Many aspects of female gang functioning and the lives of female gang members remain a mystery because relatively few researchers have considered female gangs worthy of study. In addition, researchers face serious obstacles to the study of female gangs and, because of these obstacles, they often settle for unrepresentative samples. Gangs are highly suspicious of researchers and cooperate with them only under unusual circumstances. Female gang members, in particular, have been averse to talking about sexual abuse, whether it occurred at home or within the gang. Some field researchers have been able to work effectively with gangs to obtain representative samples and trustworthy data. Other researchers avoid resistance and what they perceive to be the danger involved in direct field studies. These researchers contact gang members through community agencies, probation and parole offices, and incarceration facilities, but each of these strategies entails unknowable biases in sampling and in response sets (see Hagedorn, 1990).

Unfortunately, female gangs have received little programmatic attention. The Family and Youth Services Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had a program that explicitly addressed female gang members, but the program lasted only 3 years. The 1990’s brought recognition within the Federal Government that female and male offenders have different programmatic needs. For example, the 1992 reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 specifically mandated more programmatic focus on female delinquent offenders. Several national programs have made efforts to reach females. Notable among these are programs created by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America that are directed at reducing or eliminating gangs and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s (OJJDP’s) Comprehensive Communitywide Approach to Gang Prevention, Intervention, and Suppression, which is directed at gang-involved youth and their communities. OJJDP’s program includes efforts addressed to females who are or who have been gang members. Across the five sites in this demonstration program, females represent 20 percent of the targeted youth. These programs offer a foundation to build on, but much more work needs to be done to address the needs of females involved with gangs.

Family and Youth Services Bureau Programs for Female Gang Members

In 1990, the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services granted 3 years of funding for gang-prevention programs for adolescent females in Boston, MA; Denver, CO; Hartford, CT; Minneapolis, MN; St. Louis, MO; Seattle, WA; and Stockton, CA. FYSB hypothesized that female gang members often have children who join gangs and reasoned that keeping females out of gangs might have a multigenerational effect. In 1992, four more programs were funded: two expanded the services offered in Boston and Seattle, and two were established in Washington, DC, and Pueblo, CO. After consultation with researchers and practitioners from those projects (reported in FYSB’s September 1993 publication Connec-tions), FYSB began to sharpen the focus of those programs.

The 1993 FYSB Annual Report summarized key features of the programs:

Participants outlined the key features of services that work: building support groups for at-risk females, promoting cultural awareness, empowering youths to succeed, expanding community awareness, sharing information on conditions that put adolescent females at risk of gang or criminal involvement, promoting employment opportunities, building spirituality, and providing consistency and support (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1993, p. 22).

Although these tactics might seem rather broad, they represented a considerable advance over the gender-role-bound programs of the 1960’s (e.g., Hanson, 1964), which were largely limited to encouraging females to improve their self-image through cosmetics, dress, and deportment.

In operation, the programs varied considerably in recruitment practices, emphasis, and organization. David Curry (1998) reported on programs in Boston, Pueblo, and Seattle. Boston’s program, which was situated in a housing project, included few females with records of delinquency and focused on building self-esteem. Pueblo’s program recruited broadly and emphasized mentoring, cultural awareness, and conflict resolution. Seattle’s small program, serving females referred by juvenile courts, focused on counseling and help with school and work. According to Curry (1998, p. 26), “All three programs have been held up as models by their respective communities, and all have received national attention.” The final evaluation revealed significant reductions in five types of delinquency for youth in the Pueblo program and a significant reduction in carrying weapons among youth in the Seattle program (Williams, Cohen, and Curry, 1999). However, the programs were discontinued in 1995. “The growing disfavor for non-law-enforcement-based programs in Congress and the non-enthusiastic evaluation results,” Curry argues, led to their demise and also precipitated the termination of other gang prevention projects funded by FYSB. The 11 FYSB programs represent the most important Federal efforts to date to provide programs specifically for female gang members.

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Female Gangs: A Focus on Research Juvenile Justice Bulletin March 2001