The Dangers of Repressed Trauma: Mario’s Story of Overcoming Adverse Childhood Experiences

In my last post, I discussed ACEs and their effects on a macro-level. As previously discussed, adults with high ACE scores are more likely to exhibit maladaptive behaviors, including drug and alcohol use disorders. In 2017, approximately 19.7 million American citizens, aged 12 and older, had a substance abuse disorder related to abuse of alcohol or illicit drugs. In 2016 the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) conducted a review of all drug overdose data. They found that accidental drug overdose was the cause of death for 63,632 Americans in 2016. The rate of overdose deaths increased in all categories, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and socio-economic class.

Additionally, drug and alcohol disorders place a great strain on the criminal justice system. In 2018, 456,000 people were incarcerated for drug possession, trafficking, or other non-violent drug offense. According to a 2017 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, drug abuse and addiction cost the American economy more than $740 billion annually in “lost workplace productivity, healthcare expenses, and crime-related costs.” When the cost of addiction tops $740 billion and places such a strain on society, we are all affected by addiction, whether or not we personally struggle with substance abuse.

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What Youth Need

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.

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Gangs as Pseudo-Families: Giving Youth What They “Need”

From the outside looking in, gangs are comparable to family systems. In fact, as I will explain below, some gangs explicitly refer to themselves as “families” or “brotherhoods” and have mottos that encompass this familial idea. Robert Muller, a psychologist specializing in trauma, explained “that young adults join gangs because they both act as a surrogate family, as well as provide a sense of belonging…” Based on interviews conducted with current and former gang members, Muller stated:

Several gang members said that being part of a gang meant you were never alone in the world, which is similar to how many people describe being part of a close-knit family or group of friends. Gangs provide members a sense of belonging and protection they do not receive from other relationships or experiences in life.

(emphasis added)

Is this sense of belonging and protection what attracts children to gangs in the first place? The interviews Muller relied on revealed that “Bloods, Crips, and MS13 members all say they can identify with ‘Scarface.’ The feeling of being an outsider, dismissed and looked down on, is what gang members say drew them to their crews.” This explains why children in the foster care system may be more prone to joining gangs: they are often times, unfortunately, labelled as outsiders and looked at differently in comparison to children who are not involved in the child welfare system – a key reason they may feel alone and like they do not belong anywhere.

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Youth within the Foster Care System Don’t Have “Families”

Families are the cornerstone of America’s social fabric. They are also the foundation for human development. Maslow’s hierarchy is a theory that people have a five-tier hierarchical set of needs: physiological needs, a need for safety, a need for love and belonging, a need for self-esteem, and a need for self-actualization. The family as a unit tends to create positive outcomes in almost all aspects of a child’s life because a family typically provides stability, love, comfort, support, protection, and a sense of belonging, along with so many other basic necessities that are essential to the overall development of a child. Although many children, especially children who are involved with the foster care system, emerge from what society considers “chaotic” families, those families still provide some sense of comfort and foundation for the child

Because children in the foster care system live apart from their biological parents, there is often times a disruption in their development of attachment and sense of belonging to their biological family, which occurs while they are trying to form new relations with their caregivers in the foster care system. If a child is provided with a secure and nurturing environment, he or she is capable of making positive developments; however, if the child is unable to find that security and comfort in at least one of their adult caregivers, he or she may begin to seek out and form attachments to undesirable social influences, such as gangs.

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The Crossroads Between Gangs, Family, and Foster Care

“Blood is thicker than water” – an age-old, celebrated motto emphasizing the idea that family should come before anyone and anything else. This mentality has been and continues to be especially popular amongst members of the adolescent community. However, in light of such, that prompts a question about kids in the foster care system who lack the traditional “family” that kids who aren’t in the system have: who’s their “family”? 

My name is Sam Persaud and I am currently a third-year law student at Santa Clara University School of Law. Ever since I can remember, I’ve dreamed of becoming a prosecutor one day, so naturally I began working as a law clerk for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office the summer after my first year of law school. Since then, I’ve worked in several different units within the SFDA’s Office, including the Juvenile Division. There, I saw the collaborative and restorative nature of the justice system in its truest form. However, I also noticed that a vast number of the youth who ended up in the juvenile justice system were kids from the foster care system.

What I found particularly concerning was that many of these children had some sort of gang affiliation. This prompted me to ask whether gangs are offering kids something that the foster care system lacks? Or whether gangs are simply manipulating this “blood is thicker than water” ideology to lure kids into their criminal enterprises? To explain these questions, I will explore whether gangs act as a substitute family for kids who come from dysfunctional home situations. In other words, are gangs pseudo families for children who crave a sense of belonging, and do kids join gangs to counteract attachment deficits?

I will begin this process by first examining why “families” are so important to the positive development of youth, and what exactly “families” provide that makes young people feel a sense of fulfillment that in turn allows them to thrive. In this same post I will explain why most children involved in the foster care system lack what traditional families provide, and why that ultimately leads to gang affiliations.

I will then explore why is it that so many gangs have family references despite so many gang members coming from dysfunctional families? (For example, Nuestra Familia, Aryan Brotherhood, Black Guerilla Family, and so on.) Is this a means of compensating for the absence of biological or nuclear family ties by replacing that with criminal, gang-related ties? Essentially, are gangs a substitute family who provide a sense of belonging for its young member? 

I will then explore theories about how gangs may feel like the only “family” these children have, and how we may be able to fix this problem by making effective changes in the foster care system. In order to fix the problem, we must first understand it, so I am excited to explore this topic with you all!