Cazzie Reyes is a Researcher for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center's Anti-Trafficking Programs. She graduated from Bradley University with a Bachelor's degree in International Studies and a minor in Women's Studies.
Academics have previously drawn parallels between gang recruitment and the use of child soldiers by armed groups. In examining these two, it becomes evident that there are clear similarities, which opens up a discussion about what practitioners and activists from both sides can learn from each other. In this post, we’ll take a look at gang prevention and intervention programs: the vulnerabilities they address, methods and potential applicability to anti-human trafficking work.
The U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Programs (OJJDP) concludes that most youth join gangs for protection, enjoyment, respect, money or relationships. Those at higher risk of being recruited or those that join gangs might be engaging in delinquent or aggressive behaviors. However, youth that don’t have stable home lives, school support or safe communities to turn to are also at risk. Oftentimes, the gang becomes a person’s only source of security, particularly when he or she feels unsafe or is lacking basic necessities.
The Justice Policy Institute suggests that job training, mentoring, after-school activities and recreational programs might be ways to address these vulnerabilities.
Rather than taking a wholly criminal justice approach, prevention and intervention programs strive to prevent youth from joining or remaining in gangs by improving family and school environments as well as bettering relationships among children, family members, educators and community members.
Strategies and services within this social-based framework usually call for teacher and parent/guardian trainings that allow them to better manage disruptive and delinquent behaviors. Topics might include proper de-escalation techniques, conflict mediation and effective communication styles. Additionally, these seminars can lead to a reexamination of strict zero tolerance policies that simply brush away problems by doling out countless suspensions and expulsions. Simply removing someone from school does not solve the issue and may even result in worse outcomes. Why? Not only is the individual missing classes and getting left behind academically, he or she is then in a position to be targeted for or to be attracted to gang membership.
Parents/guardians and teachers aren’t the only ones to get involved. Community members as well as other school personnel, officials and the children themselves need to buy into these programs for them to have any effect. As it stands now, anti-gang initiatives are focused on the suppression aspect: targeting, arresting and rehabilitating gang members involved in criminal activity. While law enforcement has an important role in addressing crimes committed by gangs, these large-scale, incarceration-motivated efforts lead to short-term gains and long-term losses that fail to address root causes.
Unlike suppression initiatives, gang prevention and intervention programs can work towards eliminating some of these risk factors. Evidence-based, inclusive and youth-informed programming efforts are alternatives to think about. Time and financial investment into tutoring programs for students struggling in school, recreational activities for youth, mentoring partnerships, family assistance initiatives and accessible job skills training programs that actually lead to income-generating work are essential.
Put simply, a more balanced approach that incorporates the prevention and intervention methods stated above results in different outcomes. When imprisonment is the only goal and when one gang member is arrested, there will always be another to take his or her place. When one gang group is eliminated, another will take its place. A criminal justice mindset only leads to incarceration which, ultimately, ends up exacerbating the vulnerabilities that lead to gang participation in the first place.
Watch this TED Talk about lessons from death row inmates. Skip to 11:05 for the portion on prevention.
The same risk factors that push or pull youth into gang membership can also be seen in child soldier recruitment. And after conflicts, when child soldiers return to their communities, they are often rejected or feared by family members and neighbors – much in the same way that gang members are in their neighborhoods. Sure, there are international and government-led reintegration programs meant to rehabilitate and assist these children in their post-conflict life as well as legal exceptions that grant immunity. But, as practitioners and officials soon realized, these initial reintegration programs were often ill-informed, ill-equipped or too short-lived to meet long-term needs. It wasn’t until practitioners on the ground, grassroots organizations and well-respected community leaders began to lead programs that these youth and communities began to heal and start working with each other.
Some of the challenges to reintegration were a result of community resistance, but the remnants and memories of war practices and its after effects also created a barrier. Child soldiers are socialized to accept norms, display certain behaviors and engage in actions that are violent and harmful. In many cases in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sierra Leone, recruited child soldiers were told to rape, torture and kill civilians as well as other armed groups. At the same time, they would loot villages and leave communities violated. Throughout the years, these instances were the norm. When it was time for disarmament, demobilization and reintegration, most child soldiers didn’t have other means to live nor were they able to access extensive therapy and other necessary services that would’ve helped them understand themselves, their roles in the war and how to develop interpersonal skills. These children returned to the very communities that they helped ruin without the family and economic support to start new lives. As can be expected, some of the children turned to some old practices: stealing and physically harming residents in order to survive.
Therefore, at first, child soldiers were seen as bad and evil perpetrators that deserved punishment and contempt. Some programs tried to alter that perception by portraying child soldiers as victims, good and innocent, that deserved protection. Neither one is correct in and of itself. Child soldiers – and, certainly, youth gang members – are people with agency who make choices based on their circumstances. Their decision-making capacities and perspectives on how they can live a life outside of their gang or armed group are critical to the development of any program seeking to prevent or intervene in the proliferation of these groups.
Eventually, child soldier reintegration programs were refined to address the cultural, social, economic, environmental and political realities in specific areas. These new initiatives were more concerned about helping the entire community accept the children and developing opportunities that would allow them to access education and jobs that would make them contributing members of society. Just like gang prevention and intervention programs, these efforts were centered on building more stable and better futures for the children and their families and communities. More importantly, they started to remove the insecurities (e.g., poverty, interpersonal conflict) that typically led to armed conflict and the recruitment of child soldiers.
Activists and practitioners seeking to promote prevention and intervention are making headway in changing the ways in which governments, law enforcement and society deal with gangs and child soldiers. Could these principles be applied to traffickers as well? Last month, we talked about trafficker prevention and Gustavo’s story. So often, the response in anti-trafficking is prosecution and putting fraudulent labor recruiters and pimps in jail. Without discrediting the value of law enforcement, the need for justice and enforcing the legal code, there’s also room to consider the factors that make individuals more likely to become traffickers. Putting other types of traffickers aside (e.g., governments, corporations and wealthy individuals), there are some traffickers that traffick others out of economic need or because of societal conditions (e.g., wide acceptance of gender-based violence, normalized discrimination and abuse). Can programs aiming to prevent vulnerable populations from being trafficked also address the insecurities (e.g., structural poverty) of those who might end up becoming traffickers?
Just like in gangs, if one trafficker is imprisoned, another is primed and ready to take his or her place. We’re prosecuting traffickers, and officials say we need to get better at “finding and putting the bad guys” in jail. But are we targeting the right institutions, or are we simply imprisoning “foot soldiers” who might have made a different choice if given other options?
Police officers, legal advocates, and other law enforcement personnel have a critical role to play in protecting trafficking victims and survivors.