Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner. (File photo)

Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner. (File photo)

‘Frightening’ to hear Grade 6 not early enough for gang intervention: Surrey mayor

‘We’re hearing that ages six to 12 are the ones we need to be targeting’

Grade 6 may not be early enough for gang intervention.

That’s what the Mayor’s Gang Task Force heard from researchers and educators on Monday.

“Frightening,” said Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner. “We’re hearing that ages six to 12 are the ones we need to be targeting.”

Monday was the third meeting of the new committee the mayor has struck and Hepner said it was all about “hearing what the researches and educators have to say.”

The information provided by the six presenters, including Dr. Irwin Cohen and KPU’s Dr. Nathalie Gagnon, will “formulate our discussion period next meeting,” she added.

“We had the opportunity in the first two sessions to learn about what’s going on in the community,” Hepner said. “Those were important connectors. But today to hear from research and educators, is an important think tank component to take us to our workshop.

“The common themes are it happens a whole lot earlier than we ever expected,” Hepner told the Now-Leader, noting her eldest grandchild will turn nine next month.

“We’re hearing there are a multitude of evaluative factors around why it happens, so we have to be ready with programs that can intervene at all of those stages, whatever they are,” she said.

“And in many cases it’s individualized,” she noted, and a one size fits all approach has been proven ineffective.

Hepner said the task force also heard that evaluating evidence-based success is equally complicated.

“I think the toughest job we will have going into a final report of what we could recommend regionally and provincially, is how to do the evidence-based program that will provide us with the best outcomes for these children who could be lured into that lifestyle.”

But she said “without question” children need to be targeted a “whole lot earlier than it has happened.”

“And it’s safe to say that measures of what lures you into that lifestyle have got to be addressed a whole lot earlier.”

Hepner said the task force’s next meeting will take the form of a workshop, or brainstorming session.

“The next one we’ll have to have a facilitated discussion.”

Asked if the task force’s recommendation would be a single program, Hepner said no.

“It’s going to have the same complexity that the issue has,” she said. “There will need to be intervention programs at various points, it won’t be a singular recommendation. Hopefully it can define where we can make recommendations to some of the agencies that are providing services and to advocate to the provincial and federal governments.”

The task force heard about a “G.R.E.A.T.” program (Gang Resistance Education and Training) in the U.S. that’s delivered to students by law enforcement, that’s been around for 30 years. It includes 13 lessons and targets behaviours and attitudes with the goal of preventing gang involvement.

A study of the program, released in 2012 by the National Institute of Justice, looked at 4,000 children. Half of the schools involved in the study received the program and half didn’t.

It found that after one year of being exposed to the program, there was a 39 per cent reduction in a child’s odds of gang membership and four years later, there was a 24 per cent reduction.

Although, it was noted that this was more effective at picking off the “low-hanging fruit,” meaning youth on the outskirts of entrenchment, and it didn’t effectively target youth who were more entrenched.

The task force also heard a review of Surrey’s Wraparound program, which was launched in 2009 and aims to keep at-risk youth ages 11 to 17 out of gang life.

See also: More funding for anti-gang program in Surrey

The Surrey program was praised for its targeted intervention and for involving families.

Evaluation of the Wrap program — which involves counselling, mentoring, recreational activities, mental health support and more — has shown a 67 per cent decline in the negative police contacts of participants.

Cons of the program included that it is expensive, costing an estimated $,9000 per youth involved, and demand is high with an average of 60 youth a year on a wait list.

As well, staff didn’t always have time to help all of the youth in the program, the task force heard.

The City of Surrey reports that last August, there were currently 97 students in the Wrap program, with another 35 students awaiting entry.

The provincial government committed $1 million last year in an effort to eliminate the Wraparound program’s wait list.

Meantime, the group heard Monday from Dr. Nathalie Gagnon about lessons learned when implementing new anti-gang programs.

Gagnon emphasized that gang members are a very diverse group and “no two gang members are the same.”

The reasons why people enter into gang life, or choose to exit it, may be “wildly different,” she said, adding that programming should reflect that.

Not long ago, Gagnon said “risk assessment tools” used to decide whether a youth should enter into an anti-gang program was based on “intuition and experience.” Then, the “actuarial” method developed, which would essentially look at specific pre-determined risk factors and based on a number, would determine if a youth would enter into an intervention program.

It’s “what insurance brokers have to do when they set up our insurance. There’s no room for judgment,” she said of that method.

Gagnon stressed the importance of “layering the assessment tools” because the actuarial method alone doesn’t tend to work well for communities.

“For example, if you’ve got a sibling of a very, very notorious gang member but doesn’t meet other requirements, you might still decide they’re worthy of assessment,” she noted.

She also urged “creativity” when it comes to tailoring intervention specifically for each individual, taking in the risk factors of the youth as well as their needs and strengths.

Reviewing their progress over time is also important, she continued, because youth can “improve and unimprove over time.”

Gagnon cautioned that success is hard to measure, such as reducing violence or gang membership, because “we have a really hard time defining what a gang member is.”

“I urge you to think about success at a number of different levels,” she said. “Nothing is more disastrous than having a short-term goal that’s unrealistic or impossible to measure.”

But even getting an gang-involved youth in a room for programming should be considered success, Gagnon added.

“If you’re able to engage high-risk gang members in programming for some period of time a week – it’s success.”