Understanding trauma is key to any successful gang strategy

Kathy Stiell shared this CBC news article that describes efforts in Ottawa and Toronto to address gangs.


Deal with youth trauma to deal with gang problems, says social worker

The keynote speaker at a city-wide summit of police, youth workers, educators, and community agencies on the front line of the struggle against street gangs says understanding trauma is key to any successful gang strategy.

Tom Walker, a social worker and trauma counsellor who played a key role in Toronto’s successful “Breaking the Cycle” program, says early childhood trauma is often at the root of gang involvement later in life.

He says some young people struggle to control their emotions because of their rough upbringing.

“I have kids that will shoot kids because they’re looking at them. We’ve got to understand why that’s happening. It’s a key, key issue,” Walker told the conference.

“A lot of the kids I work with, they think they’re going to be dead before they’re 18, 19. They’re not looking at the future, they’re looking at living today.

Walker said he’s seen firsthand the effects of childhood neglect, even in the most hardened gang members. He says young people turn to gangs because that’s where they finally feel safe.

“We have to understand what we’re up against,” Walker said. “It’s about relationship, it’s about engaging.”

The one-day conference, organized by Crime Prevention Ottawa, was called “Gangs, Trauma and Community: Improving Outcomes.

Police say getting people to talk a big problem

The conference also heard from Ottawa Police Staff Sgt. Ken Bryden, who’s spent four years with the force’s guns and gangs unit.

“These men and women, these young kids, have been subject to a different upbringing, a different lifestyle,” Bryden said. “All the good things these guys and girls never got, the gang gives it to them: Self-confidence, self-esteem, friendship, all that stuff.”

To illustrate how difficult is can be for police it investigate gang-related shootings, Bryden showed two surveillance videos.

The first, from 2009, shows a suspect poking a gun inside the front door of the NuDen strip club and firing off five rounds. A doorman was hit twice in the abdomen, but survived.

The second, from last year, shows a chaotic scene in a parking lot near Merivale Road and Shillington Avenue. Seventeen shots are fired.

Numerous people witnessed the two incidents, but only one — the injured doorman — ever talked to police, Bryden said.

“We’ve got everything we need in place to put together a hell of a prosecution package, but nobody wants to talk to us,” Bryden said. “And I get it, I really do.”

Bryden said judicial releases — when suspects in gang-related crimes are set free with conditions — pose another “huge challenge” for police.

Budget money just the beginning, says Watson

“We put the time and effort and resources into doing what we do and holding people accountable for these acts of violence…now we need to invest that time again to supervise.”

The City of Ottawa has earmarked $400,000 in its 2015 draft budget for an exit strategy and employment program for adult gang members, but mayor Jim Watson acknowledged that alone won’t solve the city’s gang problem.

“We have to start somewhere,” Watson told the conference, adding this is the first time the municipality has committed money to such a program.

Conference organizers also acknowledge there’s easy solution to such a complicated issue, but say getting all the agencies involved in the issue under one roof to talk develop a cooperative approach is a vital first step.

“What we’re doing here today is trying to raise the bar on our understanding,” said Nancy Worsfold, executive director of Crime Prevention Ottawa. “These are complex issues and we need a sophisticated response.”

There were a record-high 49 gang-related shootings in Ottawa last year; so far in 2015, there has only been one incident.


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