Gangs and FASD
With the exception of Totten’s preliminary research, there are not any published studies on the relationship between FASD and gang involvement. However, a number of recent studies in other countries have documented the elevated rates of engagement in serious crime and involvement in violent offending by young men with FASD.53 Previous research has demonstrated that these types of serious crimes are likely to be gang-related. Arguably, FASD-affected youth, especially young men, have increased vulnerability for being recruited into gangs due to their poor judgment, being easily manipulated, difficulty perceiving social cues, heavy substance use, and difficulties understanding the link between their actions and consequences. Long-term placement in child welfare and justice facilities, combined with a lack of supportive ties to families and community are also important factors. When these youth move from their reserves to cities, they are easy targets for gangs.
A pathways approach is useful in identifying the primary mechanisms through which Aboriginal youth find themselves involved in gang activity. Some gang members are located on one primary pathway; others become gang-involved through a number of different pathways. Most of these routes into gang violence are unique to Aboriginal youth gangs.54 Evidence supporting the existence of these pathways comes from initial data analyses of the Prince Albert Warrior Spirit Walking Gang Project and the Regina Anti-Gang Services Project55 involving a combined sample of approximately 150 youth, along with the few Canadian studies on this issue.56 There are five main pathways: 1. The process of ‘violentization’, rooted in experiences of serious and prolonged child maltreatment; 2. The prolonged institutionalization of children into child welfare and youth justice facilities; 3. Brain and mental health disorders, resultant from childhood trauma and FASD; 4. Social exclusion and devaluation; 5. The development of hyper-masculine and sexualized feminine gender identities.57
When Aboriginal children suffer extreme maltreatment and have FASD, the resultant neurological impairments likely make them vulnerable for gang recruitment. In the Prince Albert Gang Project Evaluation Study, 84% of 120 youth reported having a close family member who had a severe drug or alcohol problem and 68% had been taken into the care of child welfare facilities due to child abuse.58 Many of these youth have the visible facial features indicative of FASD. Many lack the ability to structure their time and are easily controlled and abused by others. As a result, they are strong-armed into committing crimes that they could not formulate on their own and often take the fall for these types of crimes when they are caught. They do not realize that they are actually committing crimes when following an urge or their ‘friends’.
Sexual Exploitation and Gangs
There is a dearth of research in Canada on the relationship between gangs and the sexual exploitation and trafficking of Aboriginal girls and women. In particular, very little is known about the men who are doing the trafficking.59 Females who participate in Aboriginal gangs are for the most part treated as sexual slaves and are forced to play tertiary roles (look-out for the police, dealing drugs, sex trade work, carrying drugs and weapons). Often, they are traded amongst gang members for coercive sex. Gang crimes related to exploitation include gang rape and other forms of sexual assault, witness intimidation, extortion, forcible confinement, controlling or living off the avails of prostitution, organized crime offences and trafficking.
Most females who are gang-involved have personal relationships with male gang members: they are sisters, nieces, daughters, grand-daughters, or girlfriends. Those who don’t have these prior relationships get recruited through violent intimidation. Most girls are gang-banged (gang raped) as part of initiation into gangs.
Suffering chronic and repeated sexual trauma throughout childhood is also a key driver into gang life for both girls and boys. These children are most often abused by male family members or men who know them. More girls are victims, although many male youth who participate in violent gang activities report having been sexually abused.60 For example, a majority of the 26 male gang leaders participating in the RAGS intensive gang exit program reported prolonged and severe sexual abuse by men during their childhood. Four of the five females who are participants in this same program reported that the long-term childhood sexual abuse they suffered continued throughout their adolescence and early adulthood. These four women were trafficked by Aboriginal gangs for lengthy periods of time. The average age of these gang members was 20.7 years.61
When females are harmed, they tend to be extended family members or intimates of the perpetrators.62 Several in-depth interviews with gang leaders who are trafficking and exploiting young women reveal an intergenerational dynamic of mothers, aunts and grandmothers having been forced to work in the sex trade and/or trafficked. It is no coincidence that these same women, along with the fathers of these young men, have suffered greatly from colonization and residential schools. Many of these young men bitterly report that their mothers were absent throughout their childhood – some having been murdered or missing for extended periods of time. Some expressed hatred for their mothers. These gang leaders seem to have learned how to sexually exploit and traffick girls in their own families at a very young age.63
Emerging data from the Prince Albert and RAGS projects support current estimates on the widespread nature of these forms of violence in Western Canada.64 Anecdotal evidence from many northern communities in Western Canada suggests that there is significant under-reporting on this issue. For example, it is common for family members in such communities to identify female relatives who have gone missing. Such reports are ‘unofficial’ due to a variety of reasons, including shame, humiliation, lack of education, fear of outside involvement, fear and mistrust of the police, and family ties to gangs. Larger, systemic issues are at play here as well, such as colonization, racism and the intergenerational impact of Residential Schools.
Trafficked Aboriginal girls are hard to find – gangs usually confine them within homes or other closed environments. Prior to being trafficked, many of their lives are characterized by severe poverty, a lack of opportunities, violence, and poor health. As a result, many migrate from remote communities to cities, where their lack of job skills and city ‘smarts’ makes them very vulnerable. Some become homeless and can’t meet even meet basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter. Many girls become isolated and lose contact with their communities; they experience culture loss. Some go to bars for friendship – where traffickers hang out. They find love in ‘boyfriends’ and street families. Traffickers approach girls who appear most vulnerable to offer jobs, opportunities, education and glamorizing city life.