DennisBeaverNovember 2, 2013 • By Dennis Beaver

It’s a phone call that Hanford police Officer John Henderson takes no pleasure in making — when he informs a parent that “Their teenage son is in jail, caught along with other gang members in a burglary.”

From experience, he knows the reaction to expect from most parents:

“That’s impossible! Our son would never do a thing like that and if he was involved something criminal, we would certainly have known it! You’ve got it wrong — it’s just not possible!

“But it’s the parents who have it wrong, because they haven’t known much about their kids for years. These parents don’t know who their kids are hanging out with and where they are at night, or they would have seen warning signs that trouble was only a matter of time.

“Children who come from a loving family, with lots of parental involvement, with structure  are not attracted by gangs because they already have what gangs give their young members: family, protection and affection, but at a price, at what can be a deadly price,” he cautions.

Obvious warning signs

Henderson points out that “strong indicators of trouble fall into several easily identifiable categories, odd clothing preferences by far the easiest to spot, followed by significant changes in behavior and a lack of interest in the things enjoyed before, such as sports.

“Is there a sudden change in their interests? For example, before they loved soccer, and now they hate the sport. How are they now with their family? If before, they were close and loving, but now wanting nothing to do with family, you’ve got to find out why, because experience shows this to be a sign that of a gang member in the making.

“Clothing is one of the most obvious factors. A lot of parents are naive or so busy that they won’t or can’t pay attention to what their children are wearing. So if your son is wearing the same colors, same thing every day, that would be odd and requires investigation by the parents.

“A number of solid colors are associated with many gangs. If, at age 13 or 14 you have a kid who refuses to wear blue or grey, you must find out why, as these are often colors of an opposing gang.

“On a school binder, look for certain letters to be crossed out which represent the name of an opposing gang. Have you seen numbers, initials or nicknames written in an Old English-style letters, or in handwriting that is difficult to read, or is similar to graffiti? If so, investigate.”

Privacy? Forget it!

“It is amazing how many parents fear going through their children’s backpack or desk and dresser drawers. Children need protection — from themselves. Items in or on their backpack often suggest that things aren’t right, for example, a change of clothing where they leave home dressed one way and then are going to change into the gang colors later that day.

“Look for the numbers 13 and 14 as well as an odd pattern of dots. These things should not be ignored.

“Kids can be very good at hiding items they do not want parents to find, so while they are at school, look in their desk, drawers, between the mattress and box-spring, any possible hiding place. If you find money, expensive electronics, anything which you know your child could never afford, this isn’t a bad dream. It is the beginning of a nightmare and you should speak with law enforcement for advice on how to proceed.”

Sudden fall in grades

“If there is a sudden fall in grades, while not evidence of gang membership by itself, it must be investigated. But when you are informed by the school that your son:

• Isn’t just disrespectful, but has become openly hostile, shouting at teachers:

• His grades are horrible;

• He is hanging around with some pretty bad kids.

“Then parents must get involved, and find out what is going on, for these are warning signs you cannot ignore. To do so only allows the situation to worsen,” Henderson maintains.

Spend time with your children

Henderson has seen a lot in his 12 years as a police officer. He knows what happens when parents are not involved in their kids’ lives. He concluded our interview with this message for families everywhere:

“Play with your children. Spend time with them. I get home at 7 p.m., but still play with my kids for an hour or so, until they go to bed. We watch ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and if my 3-year-old wants to dance for an hour, that’s what we do.

“That’s how you interact. That’s what keeps your children out of a gang.”

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