In Focus: Gangs attract young children; intervene early

February 21, 2014 

We all know the Tri-Cities has a gang problem. But do we know how bad it is? More than 30 gangs with more than 1,000 members call the Tri-Cities their turf. Tri-City police agencies responded to 306 gang-related vehicle thefts and 15 drive-by shootings in 2010. Just in Benton County that year, a total of $1.25 million was spent to incarcerate 50 gang members. Nationally, 48 percent of violent crime is committed by gang members, but they are branching out to include alien smuggling, human trafficking, prostitution and white collar crimes such as identity theft. Keep in mind, a lot of crimes involving gangs do not get reported because many victims fear retaliation. Gang on gang violence rarely gets reported to police. The above information is found in the winter 2013 ADVOCATE, a newsletter published by SARC (Support, Advocacy & Resource Center). More dismal for me than the above statistics are the human faces of gang members that are shown throughout the newsletter. One is of a 10-year-old boy in our community who robbed a convenience store while drunk. He in turn was beaten by gang members and robbed of the stolen money. He joined a gang for protection and the sense of belonging. No 10-year-old boy in our community should be in that situation, where joining a gang seems the best choice in life. Prior to reading this article, my perception of gang members was that they were older teenagers or young adults. This article points out that most gang members are between the ages of 8 and 12 when they join. Gangs are costly in money, but the human toll in lost human potential is even greater. Girls in gangs are particularly at great risk. They spy, steal and run drugs. They risk getting beaten up, arrested and sexually exploited. They have unwanted pregnancies and are exposed to sexually transmitted diseases. We must not lose sight of how much young girls are negatively affected by gangs in our community. I have volunteered with troubled kids one way or another for more than a decade. Most are disconnected and devalue education. I observed a boy I mentor transform from an angry 12-year-old with straight Fs to a 16-year-old who has gotten straight As, values education and has a positive vision for his future. We have some very good programs such as F.I.R.M.E. gang outreach, Boys and Girls Club, After School Matters and Ignite Youth Mentoring that do a good job of addressing the need for belonging and succeeding and connecting at-risk kids with positive adult role models. My Friends Place also provides shelter and safe haven for homeless teenagers. One of the most troubling statements I have heard was at the Mid-Columbia Children’s Reading Foundation breakfast, where it was stated that we can identify our potential dropouts by their third-grade scores. As a community we need to help our students succeed to the best of their abilities by making connections with positive adult role models. The Mid-Columbia Children’s Reading Foundation is a good example of how the community can support an organization that helps kids succeed at school. We also need to encourage our students to participate in extracurricular activities at school. If a kid succeeds in school and has a sense of belonging, he or she is less prone to joining gangs. If you want to know more about gang activity in our community, I suggest you come to the Badger Club (cbbcclubexpress.com) meeting at the Kennewick Red Lion at 11:30 a.m. Friday on February 28th. We will have a forum with three speakers; Carlos Trevino, sergeant for the Benton County Sheriff's Office Gang Enforcement Team (GET), Jesse Campos, the Director and founder of FI.R.M.E. gang outreach (www.firmeoutreach. org) and Kristin McRoberts, a Benton County deputy prosecuting attorney. They will share their experiences and perspectives on gangs in the Tri-Cities. This meeting will also be taped and broadcast by Public Television. Copies of the Advocate with the information supplied above will be available at the door. Call 736-1979 for reservations. Art King is a retired small-business owner who is involved in education issues that relate to poverty.

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