lifestyle if they are already involved in a gang. Spergel (2007) argues that the key to preventing gang violence is to give potential and former gang members the coping skills, and tools they need to avoid the gang lifestyle. It can be concluded that there is great potential for counseling to be a functional tool in preventing gang members from rejoining the gangs if counseling is combined with other intervention techniques from the fields of law enforcement, and education and vocational training.

Literature Review
According to Decker and Van Winkle (1996), how easy it is to leave a gang is solely dependent on which gang a juvenile belongs to. Larger gangs like MS-13, The Cripps, Bloods and Latin Kings can make leaving the gang extremely difficult for members. Often leaving the gang involves being beaten by the entire gang in a fight, (or in the case of female juveniles, raped), and tell members when they join that the only way they can truly leave the gang is to die. Other gangs seem to be more lenient in their policies and allow member who choose to move on to more positive things to leave with little problem. When gang members leave the more dangerous gangs, often their entire family must pick up and relocate in order to protect the juvenile who is leaving the gang.

Decker (2009) argues that, there are several means by which the psychological professional can help a juvenile leave the gang. First, they can help juveniles recognize the negative aspects of gang life in order to come to a decision about leaving the gang. Psychologists also play a role in helping juvenile gang members cut off all ties from the gang by providing them with a more positive support system. Finally, Decker (2009) suggests that psychologists assist juvenile gang members to leave the gang by providing them with positive social influences such as religious and youth groups rather than the gang.

Spergel (2007) states that, the role played by psychologists and other Human Services professionals is vital in ensuring that the juvenile has the positive social environment to replace the social network that they have in the gang. Psychologists also play a role in preventing the juvenile from re-joining the gang by making the juvenile aware of the potential consequences of the gang life. Spergels (2007) Little Village project seeks to provide the support, education and counseling services that former juvenile gang members need in order to remain free of the gang. Spergel (2007) has had a great deal of success in encouraging juveniles to leave gangs.

According to The Justice Policy Institute (2007), statistics on gang violence against former gang members is often exaggerated by the media. The typical youth gang member remains in the gang for less than a year. Most cite the reason that they are repulsed by the level of violence expected by gang members, rather than fear of arrest or incarceration. The Justice Policy Institute (2007) also states that, traditional law enforcement methods do not work in stopping youth from joining gangs, because for the most part, juveniles are not afraid of the police, but, rather their fellow gang members.

Finally, The Justice Policy Institute (2007), Spergel (2007), and Decker and Van Winkle (1996) all argue that the one reason that many juvenile gang members have difficulty in leaving the gang is that they fear issues such as peer rejection, having to start over in a new location, and rebuilding their lives after their involvement in the gang. Psychologists can provide juvenile gang members with the support network they need to rebuild their lives as well as helping them to deal with the issues that led them to join the gang in the first place. Issues such as low self esteem, family conflict, lack of social acceptance, and lack of goals for the future can all lead to joining a gang, and are all issues that psychologists help adolescents to deal with on a regular basis.

Overwhelmingly the literature argues that while leaving the gang is not as deadly as some gang members, and the media have made it out to be, support in leaving the gang, and in overcoming some of the problems that arise after leaving the gang is a critical part of helping gang members to leave the gang permanently. Psychologists have a lot to offer in terms of providing the support that the former gang members need, socially, and psychologically. They can also provide former gang members with referrals to resources such as education and training opportunities, groups that help former gang members relocate if need be, and employment opportunities.

Critical Analysis
From the literature it is clear that Psychologists can play a powerful role in helping gang members to leave the gang. Psychologists provide much needed support for former gang members in many ways. First, they help the client come to terms with the realities and potential repercussions of leaving that gang. They may also help the gang member connect with resources such as education and employment training.

Leaving a juvenile gang is often portrayed as being both stressful and dangerous for gang members who are looking to leave the gang life. This creates serious issues, not only for parents of gang member, and educators, but, for psychologists, and human services professionals.   Leaving the Gang often means cutting oneself off from family and friends involved in the gang, and may also involve picking up and relocating to new towns or even states depending upon what gang one is affiliated with. While in some cases the media attention to the problem of helping juveniles leave gangs is exaggerated, often it is not. The main responsibility of the psychologist, police officer, or school counselor is to help juveniles leave the gang in a manner that is the least dangerous for the juvenile and their family.

When looking at it from a professional perspective, Psychologists are not responsible for protecting the juvenile from the violence they face when trying to leave the gang. However they are responsible for dealing with the aftermath, and for helping the juvenile prepare to face the consequences of their actions. Psychologists may also have a responsibility in terms of helping former juvenile gang members find something that is positive and rewarding, intellectually, socially and emotionally to replace the sense of belonging and acceptance that they once received from the gang.

Psychologists may also play in important role in that they provide positive social reinforcement for gang members, and help gang members to find a positive outlet (other than violence and crime) for problems such as socioeconomic disadvantage, educational disadvantage, and emotional problems. Psychologists are also important in helping juveniles understand why they became involved in the gang in the first place, and how to deal with the issues that led them to the gang in the future.

There are also many ethical issues to consider when dealing with former gang members. First are issues of integrity. One must have both the professional integrity to avoid becoming involved in gang issues, and enough integrity so that the gang member learns to trust you. Justice is also a key ethical concept that the psychologist must understand. While ones primary focus is the client, one is also responsible for reporting crimes they may mention in passing so that the families of victims can receive closure. Finally, the psychologist must also realize that they have a responsibility towards the former gang member in terms of helping them to leave the gang successfully.

