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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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‘I hink mah ma planned it [the move to another area] Ah hink mah ma planned it sae, coz it was far awa’ frae [the gang area] by bus. Ah jist cooldn’t be bothered goin’ doon thair everyday; tae far.’ (Callum, white, male, 14–17) As a strategy, moving far away from area was successful in so far as it stopped him hanging about with his gang friends. The reason Callum gave for why it worked was that he could not be bothered to travel the long distance back to his old stomping ground.

Other removal strategies were less successful in extracting youngsters from the road and in some instances exacerbated an already tense and stressful situation. As a young person ‘on the road’ Clifton was engaged in serious offending and he had been imprisoned on more than one occasion. He describes how his mother, unable to cope with his behaviour and struggling with three other children, put him into care in order to straighten him out.

However, her decision had unintended, negative consequences for Clifton:

‘[She] put me in there for a year … but the thing is it was a mistake. [There was] criminals all over the place! I’ve come out of there 10 times worse than when I went in.’ (Clifton) Although some young people had ‘assistance’ from their family members the majority noted that it had to be their decision to leave; they had to draw on their own personal reserves to get themselves out of the gang situation or off the road. Some, however, acknowledged that leaving could not be done by them alone. Having people to listen to their struggles and experiences was deemed crucial to the process of leaving and they suggested that, whilst it seemed as though they were not listening to the advice and lamentations of the people around them, they did, when the right time came, take into account the protestations and assistance of credible family member(s).

‘I dunno, Ah jist needed somebody tae listen tae us. Tae see whit I’ve got tae say an’ fin’ a solution’. (Suzie)

4.8 Perceptions of the role of the family in facilitating gang membership One of the main objectives of this research was to determine what role the family has to play in gang formation. Respondents were asked whether anything in their family history or upbringing had caused their gang membership. There was reluctance amongst respondents to cite something within the family as triggering their involvement in gangs.

Few respondents made direct links between their childhood and being in gangs, ‘on road’ or in a youth team. Only six respondents, principally those who had been exposed to extreme levels of domestic violence, neglect and or abuse, attributed their gang involvement or being ‘on road’ to their upbringing.

‘If my family weren’t all over the place then things might have been different for me.’ (Jennifer) ‘Yes, if my mum didn’t kick me out all the time.’ (Gayle) ‘Yes, definitely, Ah wuds say ’at fowk woods be a cair [core] issue.’ (William) This finding chimes with other research that argues that abused children are susceptible to joining gangs (Campbell, 1984; Moore, 1991; Vigil, 1996). Other interviewees who had experienced parental abuse recognised the part their parents played in pushing them onto the road but felt there were also external factors involved.

Two such respondents took account of the surrounding environment and how this impacted on their parents’ ability to look after them. For example, Kai, an ex-member of several large crews across east and north London, said that the family is just one of a number of important factors that push young people, including him, onto the road and into gangs. As a child he was raised in a ‘broken home’ and experienced repetitive bouts of violence from his mother.

At the time of interview, Kai acknowledged the dysfunction within his family and the part it played in facilitating his ‘road life’ but he also pointed to his mother’s experience of being a single parent and the toll this had taken on her. He strongly argued that the severe beatings he experienced at the hands of his ‘vicious’ mother were a demonstration of her own pain, fear and frustration in her social situation. For him, these beatings were an expression of his mother’s shame at being unable to provide adequately for her children.21 The thoughts of Kai were echoed by Bradley. He acknowledged the domestic violence and

the irreparable damage it did to him and his family but:

‘It’s not just about your family, your friends are very important. It’s more to do with the situation your parents put you in and where you are growing up; like in the ghetto.’ (Bradley) He also noted that out of the four children in the family he was the only one to ‘run about on road’.

The majority of people who did not see their families as responsible for their gang involvement focused on the influence of wider social variables, drawing a clear distinction between social-economic conditions, individual will and the role played by the family.

‘I chose to go on the street. My mum and dad always tried to get me off the streets.

She would come to parties, drag me out, I would be standing on the block, my man The interview with Kai was not recorded so a verbatim quotation was not possible to insert.

then would say “Your mum! Your mum!” I would run. She tried her best. I didn’t want to – I just wanted to be on road. Families can only do so much … feels outside is a better place.’ (George) For these respondents it was freedom and the independence brought by being out ‘on road’, the social camaraderie, excitement and, importantly, the prospect of making money that overrode the influence of the family. Against these factors, parental controls and advice were limited (at best) and largely ineffective for young people, primarily young men who wanted to grow up and impress their friends or felt they had no foreseeable way of earning a living by legitimate means.

