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«Tara Young, Wendy Fitzgibbon and Daniel Silverstone London Metropolitan University CONTENTS ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 1. INTRODUCTION 1.1 ...»

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The role of the family in facilitating gang

membership, criminality and exit

A report prepared for Catch22

Tara Young, Wendy Fitzgibbon and Daniel Silverstone

London Metropolitan University





1.1 Research aims

1.2 Report structure


2.1 Research design

2.2 Data analysis

2.3 Methodological issues


3.1 Defining the gang

3.2 The family and delinquency

3.3 The role of familial criminality or tacit endorsement of criminality as an influential factor....... 23

3.4 Looking beyond the family: social and individual factors

3.5 Leaving the gang: the family and its influence

3.6 Summary


4.1 Respondent characteristics

4.2 Family structure and upbringing

4.3 What were the main push and pull factors for being involved in a gang or ‘on road’?............ 35

4.4 Which push/pull factors were ascribed to parenting or the family?

4.5 Do the families know about respondents’ involvement in gangs or being ‘on road’?.............. 45

4.6 What are the benefits and/or costs for the families of people involved in gangs or ‘on road’? 47

4.7 What were the main reasons for leaving the gang or coming ‘off road’?

4.8 Perceptions of the role of the family in facilitating gang membership

4.9 Conclusions



5.1 Family characteristics

5.2 Family facilitation of gang criminality

5.3 Coping strategies

5.4 Conclusions


6.1 The role of the family in facilitating gang membership

6.2 How influential are families?

6.3 Family, criminality and victimisation

6.4 Leaving the gang: familial influence

6.5 Professional intervention to facilitate gang exit

6.6 Conclusions


7.1 Do gang-affected families have characteristic features?

7.2 Family victimisation

7.3 Desistance and exit

7.4 Recommendations






We are grateful to Catch22 for commissioning this study. A special thank you is owed to the men, women, boys and girls with experience of being ‘on road’ or in gangs. Without you this study would not have been possible. We would also like to extend our thanks to the parents, siblings and relatives of ‘gang-involved’ individuals who gave up their time to share their life experiences with us.

Our gratitude extends to practitioners who helped to identify willing participants and provide the opportunity to conduct this important piece of social research; your assistance was invaluable. Last, but by no means least, we acknowledge Johanne Miller and Ebony Reid for their research support, Stella Scherbach for her contribution to the literature review and Janet Ransom for her thorough review of the material presented.

The authors are solely responsible for the views expressed in this report, which may not reflect the views or opinions of Catch22.

Tara Young, Wendy Fitzgibbon and Daniel Silverstone


1. Introduction and aims The role of the ‘gang’ in shaping and encouraging criminality has an ever-increasing profile within the criminal justice system, the third sector and across the political landscape. The growing perceived threat from the gang has occurred against the background of increasingly restrictive legislation and numerous policy documents focusing on what might be responsible for the possible rise in gang membership. One often-cited factor is the role of the family and its influence on gang membership. It is this relationship that the report explores.

2. Research aims The overarching aim of the research was to examine the role of the family in gang formation criminality and exit in order to inform best practice for practitioners working with ganginvolved families.

3. Methodology Catch22 commissioned an exploratory piece of qualitative research based on a literature review, semi-structured interviews and focus groups (91 interviews across the study). The interviews were conducted with former and current gang members, families of gang members and practitioners working with gang-involved individuals and their relatives. The sample is broadly drawn from areas with reputations for high gang activity. In order to capture the geographical, ethnic and cultural differences in gang membership the research was conducted across three sites: London, the West Midlands (Wolverhampton and Birmingham) and Scotland (Glasgow).

4. FindingsThe role of the family in gang formation

 People who associate with or are in gangs come from all types of families.

Irrespective of family composition, the majority of respondents described families experiencing multiple difficulties (such as economic deprivation, family separation, bereavement, domestic violence, imprisonment, and alcohol and substance misuse) that preceded their involvement with gangs. This supports findings elsewhere that suggest successful family interventions have a range of positive generic outcomes, for example gang desistance to reduction in truancy, and drug and alcohol problems.

 In regard to family composition, the evidence of this report suggests that the combination of multiple family difficulties and gang involvement is more likely to occur, and will have more severe consequences, in single-parent, larger than average families. However, it should be borne in mind that gang activity was also found in dual-parent and smaller families.

