Heather Lynch: Early intervention helps keep young people from the lure of gangs

Opinion: We must strengthen the resiliency of children, youth, and their families, starting with children as young as five years old

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Surrey’s population is growing rapidly, and is projected to surpass Vancouver’s by 2030. Provincially, Surrey has the largest youth population, with one quarter of the population under the age of 19.

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With large municipalities come social complexities, and Surrey is not immune to issues such as food security, mental health challenges, an over-representation of people of colour in the justice system, and gang conflict.

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At Options Community Services, a Surrey-based nonprofit organization I have worked with for 30 years, we work with the city of Surrey and a variety of community partners on prevention and intervention programs to keep children and youth from gang affiliation.

Although Surrey is known for beautiful parks and rich culture, it has also developed a reputation for gang conflict. We have witnessed promising young people lose their lives due to gang-led drug wars. In one serious incident in which a young person was involved with a gang and in danger, Options supported their relocation, along with their family.

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There are universal similarities as to why youth join gangs, including lacking a sense of belonging and challenging family dynamics. We must strengthen the resiliency of children, youth and their families, starting with children as young as five years old. It is also imperative that programs are guided by evidence-based practices.

The strategy does not work as effectively without three pillars — intervention, prevention and enforcement/suppression — each serving a critical purpose.

For intervention, Options has been working on Surrey’s Anti-Gang Family Empowerment (SAFE) program, funded by Public Safety Canada. The funding is set to expire at the end of 2023. For almost five years, we have worked to keep youth from gangs by helping them to acquire life skills and strengthen their connections to family, school, and community. For example, youth completed a six-week job program, supported by an Options employment coach, in partnership with WorkBC, to help them secure stable employment. Youth enhanced their culinary skills by learning healthy meal prep and ate together, experiencing connection over a meal. Youth who lost connection to education were reintegrated into school, while identifying their passions and career goals, which education helps them to achieve.

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This program has reduced risky behaviour and increased healthy life choices. We found that 83 per cent of SAFE participants demonstrated a decrease in negative police contact, less violent behaviour and fewer school suspensions, and increased abstinence from substances. From January 2019 to March 31 this year, SAFE supported 3,879 children and youth, and 515 parents and caregivers. The average age of youth supported was between 12 and 15.

SAFE’s effectiveness has garnered international interest, including in the U.S. The initiative has also been adopted by the federal government as the preferred public safety prevention model, replicated in communities across Canada. This month, SAFE was honoured with the Union of British Columbia Municipalities award.

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Regarding prevention, Options works with The United Way British Columbia through STARR (Services to Access Recreation and Resources) to deliver programs at school and through summer, winter, and spring break camps. STARR’s Jr. Civic Ambassador camps enhances the self esteem of young people from ages six to 13 through a variety of recreational activities. These include trips to places like Bloedel Conservatory to learn about exotic birds and plants, fun trips to waterparks, and exploring community via nature walks. Kids also learn leadership through activities such as fundraising initiatives, organizing sports and activities at school, and delivering announcements over the school’s PA system.

Enforcement/suppression, the third pillar, welcomes local law enforcement to the table to strategize ways to support youth. For example, the RCMP offers a program designed to help youth aged from nine to 13 who are at risk of engaging in negative behaviour such as school absences and negative peer conflict.

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We are also leading the federally funded Surrey Youth Resiliency Program (SYRP), which helps to divert young people from gang involvement through mentorship and after-school activities such as homework and cooking clubs, dance, and clinical counselling.

This complex work is not a one-size-fits-all model. Considering the diverse needs of our community, we must include elements such as South Asian-led programming and connecting with Indigenous-led groups. We provide culturally relevant services to approximately 850 youth and their families via the High-Risk Youth Justice Program and our South Asian Family Strengthening Service.

Research shows us that 84,000 B.C. youth experience mental-health challenges, and our trauma-sensitive approach acknowledges that youth may have historical traumas. Our programs are designed to avoid harm, ensuring that youth do not have to repeatedly tell their difficult stories, while clinical counselling and support workers help to strengthen family dynamics.

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All three pillars — operating in parallel — could produce life-changing differences for B.C. youth, while the model inspires work across Canada.

Heather Lynch is senior program manager for youth and young adult services at Options Community Services.

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