Caitlin Smith enters the Los Angeles home of 19-year-old gang member Edgar*. She has a plan of action and a stack of job applications. That day, they are going to fill out the applications together and drop them off at local businesses. But after chatting with Edgar about his week, Smith, a psychology graduate student in USC College, realizes her elaborate plan has to be scrapped.
The night before, Edgar was riding his bike home from a friend’s house when police stopped and ticketed him for reckless bike riding. Adding to the stack of unpaid tickets he’d received over the past seven years, the fines totaled thousands of dollars. The stress is getting in the way of his job search, so Smith decides something has to be done.
Instead of spending the day looking for jobs, Smith and Edgar spend four hours in traffic court.
“It’s just another one of those days that no matter what agenda you’ve written, all of the other things that come up demand to be dealt with first,” Smith said. “But as a counseling experience, we still have to make it work.”
Smith is a counselor in the Behavioral Employment Program (BEP), founded in the College by Stan Huey, associate professor of psychology, and American studies and ethnicity, and then-graduate student Dawn McDaniel. This pilot intervention program combines counseling with job-seeking strategies, and examines the relationship between employment and gang involvement with a small group of gang-affiliated youth in Los Angeles.
The use of employment strategies in youth gang intervention is not new. There are programs across the country that operate under the theory of fighting gangs with jobs. But in the course of his research, Huey found little scientific data to back up the effectiveness of the various intervention methods. His goal is to provide this data by running a controlled clinical trial and analyzing the results to determine which methods work, and which do not.
BEP, originally funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, is led by Huey and supported by psychology graduate student counselors like Smith and McDaniel, as well as a group of undergraduate research assistants. Huey’s team has spent years collecting detailed information about each case to assess cause and effect and hopefully answer the question: Do jobs help to counter gang membership?
According to Huey, members of a gang are more likely than non-gang members to possess firearms, engage in violent behavior, become homeless, require public assistance, spend time in jail, and die prematurely. Gangs are costly to the justice system and may pose a threat to public health and safety.
A Los Angeles County probation officer, who asked that his name be withheld due to his work with minors, said that there are many reasons that young people become involved in gangs.
“A lot of these kids come from really tough family situations,” the officer said. “For some, it’s an escape from their families. For some, it’s just the thing to do. For some, it’s just because they’re bored while their parents are working to keep a roof over their heads.
“It’s a mess out there,” he continued. “Most of these kids are just trying to survive.”
Each of the youths involved in BEP was referred through the Los Angeles County Probation Department within one month of being released from a juvenile detention camp. They have all been arrested at least once for offenses such as vandalism, assault, armed robbery, burglary, grand theft auto, and drug possession, and they all confirmed that they either are or have been members of street gangs.
For some of these youths, Huey noted, being in gangs is a core part of their identities, and resisting the lure of gang life can be difficult.
“For many of them, their gang is like a family,” he said. “These kids can articulate in the clearest terms why the gang lifestyle is problematic, a dead end, but it’s still challenging for them to disengage themselves because it’s part of who they are.”
Huey and his team focus their intervention efforts on youth aged 16 to 20 because they believe the younger they are, the more likely they will make significant changes in their lives.
“If you get these kids in this critical phase, there’s a greater likelihood of altering their life trajectory,” he said. “So if you can provide opportunities at that point, they’re more likely to follow the straight and narrow.”
“Many people theorize that if you help youth get jobs, then that begins the process of them leaving gangs,” said McDaniel, a former BEP counselor who helped develop and implement the program. “We wanted to test to see if that theory was accurate.”
BEP involves a total of 27 young adults: 96 percent are male; and the group is divided 76 percent Latino and 24 percent African American. The researchers utilize two randomly assigned treatment conditions to compare the outcomes. The test group consists of 15 youth receiving BEP’s services, and a second group of 12 acts as the control, receiving the typical counseling and employment services provided by the probation department.
