DennisBeaverOctober 26, 2013 • By Dennis Beaver

What turns a 14-year-old junior high school student into a gang member? Do kids just decide one day to join a gang, or is there a process? More importantly, are there warning signs in a child’s behavior screaming “I am headed down the wrong path?”

Officer John Henderson of the Hanford Police Department knows the answers to those question only too well. “While some are born into a gang family — their destiny sealed — no child just wakes up one morning deciding to become a gang member. There is indeed a process which draws them in,” he tells You and the Law, ominously adding:

“And it starts at home, and Dennis I know this is going to sound very sarcastic to some of your readers, but you would be amazed at the parents who we find doing everything possible to permit behavior which leads directly criminal activity. The one critical factor in the making of a gang member is in having parents who are not involved in their children’s lives.”

Pay attention to your kids!

“When you track the early life of a child who goes on to join a gang, we repeatedly find a lack of structure at home, no responsibility encouraged, minimal discipline and  an absence of rules. We see this as young as 2,3  years of age.

“When I see children 8, 9 10, 11 years old on the streets at night, I take them home, but to their parents, it’s no big deal. Instead of having a real discussion with their children — ‘Why were you out? What were you doing?’ — They take the kid’s side against the police officer’s concern and worry.

“This is planting an anti-police attitude,” Henderson observes. “If you can change a negative perception of the police at that young age, this is huge. If you can deal with them then, before they get into the system, into gangs, you can often prevent them from going in that direction.  If they are already there, it is often too late.”

Early signs a kid is headed that way

“One we have been following since he was 7 — and now is 15 — was kicked out of kindergarten and first grade because of fighting, biting teachers and stealing. Recently at the park, he was robbing people, taking cigarettes out of their mouth and punching them! And we have dealt with their family for years. To mom and dad, teachers and the cops are the enemy.

“When parents refuse to listen to the teacher or us, then dangerous behavior is enabled. Parents must know who their kids are hanging out with and where they are. But so many have no idea – never ask and don’t care.  It is this lack of caring, the lack of structure, absence of consequences for bad behavior which later opens the door to something which will provide structure and become his real family.

“That, of course, is the gang,” Henderson warns.

“If their stealing embarrassed mom or dad, and there were real consequences, it would likely end, and the child would have a whole different reaction. Generally kids who are raised the right way are not the ones out there stealing. Sure, they will get into kid things, fights, for example, but not stealing.

“But when the parent says that it is no big deal, that kids will be kids, the behavior is reinforced. Where a family does not want to be known as having bad kids, this is the family where kids don’t get into trouble.

“As the child gets older — from 7 to 10 or so — police receive more out of control calls, and when we arrive, hear screaming, swearing, fighting, windows broken, holes in walls, the result of failed parenting. The child is out of control in other ways as well, has few friends, is often a loner, failing in school, and ripe to become a target for gang membership.

Mechanics of drawing the kid into the gang

“Always increasing their numbers, the gang leadership will befriend those kids who need a family. It is a process of befriending. To kids who are loners, in need of acceptance, picked on, they offer back-up and support, give them money, drugs, alcohol, girls, and the kid thinks it is a cool thing.

“But now you are part of the gang, a member, and it is not always that kind of a carefree life. You have to prove yourself, make your bones, fight with the rival gang, run from the cops, and that’s just the beginning,” cautions Henderson.

But we’re not there yet. There is still time to act if you know what to look for, what signs parents or other caring family members need to recognize. We’ll tell you what they are next time.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.