Now that we have discussed how the basic needs of children include love, protection, a sense of nurturing and belonging, stability, and support, how do we ensure that youth within the foster care system are provided with these staples so they need not seek them from outside influences such as gangs? In this post, I will talk about how community-based services can help minimize and hopefully prevent gang involvement for youth within the foster care system, as well as ways in which we, as members of the community, may be able to provide these children with some sense of stability and consistency while they are in the chaos that is currently the foster care system.
Supportive Communities Lead to Less Youth Gang Involvement
In order to prevent youth (particularly youth within the foster care system) from having the urge to join gangs, communities need to become more involved. According to the National Gang Center, communities should adopt a comprehensive, multifaceted, collaborative approach that involves prevention strategies for youth at risk of joining gangs, intervention strategies for youth and young adults who are gang-involved, and suppression strategies in areas where gang violence threatens the public safety of a community. In order for a community to properly respond to gang issues, they must first understand gangs, their social patterns, and the behaviors of individual members that tend to appeal to children.
Once a community recognizes that youth are joining gangs, they can use tools such as the Comprehensive Gang Model Assessment Guide to identify specific components of the problems, analyze the causes, and identify the resources currently available, in addition to the resources that will be needed. The National Gang Center explains that “[t]o develop effective gang strategies… Ideally, the comprehensive assessment of a community’s gang problem will examine five data domains”: community demographic data, law enforcement data, school data, community perceptions data, and community resources data. This is because “collecting data across several domains allows for a fuller understanding of local gang problems and the development of possible solutions.” Essentially, the more a community knows about why youth join gangs, the better equipped it will be to fix that problem.
There are also other ways the community can positively intervene in the lives of children involved with the foster care system, such as making positive male and female figures available to children who are searching for role models. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry explains that “Children look up to a variety of role models to help shape how they behave in school, relationships, or when making difficult decisions.” It goes on to note that, “For many children, the most important role models are their parents and caregivers.” Because youth in the foster care system often lack these traditional role models, the community should provide them so that gang members will not fill the void. The likelihood that youth within the foster care system will choose to be engaged with gang activities will hopefully reduce significantly if the community is able to ensure that these young people are surrounded by positive role models that will help guide them towards successful lives.
Initiatives such as Friends of the Children help children in the foster care system build a positive relationship with an adult they can trust. This particular program selects the most vulnerable children from the foster care system and pairs them with “a full-time, salaried, professional mentor (a Friend) who stays with them from kindergarten through graduation – 12 ½ years, no matter what.” This kind of program is a win-win because it provides both a role model and a form of stability for youth within the foster care system.
Youth in the foster care system who have Friends have proven to have significantly better odds:
- 85% of youth in the program graduate high school, while only 58% of youth in foster care graduate high school, and
- 93% of youth in the program avoid the juvenile justice system, while only 75% of youth in the foster care system avoid the juvenile justice system.
Further, Friends of the Children is “trauma-informed, providing connection to potential paths for healing families and youth.” They “work with youth in foster care to support their identity outside of the system” so that the children realize that they are more than just “foster care kids”, but instead “they are the future.” This type of program has the capacity to empower the young people within the foster care system by ensuring they are equipped with the social and emotional skills to persist in achieving their goals and building healthy supportive relationships they need to be successful as they transition into adulthood. This is an innovative way of providing a child with a “family member” or “friend” as a stable support system who will help them move beyond their circumstances, as opposed to being weighed down by them. This stable and consistent relationship will allow a child in the foster care system to know that they always have someone to turn to and will likely reduce their need to seek out negative social influences, such as gangs.
Kids in the Foster Care System Need Stability and Consistency
Along with community involvement, it is also important to recognize how critical stability and consistency is for children, especially for children in the foster care system who are typically removed from one tumultuous environment and thrown into another unstable and unpredictable environment. Providing some level of stability for children is essential because studies have shown that frequent placement changes increase the likelihood of incarceration. One study showed that more than 90% of youth in foster care with five or more moves will become involved in the juvenile justice system. Another study found that by age 17, over half of youth in foster care experienced an arrest, conviction, or overnight stay in a correctional facility.Given that safety and belonging are two of Maslow’s needs undermined by frequent moves, one can see how gang membership may be a mechanism that explains these poor outcomes.
Providing stable placements may not be an immediate possibility due to the unpredictable nature of the foster care system; however, there are ways in which we can still provide some form of stability and consistency for youth, as Friends of the Children demonstrates. Friends of the Children is cost-effective: the Harvard Business School Association estimates that “[t]he social return on investment (SROI) is 26.8 times the cost of the FOTC program.” In simple terms, “for every $1 invested in Friends of the Children, the community benefits over $7 in saved social costs,” so “helping one child saves the community $900,000.” Friends of the Children is a national nonprofit organization that appears to primarily run on donations, but it may make economic sense to expand the program.
According to the Journal of American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, “For children in foster care, who are at risk for unhealthy attachments, special efforts may be necessary to facilitate secure attachments to foster parents.” If communities come together and make special efforts to form a “family” for these children who likely feel abandoned and unwanted, then it is less likely that they will feel the need to join gangs. Teaching youth how to replace dysfunctional systems with more appropriate, pro-social systems will provide them with alternative resources and activities that take over the time they otherwise may be spending with a gang.
There is no quick, easy fix when responding to street and youth gang problems in a community. Both emerging and entrenched gang problems are the consequence of years of compounding, complex factors. A comprehensive, systematic approach to address these complexities will take focused determination and hard work. So I cannot make any guarantees that if youth in the foster care system are given actual or replacement “families” who love them, care about them, protect them, nurture them, show them their purpose, and provide them with a sense of belonging that they will not join gangs. However, it seems like a great start to addressing the problem and improving the lives of children within the foster care system.