4.9 Conclusions  This section focused on the experiences of 53 gang-involved young men and women and the extent to which the family was a key influencing factor in facilitating their gang membership, criminality and exit.

 The majority of gang-involved respondents were raised in single-parent households headed by women. However, 17 young people grew up in households with both parents present. This finding concurs with the literature that claims gang members come from all family types.

 In a number of instances, factors associated with the family, such as poor familial relationships, parental alcohol and substances abuse, domestic violence, having gang-involved relatives and fatherlessness were seen as contributing to young people’s gang involvement. However, these were far from being the only factors.

Other influences cited included growing up in an environment young people experienced as ‘hostile’, negative experiences of (and frequently exclusion from) school, the pull of a peer subculture that emphasised the attractions of earning easy money, and the search for identity and independence.

 There was little evidence in the testimonies of the young people interviewed of collusion from parents or carers, or of family members deriving benefits other than perhaps a sense of safety, which could not be guaranteed. There was also a strong sense among many young people of leading a ‘double life’, with one identity at home and another on the streets.

Parents were seen as having little influence on young people’s decision to leave  gangs; factors outside of the family, for example victimisation, were cited as being more significant. However, young people acknowledged the role of supportive family members in assisting their gang exit.



This section reviews the data gathered from family members of gang members. The material analysed consists of semi-structured interview and focus group transcripts of ganginvolved families. There were 17 separate transcripts which included interviews with 21 family members. Respondents comprised five siblings, three aunts or uncles and 13 parents or step-parents.

The family members were located within the three designated sites of research in London, the West Midlands and Scotland. All lived in the poorer wards within their boroughs. All bar two of the family members living in England were African Caribbean or mixed race. This is a key demographic for the research as black and mixed race people are over-represented in both the literature on the causes of gang violence (Gunter, 2008; Hallsworth and Young,

2011) and in available statistics on offending behaviour such as gun crime, allegedly linked to gang participation (Hales and Silverstone, 2005). Finally, it is noteworthy that African Caribbean families are a hard-to-reach group and, outside London, little qualitative research has been carried out into their experiences and perceptions of the ‘gang problem’.

In contrast, the respondents interviewed in Scotland were from white families with the exception of one family of mixed race Caribbean descent. Although this group has been the subject of recent research, this research has concentrated on young women’s involvement in gangs, with little academic work on other aspects of this group’s experience (Batchelor, 2011).

It should be noted that, while the research was conducted with three different target populations, gang members, families of gang members and practitioners, and the findings from each are presented as discrete sections, in practice there is a degree of overlap in the experiences recorded. Several interviewees were not only family members of those involved in gangs but had been in gangs themselves, whilst others were mothers of gang members but had also been, or were currently, practitioners. This overlap reflects the fact that both gangs and projects addressed to reducing the impact of gangs coexist in similar social spaces (Hallsworth and Duffy, 2011). A consequence is that several interviewees had a very detailed knowledge of their local gang problem from more than one perspective.

The semi-structured interview schedule used for both the interviews and the focus groups mirrored the topics addressed directly within the interviews with young people and the practitioner interviews to ensure complementary data was collected. Like gang-involved respondents and practitioners, family members were asked to consider the role that the family plays in relation to facilitating gang membership, facilitating gang criminality and enabling an exit from the gang.

Clearly, this is a small sample of family members, comprising families who have experienced brief interludes of gang membership and families whose offspring have been involved in serious criminality and gang violence. As such, the research provides a qualitative basis to explore relationships and perceptions within families and particular contexts within which gang membership and experience are shaped and lived.

‘I think it is the area that I live in and peer pressure, he just wants to be included and not be seen as a nerd.’ (Sister of gang member) The analysis of the interviews reveals several key themes. First, as the quotation above states, respondents (rightly or wrongly) perceived their children’s/siblings’ gang membership, ensuing criminality and/or desistance as outside the family’s control. In contrast to the views of the respondents in the earlier section, internal family problems identified within other research such as alcohol and substance abuse in the family (Artz, 1998; Fleisher, 2000) and physical and sexual violence within the home (Campbell, 1984;

Moore, 1991) were not expressed by the majority as concerns.

Instead, families mentioned non-family socialisation such as peer pressure, bereavements, physical or mental impairments, violent victimisation and criminal opportunities in the area as critical factors for their relatives’ involvement ‘on road’ or in gangs. Often these factors were combined, so in an account of why a son or brother had become involved in criminality, the lack of leisure opportunities, victimisation and family breakup were all highlighted by respondents as contributing factors.

Respondents also identified a motivation in breaking away from the constraints of childhood

and reaching out to forge social interconnections beyond the family:

‘Because then you maybe reach fourteen, thirteen or fifteen, you just feel I’m free.

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