Risk factors are variables that increase the likelihood of the outcome in question—in this case, gang membership. Many studies have identified causes, or risk factors, which, if present for a given individual, make it more likely that he or she will develop a problem behavior, including joining a gang. These extensive research studies have demonstrated that no one risk factor is responsible for gang joining; rather, it is the accumulation of multiple risk factors across multiple domains that greatly increases gang joining. Thus, put another way, gang joining is not reducible to a single risk factor (e.g., single-parent household), since some youth with the risk factor may not join a gang, and some youth without the risk factor may join.
Although the influence of risk factors and protective factors changes in the course of child and adolescent development (Howell, Lipsey, and Wilson, 2014), one study found that the effects of risk and protective factors for gang involvement did not vary with age, through age 19 (Gilman, Hill, Hawkins, Howell, et al., 2014). The study authors suggest that this finding may be owing to the multiple studies showing that gang members are distinctively different from ordinary delinquents in that they possess more risk factors and generally experience them in multiple developmental domains during childhood and early adolescence, thereby generating enduring effects. Thus, communities should develop a continuum of developmentally appropriate programs and strategies to target at-risk youth and gang-involved individuals at all ages and risk levels. Communities should implement strategies and programs that have been demonstrated to work.
Juvenile delinquency is a precursor behavior to gang membership. Put otherwise, virtually all youth who join a gang evidence prior delinquency involvement. Studies also show that antecedents of gang involvement begin to come into play long before youth reach a typical age for joining a gang. For the highest-risk youth, a stepping-stone pattern appears to begin as early as ages 3–4 with the emergence of conduct problems, followed by elementary school failure at ages 6–12; delinquency onset by age 12; gang-joining around ages 13–15; and serious, violent, and chronic delinquency onward from mid-adolescence (Howell and Egley, 2005). Therefore, risk factors for both delinquency and gang membership are included in this review, and communities that wish to prevent and reduce gang involvement are encouraged to address risk factors for juvenile delinquency at the same time. The Strategic Planning Tool (SPT) includes both sets of risk factors, and those that increase the risk of gang joining are asterisked.
Gang research scholars have discovered a multitude of risk factors that are statistically linked to gang joining. These individual risk factors span the many dimensions in a youth’s life and are typically grouped into five categories (called social developmental “domains”): individual, family, school, peer, and neighborhood/community (Howell and Griffiths, 2016). The following discussion explains how risk factors in these domains operate from infancy onward.
Several types of family interactions and interrelationships can predict gang membership. In a Seattle study (Hill, Howell, Hawkins et al., 1999), the most negative arrangement was one biological parent and other adults in the home. One of the most prominent risk factors is poor parental supervision (including control, monitoring, and management of family matters). Other family conditions compromise parental capacity to carry out child development responsibilities, including low parent education, family poverty, low family socioeconomic status, proviolence attitudes, and child maltreatment (abuse or neglect). Living with a gang member is a key risk factor for gang joining (Gilman et al., 2014).
Children who are involved in delinquency, violence, and drug use at an early age are at higher risk for gang membership than are other youngsters (Craig, Vitaro, and Tremblay, 2002). Mental health problems predict gang joining (Hill et al., 1999), and experiencing life stressors is another important individual risk factor at the early adolescence stage (Eitle, Gunkel, and Gundy, 2004; Thornberry, Krohn, et al., 2003). Trauma from violent victimization, involvement in violence, and aggression are predictors of gang membership (Craig et al., 2002; Hill et al., 1999; Lahey, Gordon, Loeber et al., 1999; Taylor, Freng, Esbensen, et al., 2008). Various sociopathic behaviors are also associated with bonding to gangs, including aggressive, reckless, impulsive, manipulative, superficial, callous, irresponsible, and cunning behavioral displays (Goldstein and Glick, 1994).
Most studies of risk factors for juvenile delinquency and gang membership have examined only one segment of the school-student relationship: satisfactory academic performance. The low achievement of children is one side of the coin; poor-quality (poorly functioning) and unsafe schools is the other side (Gottfredson, 2013). Thornberry’s team (2003) concluded that poor school performance on math tests predicts gang membership for males, as well as low attachment to teachers. Hill and colleagues (1999), and also Le Blanc and Lanctot (1998), found that future gang members perform poorly in elementary school, and they have a low degree of commitment to and involvement in school. Suspensions and explusions from school often mean that students are removed from adult supervision and, in turn, are exposed to greater association with delinquent peers, which can increase delinquency (Hemphill, Toumborou, Herrenkohl, et al., 2006). Delinquency involvement can increase gang membership and court referral (Esbensen and Huizinga, 1993; Hill et al., 1999; Thornberry et al., 2003). Students who feel vulnerable at school may seek protection in the gang (Gottfredson, 2013).