 The role of the family should not be overstated as a key driver of gang formation. It occasionally plays a role in driving young people into gangs but the wider socioeconomic context is often as, if not more, important.

The family and the influence of the gang The gang’s influence on the family should not be overstated. Gang involvement by  one family member is not likely to infringe on the wider family’s personal safety or mean all family members will join a gang.

 The structure, influence, definition and activities of the gang are not uniform. Gangs are influenced by geography and ethnicity, therefore the consequences for and influence on the family of gang membership will differ between London, Scotland and the West Midlands.

The vast majority of families experience a member’s gang involvement as an  additional and significant problem in their lives that may precipitate serious consequences (physical, emotional or punitive) for the gang member.

 Gang involvement is likely to increase the risk of victimisation to those family members directly involved and to their associates and friends.

 Although some family members may benefit materially from the criminality of their children, these benefits are usually overshadowed by the feelings of helplessness, shame, tension and anxiety that gang-involved family members can generate.

 Beleaguered families feel they lack the ability to impose appropriate boundaries and the necessary skills to address their children’s gang involvement. This feeling of powerlessness is most acute when their children reach adolescence.

The role of the family in desistance  Male siblings and/or wider family members play a significant role in encouraging gang membership, whilst mothers and sisters are key enablers in facilitating desistance and exit from a gang.

 Leaving a gang is difficult, not primarily due to fears of gang-led reprisals or violent leaving rituals, but due to the perceived lack of viable alternatives for gang members.

 Family members and networks can facilitate gang exit but success is driven by the gang member themselves.

 Practitioners need to be aware of the local criminal landscape and be sensitive to multiple family issues. They will need to deploy strategies that can empower family members who are sometimes complicit, sometimes in denial and sometimes ignorant of their family members’ involvement with gangs.

 Despite the plethora of recent initiatives, there still remain gang-affected families and individuals who feel shunned and isolated from current attempts to engage them.

 A change in physical location (family-assisted or not), away from local gangs and criminal opportunities, was seen by family members to be the most effective strategy for gang exit.

5. Recommendations Avoid stigmatising the families of gang members unduly. Not all are ‘troubled’ or  ‘broken’ families but most can better be described as ‘beleaguered’. This label is non-stigmatising as well as more appropriate.

 Do not reify, exaggerate or homogenise the gang. The majority of gang members drift out of gang behaviour and the families’ experience of the gang is influenced by geographic and ethnic variation. Local practitioners need to be aware of the local criminal landscape. One size, as they say, does not fit all.

 Practitioners involved in the delivery of bespoke interventions need to anticipate some complicity and denial when working with families of gang members. Yet beyond this, family members, in particular mothers, ought to be sought out as valuable partners in positively working to change the dynamics of family relationships.

 The report lends support to existing multiagency programmes designed to provide help for vulnerable parents to improve their parenting skills, with particular emphasis on parenting in adolescence and non-corporal ways to discipline adolescent boys.

 The report suggests that replicating initiatives that provide safe accommodation for those who are victims of serious violence and investing in other programmes that can provide long-term housing away from the local gang will help gang members desist from their offending behaviour.

 Interventions are important, but they need to be targeted at complex problems experienced by beleaguered families rather than the spectre of future gang involvement. Adolescence is a key point at which gang members and their relatives, especially mothers and sisters, need appropriate facilities and support that they can access; particularly at the point at which the gang member is ready to leave the group.

1. INTRODUCTION In recent years growing concern over the increase in serious youth violence and gang culture in the UK has prompted considerable debate over how best to tackle these issues.

Within this debate there is some acknowledgement that the majority of young people resident in the UK are not involved in serious youth violence or gangs (Home Office, 2011).

Moreover, there is some recognition that ‘gangs’ are not homogeneous groups and that people who are associated with them do not all engage in the same type or level of antisocial behaviour or criminality (Hallsworth and Young, 2005, 2008). 1 That said, whilst the number of young people who are involved in street-based groups labelled ‘gangs’ may be relatively small (Sharp et al, 2006; Home Office, 2011), some research has found that these young people are disproportionately involved in crime that includes, but is not limited to, serious violence. This is of major concern to policy makers in the UK, who are tasked with legislating against behaviour that harms the community and devising suitable initiatives that protect the general public.

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