A COMMUNITY REFLECTS
Gangs, drugs, and our kids
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
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.
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
“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
“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
“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
28 July 2004