Thornberry and colleagues (2003) identified association with peers who engage in delinquency as one of the strongest risk factors for gang membership, particularly for boys. Moreover, both Craig and colleagues (2002) and Lahey and colleagues (1999) found that association with aggressive peers—whether or not they are involved in delinquency—during adolescence is a strong predictor of gang joining. Further, rejection by prosocial peers (being unpopular) seems to be a key factor that pushes children into affiliations with delinquent groups and gangs (Haviland and Nagin, 2005; Thornberry, et al., 2003).
Community or neighborhood risk factors that have been shown to predict gang membership in early adolescence include availability and perceived access to drugs, neighborhood youth in trouble, feeling unsafe in the neighborhood, and low neighborhood attachment (Hill et al., 1999; Hill, Lui, and Hawkins, 2001). Other important neighborhood risk factors include high community arrest rates, high drug use, and neighborhood disorganization. As children grow older and venture outward from their families, they are more and more influenced by community conditions. The key factors include residence in a disadvantaged neighborhood, lots of neighborhood youth in trouble, and a ready availability and use of drugs. Availability of firearms also may be an important community variable (Lizotte, Krohn, Howell, et al., 2000). Exposure to firearm violence approximately doubles the probability that an adolescent will perpetrate serious violence over the subsequent two years (Bingenheimer, Brennan, and Earls, 2005). Communities that suffer from concentrated disadvantage may lack the necessary “collective efficacy” (informal control and social cohesion) among residents to ameliorate the negative effects of concentrated disadvantage (Morenoff, Sampson, and Raudenbush, 2001; Sampson and Laub, 1997). This condition is probably exacerbated by the prevalence of crime in the community, availability of drugs, and so on, all of which weaken neighborhood attachment.
Risk factors have a cumulative impact; that is, the greater the numbers of risk factors that are present, the greater the likelihood of gang involvement. Hill et al. (1999) found in the Seattle study that children with seven or more risk factor indicators were 13 times more likely to join a gang than were children with none or only one of these indicators, although only 32 percent of these youth joined a gang. Another study found that the accumulation of more risk factors leads youth to become gang-involved as opposed to violence-involved (52 percent of gang members experienced 11 or more risk factors, compared with 36 percent of violent offenders; Esbensen, Peterson, Taylor, and Freng, 2009). “A greater ‘push,’ perhaps, is required for youths to become gang-involved than violence-involved. Related to this, it seems that the number of risk factors an individual possesses has the most impact on violence” (p. 322).
Moreover, the presence of a large number of risk factors in multiple developmental domains appears to increase the likelihood of gang involvement even more. Rochester researchers found that a majority (61 percent) of the boys and 40 percent of the girls who scored above the median in seven risk factor domains (area characteristics, family sociodemographic characteristics, parent-child relations, school, peers, individual characteristics, and early delinquency) were gang members. In contrast, approximately one-third of the boys and one-fifth of the girls who experienced risk in four to six domains joined a gang. Thus, for optimal impact, gang prevention and intervention programs do not only need to address multiple risk factors; they also need to address a number of risk factors in multiple developmental domains.
Protective factors are not included in this SPT because research on their effects on gang membership, and delinquency as well, is yet in its infancy. Protective factors for gang involvement and related violence must be validated in longitudinal studies. Just two such studies have been conducted to date. The first study found research support for protective factors in the major developmental domains from the fifth to the twelfth grade: prosocial family, school, neighborhood, peer environments, and individual characteristics (Gilman et al., 2014). Positive family and school environments appeared to operate through other domains, mainly peer and neighborhood. Research in the Rochester Youth Developmental Study (Krohn, Lizotte, Bushway, et al., 2014) found that, from mid-adolescence onward, six of the protective factors interacted with the chronic violence trajectory to reduce violence incidence (including gang fighting and gun carrying): (1) cumulative protection across domains, (2) cumulative protection in the family domain, (3) educational aspirations and (4) self-esteem in the individual domain, and (5) parental supervision and (6) parent-partner status in the family domain. Thus, of central importance is 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.
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