LIFELINES – GANGS AND GUNS: WHO”S AT RISK? Gangs, long prevalent in many developed countries, are fast becoming a frightening feature of Caribbean life. St. Kitts-Nevis, like several other Caribbean islands, has seen a terrifying spike in gang violence over the past five years – a trend that has helped push the country’s murder rate to an all-time high. As the casualties grow, the question must be asked – why are so many of our young men becoming gang members? Who is at risk? Young people who join gangs often share similar traits, or risk factors. Risk factors are life events or experiences that are associated with an increase in problem behaviours. While risk factors do not guarantee that an individual will join a gang, they do increase the likelihood of gang affiliation at some point in the individual’s life. Below are some of the major risk factors that contribute to male gang involvement in St. Kitts-Nevis: Personal factors Low self-worth – Youth who gravitate towards gangs often have low self-esteem, which may be caused by several factors, including neglectful, abusive, or absent parents, poverty, poor performance in school, and lack of valuable life skills. For the teenage boy who feels “weak” in many areas of life – gang involvement can provide a feeling of power and respect (e.g the community youth who becomes the feared “gang leader”), as well as the sense of identity, love, and companionship that may be missing from the family circle. Lack of positive life goals – Boys who join gangs often perform poorly in school and leave with few qualifications and little hope of securing suitable employment. Unlike the high-school graduate who dreams of going away to college or securing a good job, the prospective gang member is left with few meaningful opportunities and goals, and a sense of hopelessness about the future. With this lack of positive direction, gang activity, (although risky) may seem an ‘exciting” and profitable way to spend time. Friendships with other delinquent youth – Boys who become involved in gangs often have friends who are involved in gang or criminal activity, who may then influence them to become involved. School factors Poor academic performance – Young people who perform poorly at school often become de-motivated, and may eventually ‘drop out” or become expelled from school. They leave with few qualifications and job skills, as well as a sense of underachievement, much idle time, and few prospects for employment – all of which increase the appeal of illegal/gang activity. Family Factors Poor parenting – Gang-involved youth often have parents who are neglectful, abusive, or simply fail to spend the time and effort needed to nurture their children into becoming positive and productive citizens. Parents may also act as poor role models for children by engaging in aggressive or criminal behaviour, such as fighting or stealing in front of their children. Children whose family members are in prison or involved in criminal activity are more likely to become involved in illegal behaviour themselves. Lack of Father involvement – Children often feel ‘bad” about themselves when fathers are not actively involved in their lives. In addition to decreasing self-esteem, the absence of a (positive) father figure means that boys often do not have an active male role model upon which to pattern their behaviour. Father absence also contributes to delinquent behaviour of children by decreasing the amount of supervision, guidance, and resources available in the home. Mothers who are financially and emotionally stressed are less likely to spend time nurturing their children in a productive way. Unstable home environment – An unstable or tense home environment, marked by constant fighting, physical/sexual/emotional abuse, noise and overcrowding can promote feelings of hopelessness, low self-worth, aggressive behaviour, and ‘street living’- all of which increase the likelihood of gang involvement. Community factors High-crime areas/Gang presence – Boys who live in high-crime areas, or communities in which gangs are present, are more likely to join gangs themselves. Children may grow up witnessing gang activity and may seek to imitate it, or may be pressured to join the neighbourhood gang when they get older. Threats or intimidation from rival gangs can also force youth to seek ‘protection” by joining a gang. Access to firearms – Gang involvement is more likely when there is easy access to weapons, especially guns. Gang membership is also more prevalent in communities which show an easy tolerance for gang/illegal activity. Poverty- Youth who grow up in poverty may feel deprived of material comforts, and may feel that others ‘look down” on them. Gang activity provides material gain (e.g from robberies), and can make members feel powerful and respected. The above list of is useful in identifying ‘at-risk’ youth in our own communities. Young people with many risk factors, and those with risk factors across multiple categories (e.g school, community, and family), are likely to become involved in gangs than young people with few risk factors, or risk factors in one category only (Adapted from Howell, 1998, 2005). Do we know any young people who possess many of the above risk factors? Could the nine-year old boy on the street late at night become a future gang leader? What of the masses of young men who leave the lower forms of our High schools every year, with few vocational and academic skills? How can we stop ‘gang bangers” from forming into the distant future? ….to be continued in another installment of ‘Lifelines”. Jeweleen Manners-Woodley Counsellor, The Counselling Center, Ministry of Social Development, Community & Gender Affairs