How parents can see the warning signs

The escalation of gang-related violence in Newburgh in recent years has lead to a heightened awareness and concern about gangs in the Hudson Valley. Experts suggest there are ways a parent can help prevent their children from falling prey to the dangers of gangs.

According to Dr. Paul Schwartz, parental involvement and awareness are the most important factors in keeping children away from gangs. “It’s like that old TV commercial: ‘It’s ten o’clock, do you know where your child is?’” says Schwartz, a founder of the Center for Adolescent Research and Development at Mount Saint Mary College, and a contributor to Hudson Valley Parent. He says that if you do in fact know where your child is, you are already preventing your children from risk.

Schwartz says that children on the fringes of society are most likely to fall prey to the allure of a gang. Children who have dysfunctional families, are in the lower economic stratosphere, and those who suffer with mental health issues are at the most risk. “The marginal kids suffer from negative self identity and have no mentors,” he says. “Gangs allow them collectively to develop identity.”

Get Your Kids into Something Good

Schwartz concedes that it is difficult to remain involved in children’s lives as they grow older and seek out more freedoms. However, he notes that despite children wanting more freedom they are still craving parental involvement. “It’s like when a child says, ‘Mom, could you please get out of my life, but first drop me off at the mall.’ They may strive for more independence but they still need their parents.”

Dennis Washington, head of gang prevention and the teen director at the Kingston Boys and Girls Club, agrees that parental involvement and monitoring are the most important tools a parent has to keep their children away from gangs. He believes it is a parents’ responsibility to be aware of who their children are spending time with. “If your child is hiding their friends, there is most likely something shady going on. There is a big difference between independence versus secrecy.” He urges parents to spend as much time with their children as possible. 

“I know it’s tough to find the time with work and all the other responsibilities, but you’ve got to find a way.” When parents are not able to spend time with their children some kind of supervision is key. “Kids need activities and they need to be monitored.” He recommends after school programs, athletics, church groups, and clubs such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

Learn the warning signs

Washington says parents should be aware of a number of warning signs. They should look for anything out of the ordinary that might start suddenly, whether it be falling grades, skipping school, or coming home with unexplained bruises. Washington lists other signs of gang activity, such as wearing only red to signify Bloods, blue for Crips, or black and gold for Latin Kings.

However, he warned that the gangs are constantly evolving, employing hand signals, colored beads, and other subtle signals of gang allegiance. “It can be as simple as putting a hand in one pocket, or leaning to the left or right side. You really need to watch their gestures,” he says. Since the clues are so fluid and constantly changing, Washington implores parents to be as informed as possible. “You need to let the kids know that you are aware of what’s going on. Make sure that your kids know that they can deny and they can defy but you know what’s going on.” Washington welcomes parents to come and speak with him if they are concerned about their children. He also suggests parents reach out to local law enforcement agencies and school resource officers if gang activity is suspected.

Detectives Robert Henry and Brian Robertson of the Ulster Regional Gang Enforcement Narcotics Team (URGENT) say that gangs rely heavily on technology and social networking. They recommend that parents frequently check text messages, observe cell phone conversations, and follow Myspace and Facebook activity. While pre-teen, ‘tween and teenage slang can often sound like a foreign language to any parent, Robertson says if you don’t understand what you’ve heard, ask. “It might be a simple explanation. But if your kid responds negatively, you should be concerned.” If you have suspicions the detectives suggest checking your child’s backpack and notebooks. “Look at what your kids are sketching,” Henry says. “For instance, if they’re leaving out the letter ‘c’, using backwards ‘k’s, this is indicative of Bloods language. Bloods will never use the letter of the Crips.”

Gangs can form anywhere

Schwartz does not see evidence of gang behavior in smaller, more rural communities. “It is not a dominant part of the culture. The Hudson Valley is not East L.A. Let’s face it, kids on the honor roll and debate team are not in gangs.” Washington agrees, to an extent. “I worry that the more affluent areas are seen as untapped potential,” he says. “Anywhere the gangs can make money they’ll be interested in.” Washington also cautions that the problem is not limited to traditional street gangs. “Any time there are three or more people working in conjunction to intimidate or cause harm, that to me is a gang.” Detectives Henry and Robertson also caution parents that they impress upon their children the dangers of being a “pretend gangster in a game gang.” Henry says to make sure your kids know that while it might seem fun to be a wannabe gangster, this activity can lead to serious trouble.

According to the experts, the fact that you are reading an article about parenting is a strong indicator that your child is not ripe for gang influence. That it is to say, they all agree that parental involvement and monitoring are irreplaceable in a child’s development. The Hudson Valley remains a generally safe place to raise children. Parents are urged, however, to remain vigilant and involved in their children’s lives.


Jim Meyers is an educator and freelance writer and avid record collector. He and his wife reside in Kingston.