Teen gang involvement often changes a child’s future for the worse. Many teens join gangs because they are looking for a sense of belonging, comradery, and protection as well as immediate sources of gratification, like money or thrills. Unfortunately, the short- and long-term negative consequences are often profound (e.g., arrest, incarceration, injury, even death).
Gang activity in the United States is neither something that is breaking nor old news. According to the National Gang Center’s National Youth Gang Survey Analysis: Measuring the Extent of Gang Problems, over 30,000 gangs existed in 1996. These organizations decreased for some time until criminal activity increased in 2005, and now there are over 30,000 active gangs today.
The link between gangs and criminal involvement and violence is well-known, and the well-publicized rise in violence is likely influenced in part by gang involvement. In this article, we will discuss the prevalence of teen gang activity and the emergence of a promising prevention/treatment program that has been shown to make a difference in reducing criminal behavior and violence among these youth.
Prevalence of Teen Gang Involvement
According to the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s 2010 Juvenile Justice Bulletin, “the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 8 percent of the youth surveyed had belonged to a gang at some point between the ages of 12 and 17.” Gangs are present in all areas of the US and internationally, and youth in gangs are responsible for a disproportionate amount of criminal activity in rural, suburban, and urban settings. Gang members have a large span in ages, 5-17 years old, and often include a number of girls.
The Juvenile Justice Bulletin also says, “A survey of nearly 6,000 eighth graders conducted in 11 cities with known gang problems found that 9 percent were currently gang members and 17 percent said they had belonged to a gang at some point in their lives.”
According to the study Gang Membership Between Ages 5 and 17 Years, there was an estimated “1,059,000 youth gang members in the United States in 2010.” The study estimates that over 400,000 teens join gangs every year and approximately the same number of youth leave them on an annual basis.
The number of teens involved in gangs varies by location. The National Gang Center shared a survey analysis that describes the percentage of adolescents who are gang members by geographic areas:
- Large cities - 32.6%
- Small cities - 48.0%
- Suburban counties - 36.7%
- Rural counties - 58.9%
Understanding where teen gang activity is the most prevalent can help parents, schools, and juvenile outreach organizations focus efforts where they are most needed.
How to Prevent Youth from Joining Gangs
Working with teen gang members and making efforts to prevent youth from joining the criminal organizations can help set children up for a healthy and happy life.
According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), parents can help prevent their children from joining gangs by:
- Closely monitoring where their child is and what they are doing.
- Involving them in extracurricular activities such as afterschool programs, athletics, art, community organizations, or religious groups.
- Meeting their children's friends and their parents.
- Educating your child about the potential negative consequences of gang involvement and criminal behavior.
Furthermore, a report by the National Institute of Justice outlines ways schools can help keep kids out of gangs:
- Make sure children feel safe at school.
- Recognizing that gang activity is present
- Responding to gang activity by creating healthy alternatives, (e.g., creating school-based gang-prevention programs after assessing “gang risks, as well as the usefulness of current prevention activities.”
Parents and gang prevention organizations would also do well to understand the different risks posed to girls versus boys and the unique reasons they join gangs. For the most part, young women and men join gangs for the same reason – a sense of belonging. However, females are more likely to join gangs when they are searching for safety and security that they don’t get at home. They may want a surrogate family or a group of people that will protect them from (or help fight against) familial violence.
Unfortunately, although there is some evidence about the effectiveness of the various methods described above, the reality is that there is very little formal research about their effectiveness. In fact, it was for this reason that leaders from the Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development approached FFT LLC in 2009 to expand the focus of FFT to include gang-involved youth and their families. Over the next decade, FFT LLC led the creation and dissemination of the FFT-G approach.
Working with Teen Gang Members
In 2009, James Alexander, the Founder and Developer of Functional Family Therapy, worked with his colleagues at FFT LLC to modify the FFT approach to specifically address the unique risk factors associated with youth involved with or at risk for gang involvement. The FFT-G approach includes an intensive focus on developing relevant stakeholder relationships to ensure that all services are informed by the unique gangs and cultures that are present in a community. FFT-G also provides a theoretical rationale and intervention strategies that give therapists tools for tailoring interventions to boys, girls, and the developmental stage of youth. This includes interventions delivered at multiple levels, from the individual risk factor (e.g., trauma, substance use), to the family (e.g., domestic violence, family conflict), to the community (e.g., bonding to school, engagement with prosocial peers, and activities). In this manner, the FFT-G approach provides a comprehensive method that is uniquely tailored to each community, each family, and each young person.
With support from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Smith Richardson Foundation, and the National Institute of Justice, a research team from the University of Maryland led a research study to determine the effectiveness of FFT-G for at-risk and gang-involved youth in a large metropolitan city on the East Coast of the United States. This randomized controlled study, published in 2018, concluded that FFT-G was more effective in reducing delinquency and drug-related crimes than services as usual. FFT-G was also more cost-effective than services as usual, primarily by reducing the amount of days youth spend in confinement or residential placement.
Today, FFT is used as a clinical practice to address some of the most complex and multidimensional issues that families have difficulty addressing on their own. The FFT-G approach builds on this foundation and expands the focus to address the intense and severe risk factors involved when youth are associated with gangs or connected to peer networks that engage in violence and crime.
FFT LLC brings Functional Family Therapy to over 40,000 families a year across the globe that are at risk of involvement in the justice and child welfare systems and/or gangs. To maintain positive outcomes, FFT LLC provides clinical oversight and ongoing research to ensure that all FFT providers adhere to the evidence-based practice standards. Contact us for more information about our evidence-based youth and family counseling services.