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Gangs, drugs, and our kids

Broken homes, poverty may encourage children down dangerous paths of violence, alcohol and drug addiction

Two decades ago, kids in gangs feared leaving the ranks under threat of violence or death at the hands of fellow gang members. Today, they fear missing out on the money, girls and perceived respect they get as privileges of membership, a region counselor said. Hundreds of troubled youth in the region turn to drugs or alcohol as an escape from poverty, abuse and broken homes. The biggest reason n they can't conceive of any options outside what they see in their daily lives of drug deals on their street corners, absentee fathers and adults who don't listen. These are the reasons region law enforcement and youth counselors said most children turn to gangs or drugs n to fill a void left elsewhere in their lives or to escape.

Statistics in the region show a sobering number of voids.

In Lake County, about 9.3 percent of households with children are absent the guidance of fathers. In the Illinois communities in the south suburbs, that void grows to 10.4 percent, as compared to the national average of 7.2 percent, the U.S. Census shows. Lake County also leads the state with the largest percentage of overall households receiving food stamps n 15.8 percent. While the gang presence in the region seems, overall, to be on the downswing, hundreds of youth continue turning to gangs and drugs for escape, with the largest gang growth now occurring in East Chicago, the leader of a federal Gary-based gang task force said.

In the case of both gangs and drugs, the breaking of ties can be tough. With drugs or alcohol, youth must overcome addiction or psychological dependence from substances that they use to camouflage emotional pain. With gangs, it's a matter of breaking free from a surrogate family that provides the structure, money and respect that members lacked in their households. In either case, parents n especially those in poorer neighborhoods n have a long way to go in keeping region children from choosing gangs or drugs as alternatives to their broken homes, region counselors and law enforcement officials say.

Remaining threat

Federal and local authorities have made great strides in curbing gang-perpetrated crime since the FBI created a special gang task force in Gary, said the leader of that initiative, FBI agent Mark Becker. Since the federal government branded Gary and its surrounding communities a “high-intensity drug trafficking area” in 1997 and Becker's Gang Response Investigative Team came on the scene, homicides in Gary have declined by 31 percent, from 98 in 1997 to 68 in 2003. Many of Gary's open-air drug markets n the chief source of gang revenue n have been closed and top gang leaders put behind bars, Becker said.

Still, 61 gangs of organized strength remain in Lake County n largely in Gary, Hammond and East Chicago. East Chicago, in particular, has seen a swell in gang membership recently, with Latin Kings, Gangster Disciples and Two Sixers members collectively numbering in the hundreds, Becker said. The age range of just about everyone in those gangs is 14 to 25.

"The early teens seem to be the time when youth join,” Becker said. “They come from dysfunctional families lacking role models. Whatever they don't get in the family structure they are trying to get from the gangs.”

Many of those gang members eventually grow up to realize gang life will not always be the solution, Becker said. Many others end up exiting the gangs through violent death or lengthy prison terms.

“They either get killed, go to jail or grow up and see the light of day,” Becker said.

Unfortunately, it is tough for young people to see the light when they can make significantly more money working the streets for a gang than working at a fast-food chain, Becker said.

Out in the streets

Walking toward an overpass in North Hammond, Cpl. Karl Eidam pointed to graffiti on the side of the worn and rusting metal. ANHLKN marked the territory of the Almighty North Hammond Latin King Nation, one of Hammond's largest gangs. Eidam is head of the Hammond Police Department's gang intelligence unit and has a personally vested interest in the department's zero-tolerance policy on gang activity.

“I live in this city and I'm not going anywhere,” he said. “This is my city. We're going to do everything we can until they either stop or leave.”

Identifying who is and who is not a gang member isn't as easy as bird watching. There is no definitive list of gang fashions. An exhaustive list of gang hand signs likely isn't in a bookstore near you. While gang members loudly advertised their gang membership in the 1980s and ‘90s, blatant identifiers, such as colors are becoming harder to find. Gangs now tend to differentiate themselves with small details nearly invisible to those not in the know.

“It may be as minute as an earring in only the left ear, only one eyebrow notched, or how their hat is cocked,” Eidam said.

Eidam has an almost fatherly approach with the gang members. He is concerned about their well-being, stern when they are lippy and proud of their good deeds – or absence of bad ones. True to any parent-child relationship, his affection often is couched in discipline.

“They despise me,” Eidam said, smiling. “It gives me great pleasure to know I'm making their lives miserable. As much as I despise what they do, I don't want them dead,” he said. “I know these kids and I've been to many of their funerals. Even though they are gang members, they're still kids.”

The bling's the thing

Most of the hundreds of gang members that counselors at Thornton Township Youth Committee work with every year don't report concern over violent retribution from fellow gang members as they consider leaving their criminal families. Instead, they worry that upon leaving the gang, they will no longer be able to afford the expensive sneakers, gold chains and other amenities that come with drug dealing.

“It's a business, and to these young people a very lucrative one,” said Dr. J.L. Weems, whose organization counsels an average of 1,200 youth and their families each month. About half of the cases involve either gang members or drug users, he said.

“With the gangs, it's all about the bling (flashy jewelry),” Weems said. “When we talk to these kids and try to identify the obstacles they think they will face in leaving the gangs, that's what they tell us.”

Fifteen to 20 years ago, youth feared leaving gangs would result in their death or brutalization. The only ways out were through a rare “retirement” or death, Weems said.
That's not true now, Weems said.

“Now the kids don't want to leave behind the money and respect,” he said. “A lot of our kids are afraid of the prospect of trying to make it in this world through mainstream channels.”

Tools to cope

Beyond gang members, Weems' organization also works with hundreds of region youth who use or have used drugs on a regular basis. The youth committee refers those with the worst addictions, including to crack or meth, to more intensive drug rehabilitation centers. For the majority of kids in the region who use substances, alcohol and marijuana are the drugs of choice, Weems said.

“In most of the cases we see, the drugs end up a way for kids to escape their reality,” Weems said. “We're not talking the types of hard-core addiction you see to crack or meth. We're talking mostly about kids who don't have the tools to cope with their problems and develop a psychological dependence.”

The goal of counselors in helping children break that dependence is nearly identical to the tactics used in helping kids leave behind gangs, Weems said. Children must be helped by adults to identify the things that keep them coming back for more harmful elements, he said.

“Whether you're talking about gangs or drugs, it's about getting the kids to conceive of options outside of their own heads,” Weems said.

That is not usually something children especially those with weak or absent parents can do on their own, he said. As a federal agent who sees gang members, drug dealers and addicts on a daily basis, Becker agrees. Parents n even the single ones who work long hours to support their families n must take the time to communicate with their children and look for signs of distress, both men agree. Fathers need to take a greater role in their children's lives as well. The majority of children in gangs n boys or girls n come from fatherless homes, Weems said.

Becker said the community needs to take a more active role in reporting gang and other vice activity they see on city streets.

“We can commit 100 agents to the area to fight gangs and drugs, but it won't do any good if we don't get help from the community,” he said. “The safety of the region and its children depend on that.”

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