There are also other serious implications for Psychologists who help former gang members leave the gang. Depending on the violence level of the gang, and their policies on allowing members to leave the gang completely, not only the life of the client, but the life of the Psychologist may be in danger because they choose to oppose the gang. Psychologists must be able to determine how far they are willing to go to help a specific client. This is true for several reasons, including, the fact that the juvenile may be drawn back into the gang life.

The other factor that comes into play is that Psychology alone cannot keep gang members out of gangs. Other professions and groups are also involved in successfully helping gang members to leave the gang, including, Law Enforcement, Education, Social and Human Services, employers and the gang members families. If even one of these groups does not hold up their end of the agreement to help the juvenile leave the gang, than the juvenile may become involved in gang activity again.

The main issue presented in the literature seems to be that while leaving a gang is difficulty, it is not as violent or deadly as the media presents it as being. Although, the gang does use this media image of violence and death as a punishment for gang members who leave as a means of trying to control gang members and as a means of keeping them in the gang (Decker and Van Winkle, 1996). Thus the biggest obstacle that Psychologists and other professionals face when helping juvenile gang members to leave the gang is in combating the image of gangs promoted by both the media and gang members themselves.

Finally, it is clear that there are no easy solutions for this problem. Gangs are deeply entrenched in our culture, and they will continue to target the young, the poor and the vulnerable. Unless one can also combat problems like poverty, a failing educational system, a lack of employment opportunity, and weak or non-existent family and social support networks, than juveniles will continue to join gangs.

Problem Resolution
The first step to helping gang members to leave the gang successfully is to gain the trust of both the gang members and the community. By acting as part of the target community, and by becoming involved in their lives the psychologist can gain a great deal of understanding of the problems that are causing youth to join gangs, The second critical step would be to gain the help of the community. Most parents and community leaders dont want juveniles to join gangs, they dont want the young people to face the problems that gang members face, and they also dont want the high crime levels that come with having a gang in the neighborhood.

The third key to helping gang members successfully leave the gang in ones role as a Psychologist is working with other agencies that deal with gang member. These can include but, are not limited to, Law Enforcement, Youth Groups, Churches, Social Welfare Agencies, and Schools. Each of these groups plays a critical role in Gang Intervention and Gang Prevention. They also play important roles in providing former gang members with the support that they need in order to overcome the obstacles they face once they leave the gang such as lack of education, lack of employment training, and the problems that caused the juvenile to join the gang in the first place.

The suggested course of action would be to develop a community based Gang Intervention program that utilized the combined efforts of Psychology, Law Enforcement, Social and Human Services, the schools, the churches, employers and the members of the community. Law Enforcement would play a role by cracking down on gang based crimes in the area. Psychologists would provide counseling and support for the gang members trying to leave, by helping them to develop stress management and coping skills, helping them to confront the issues that led them to the gang in the first place, and in referring them to other community based services to solve problems like educational issues, or employment issues. Social and Human Services and the Church would provide a web of support for former gang members in terms of mentoring, social welfare services and a social support network that would replace the gang. Schools would seek to involve former gang members in their educations and provide alternate education services for former gang members. Finally, community members would assist gang members to leave by refusing to condone gang activity in their neighborhood and by offering support for gang members who wished to leave.

This program would not be very expensive. In terms of where it would be, it could be suggested that appropriate locations would include, schools, churches, or other neutral locations such as community centers. In terms of labor, the main body of people involved in the program would be working as volunteers, or simply performing their normal roles in the community such as Law Enforcement or educators. The key here is that all groups should be working together. According to the available literature, most Gang Intervention programs are based out of individual Law Enforcement, School, or Social Welfare agencies and typically they do not work with the entire community to help gang members leave the gang.

A final aspect of this program would be to have a component of the program that allowed for the removal of former gang members faced with violence to safe houses in other locations. This would relate to the responsibility of the Psychologist and others involved in this program to protect both the former gang members and the community from further violence. Spergel (2007) has had some success with a similar program in Chicago and it is clear that such a program could be easily integrated with existing community programs that work to prevent or intervene in gang violence. By focusing efforts on helping gang members leave gangs successfully the Psychology professional can play a critical role in the gang intervention process

Gangs are a serious problem in the United States and in other countries around the world. Juvenile gangs are especially pernicious because they target the youngest and most vulnerable members of disadvantaged communities. Often these youngsters find it difficult to leave the gang because they fear they fear the violence or rejection of fellow gang members. The main role of the Psychologist is to help juveniles confront issues that led them to the gang in the first place, and to help them find a social network to replace that of the gang.

The main aspect of the Psychologists work will be working hand in hand with other individuals and agencies such as the police to help juvenile gang members leave the gang successfully.  This may also include community members, schools and business owners in order to provide former gang members with the mentoring, education, and employment that they will need to avoid the gangs in the future.

There are several things that can be learned from this project. The least of which is that Psychologists are a part of the community. They can have a positive impact on whether, or not a juvenile leaves a gang by providing the social support network, stress management techniques and coping skills that the juvenile will need when confronted with the realities of leaving the gang. Psychologists can make a difference in this case and if they live in a community where gang violence is an issue it may be an ethical responsibility that they do so. The main key is to work together with the community and to have a strong grasp of how far one is willing to go in order to help a gang member leave the gang successfully.


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