London Metropolitan University research study, emerging research on the Role of families, in co-ordination with Catch 22
Problem families or beleaguered families?
Professor Simon Hallsworth and Senior Research Fellow Tara Young
Contextualising the emerging findings of Catch22 funded research into the relationship between gang members and their families.
Recent years have seen growing concern about urban street gangs and the threat they pose to public safety. In this context, most serious urban violence and shootings have been attributed to gangs, along with control of the drugs trade, the sexual abuse of women and, to varying degrees, the urban disorders of 2011. Gang members, it is widely claimed, are mainly the product of 'broken' or 'problem' families, headed either by irresponsible parents who cannot or will not control their young (who then find solace in their gang); or by parents and elder siblings who actively encourage their young people to embrace a delinquent gang culture and lifestyle.
In this analysis, the root cause of gangs is seen to lie within unstable failing families described by some as a 'feral underclass' - and their failure to parent appropriately. The resulting policy responses stress the need to intervene in 'problem' families in order to prevent wider gang formation and violence. This factor is seen as the key to successful policy intervention, often to the exclusion of others.
But how accurate are these assumption about families and their relation to the problem of gangs? Are problem families the root cause of gangs? Are the families of gang members always 'broken'? Is the failure to parent appropriately the reason why young people escape to the streets and join gangs? How far do family members actively encourage their young to join gangs? And what lessons can be learned about the family's role in young people ceasing their gang involvement?
In this paper we draw on the emerging findings of research conducted by London Metropolitan University, commissioned by Catch22, which explores the relationship between gangs and families to examine these questions. We conclude by drawing out some policy implications.
Our findings collaborate wider theories of gang formation. These see family dynamics as neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the formation of gangs, whose origins lie predominantly outside the family. The role of the family may be a factor in some cases, but it would be dangerous to overstate its significance as a cause of gang formation or involvement.
From interviews conducted with family members of gang-involved young people and practitioners who work with them, far from finding evidence or irresponsible families producing children who run wild and go on to join gangs, we found:
- Gang members come from all kinds of family circumstances: This is not just an issue for 'broken' families.
- The families of most gang members did their best to encourage their young people to embrace a law abiding existence and did their best to discipline their young.
- Families often expressed dismay when they discovered their young people were gang affiliated.
- They experienced considerable difficulty in countering the 'pull' factors of the street, particularly as young people reached adolescence and were breaking away from the private sphere of the household.
From interviews conducted with gang members we found that:
- Gang members typically respected their families and family life.
- They did their best to hide their gang lives from their families.
- Even if they experienced family life as difficult (and a number did) most saw the decision to become part of a gang as their choice. Their families, in most cases were not identified by them as a causal factor in their decision to join gangs.
- While this was the case for most interviewed, a small minority did identify having other siblings already involved in gangs as a reason why they also became involved.
- While families were unhappy about the way of life adopted by the younger generation, a number adopted an ambivalent attitude to the money they acquired through crime.
- Gang members talked about the importance of a supportive family in supporting them to exit gangs.
More generally we found evidence to suggest that a number of families from which gang members came experienced a range of problems. The issues was not so much that they did not care about their young people. Rather, the many pressures that bore in on families made parenting difficult. These issues included illnesses and addictions, and not least absent parents.
In a social world where many of the families we spoke to were struggling to make ends meet in a low wage economy; where unemployment and under-employment were facts of life; and that involved caring for what were often large extended families; what we found was less the 'problem family' of popular mythology but rather, beleaguered families who wanted to do the right thing but often in difficult circumstances.
These findings challenge some of the assumptions behind the current thinking around gang intervention policy.
- They contest the widely held vision of the gang member as a product of 'broken' and irresponsible families with poor parenting skills.
- They also contest the assumption that the 'problem family' is the root cause of gangs.
- While the research identifies areas where intervention is needed to support beleaguered families, the findings suggest that the approach to dealing with a beleaguered family needs to be very different in philosophy and practice than that which follows from considering them as 'broken' and problematic.
- As part of this, we need to support families to be part of the solution in helping young people to exit gangs.
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