Gang Gone

Adult Friends For Youth’s unique approach to dealing with entire gangs not individuals, and treating gangs as a mental health issue not a law enforcement issue, has about an 80 percent success rate and has helped end more than 30 gangs. Here’s how they do it

Wednesday - July 06, 2011
By Brandon Bosworth
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(from left) Sid Rosen, Jane Tampon, Mac Schwenke, Debbie Spencer-Chun, Onolina Taotofi and Mo Maumalanga. Nathalie Walker photo .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Adult Friends for Youth’s unique way of dealing with entire gangs rather than individuals serves as a national model, and has led to more than 30 Hawaii gangs disbanding

Hawaii is not California, and Kalihi is not South Central L.A. Yet, like our West Coast neighbors, Oahu has its share of gang activity and crime. There are, for example, about 20 gangs operating at Farrington High School, and a similar number at Waipahu High School. While our problems may pale in comparison to those of other states, it doesn’t mean these issues don’t exist, nor does it mean we should be complacent.

One group of individuals is far from complacent: Adult Friends for Youth. Founded by Sidney M. Rosen in 1985 at the University of Hawaii School of Social Work, AFY began as a volunteer mentoring program for at-risk children and adolescents. Eventually the organization was incorporated as a nonprofit, and has been independent of UH since 1987.

Right from the start, Adult Friends for Youth was different from other groups in the community.

“The average age of the kids we were working with was around 15,” says Rosen. “For groups like Big Brothers Big Sisters, the average age was 10 or 11.”

Early on, Rosen and his volunteers realized that many of the youths they were working with were involved in gangs. This realization led to the formulation of a radical new approach to helping troubled kids.

Because the gang ties could be so strong, Rosen says “it would be foolish to attempt to work only with individuals.” AFY instead looks at helping groups of kids, even whole gangs, improve themselves and their lives. According to their president and CEO Deborah Spencer-Chun, “It is far more effective to work with entire gangs and not just individuals. It helps to overcome the peer pres sure element of gang membership.”

Paradoxically, while AFY works primarily with groups, not individuals, part of the process of getting kids out of gangs is stressing their individuality.

“We teach our clients to see themselves as individuals, not just as members of a gang,” says Rosen. “We help them to analyze themselves, to see what’s wrong with their current lives and to show them they have potential for a better life.”

This approach could be called radical. Rosen describes AFY’s techniques as psychotherapeutic in nature, and observes that theirs is the only organization in the U.S. using this sort of methodology.

“Most rely on former gang members or charismatic leaders from the community,” he explains. “There are few psychiatric professionals involved in this sort of work. Gangs are seen as a law enforcement problem, not a mental health issue.”

But radical or not, Adult Friends for Youth has a proven record of success. According to Spencer-Chun, they work with about 400 kids a week, ranging in age from 13 to 18, and can boast a success rate of around 80 percent. It is estimated AFY has successfully changed the attitudes and behaviors of more than 30 gangs, helping most members integrate into the social mainstream as productive members of the community.

When dealing with troubled kids on an individual basis, there is always a strong possibility that they will return to gang life. After all, they are being asked to give up people they consider their friends or even family. By working with an entire gang, AFY avoids this sort of recidivism. Clients learn they can still

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