by Laura Rodgers, Abbotsford News
Can gang violence be stopped before it begins?
An Abbotsford group is trying. The South Asian Community Resource Office, a youth outreach program run by Abbotsford Community Services, works with local at-risk youth to help them achieve positive goals and avoid getting caught up in gangs and crime.
For the young people they help, success doesn’t always look the same: some may want to attend university, others hope to stay out of trouble and repair strained family relationships. SACRO staff let their clients set their own goals, and meet with them on their own schedules. It’s an approach yielding positive results, and it gives staff unique insight into crime, conflict and community in Townline Hill and elsewhere.
“We help them with goals, on their own terms,” said Parveen Uppal, SACRO’s case manager. She notes that youth being drawn to criminal groups is in no way a problem faced only by the South Asian community. But a culturally nuanced approach to prevention and intervention, she said, can be the best way to help.
The program is currently working with 35 young people, and more cases will be taken on as the school year continues.
Youngsters are referred to SACRO by schools or police for a variety of reasons – from skipping class, to schoolyard scuffles, to involvement in serious crimes. Youth workers start with a confidential in-depth interview to get to know their clients’ lives, challenges, and goals for the future. Then, they check in weekly, and encourage youth to take steps toward those goals.
“A lot of what we help with is getting the youth back into the school system,” said Uppal. Many of the kids referred to her have been kicked out of mainstream high schools over disciplinary or drug issues. She’ll encourage these kids to stay out of trouble and stay on top of their online or alternate-school coursework, and then use those positive records to advocate for them returning to mainstream schools.
Uppal expects they will be over-capacity for clients this year, and suspects even more youth could use SACRO’s help, but some may worry about whether joining the program will come with a stigma. She wants to stress that the program is completely confidential.
“It’s not going to happen overnight, but we’re trying to do whatever we can in the community,” she said.
Gary Dhindsa, one of the program’s youth workers, says helping his clients is a complex challenge.
Often, the youth who are recruited by violent or criminal groups are quite young – some are even in middle school.
“You can bribe a kid … get them to deliver a package for $100,” he said. “It’s the most vulnerable ones who get targeted.”
For his clients, the allure of joining a criminal group is often about social status.
“They want to hang out with the people with power,” he said. “They want to fit in. They want to be known as being connected to this organization.”
Most of Abbotsford’s South Asian youth, he notes, are a high-achieving group.
But when any young person falls in with the wrong crowd, there’s the potential to fall far.
Some of his troubled clients are involved with smaller-scale conflicts, aligning with groups of other young people who frequently get into fights with rivals. Others find themselves drawn in by a more serious criminal element, hanging out with “friends” in their late 20s or older and getting involved in the drug trade.
These two sorts of problems likely have some connection, although that’s unclear.
Some of the more serious criminal groups, Uppal noted, may be recruiting youth at unexpected locations – like local gyms. It’s impossible to isolate the kids from all risk, so Dhindsa instead encourages parents to set boundaries, know where their kids are, and spend quality time together as a family.
“A lot of them just need a push in the right direction and a person who holds them accountable for their actions,” he said.