Huey and his team then compare the test and control groups to determine if BEP leads to greater reduction in gang involvement, greater increases in employment, and if the increases in employment are associated with reductions in gang involvement.
“Our explicit goal is not to extricate youth from gangs. We assume it will be a by-product of our intervention,” Huey said. “Our hope is that the time spent getting youth job-ready, helping them get jobs, and helping them keep jobs will compete with gang activity.”
The employment counseling is set in areas familiar to the youth, usually at their homes or at neutral locations. While Huey organizes and coordinates each case, counselors meet with the test group members regularly during the course of 12 months.
As he was developing the program, Huey hoped to have jobs ready immediately for the youth to capitalize on their high level of motivation post-detention. However, due to the toughest job market since the Great Depression, the jobs that he and his group had worked so hard to organize were no longer available.
“Instead, we actually had to work with the youth to find their own employment,” said McDaniel, who graduated with a Ph.D. in psychology in 2010 and is now working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Conceptually that changed the program a lot. It meant that we were actually walking door to door with the youth, modeling what it’s like to look for a job.”
Once it was clear that employment would not be guaranteed, the counselors had to start from the beginning. Smith said that depending on the goals she and the youth set, or depending on their level of motivation, they work together on activities ranging from practicing interviews to filling out online job applications to creating résumés.
“Sometimes we really have to start with the basics, such as how to open up a Word document and type and save,” Smith said.
One of the many things that Huey and the counselors have learned throughout the process is flexibility. Each youth requires a different level of support, and depending on how successful he or she is with job searching, the goals of the counseling sessions change.
If the youth is successful in procuring a job, the counselors focus on the challenges that come with holding a job, such as selecting appropriate clothing, maintaining a schedule and arranging transportation. For others who aren’t as successful, their goals may focus on building a lifestyle that can support a job search, such as avoiding the types of behavior that lead to arrest.
In Smith’s story about Edgar and his stack of tickets, sometimes counseling youth on job-readiness means more than just helping them practice a professional handshake. Even as Smith sat beside Edgar in traffic court, she used the experience as an opportunity to model staying calm under pressure.
Because this is a pilot program, one of the main goals for the group is to collect as much information as possible. All interactions, including those outside the traditional counseling time — Smith has even visited one youth’s school to advocate on his behalf — are useful to the study. They help Huey’s group to better understand the day-to-day life of the young people they’re treating.
Huey and his counselors also have to be open to experiences other than employment preparation because they are still the youth’s clinicians and close resources. Smith recalled receiving a late night phone call from a young man enrolled in the program who was having suicidal thoughts, which she, Huey and McDaniel acted upon immediately.
“Our first priority is not the science, it’s the people,” Smith said. “We’re going to do whatever is in our power to be good therapists.”
Huey’s program accepted its first participants in 2007, and has continued to gain them on a rolling basis. The data from the first few participants who have completed the program has been gathered, but there are still a number of youth actively involved in the program.
Although the study is ongoing, the preliminary data is encouraging. “Youth who get our intervention compared to the control group at the six-month period wind up spending less time with a gang,” Huey said.
They have found in BEP participants that an increase in employment is significantly related to a reduction in gang involvement. Huey noted that both groups had similar difficulties in finding employment, but BEP youth were less likely to remain gang-involved at the end of the six-month period.
“We’re trying to figure out, if it’s not getting and keeping a job that’s the active ingredient, what else might be?” Huey said.
After the pilot study is completed in 2011, Huey hopes to obtain funding to work with a larger group of gang-involved youth, utilizing the practices that his team has found successful. If the same results are replicated in the larger study, he plans to disseminate the findings to institutions and public offices dedicated to violence prevention strategies.
Through BEP, Huey is both testing his employment-gang intervention theory and providing real world opportunities for participants to seek traditional career paths. The potential for BEP to actually change their lives is great. The pull of the gang is strong, but Huey hopes the pull of making an honest living will be stronger.
*This name has been changed to protect the program participant’s identity.