Print Edition: February 26, 2014
While debate in Abbotsford has been heating up over homelessness, Abbotsford Community Services (ACS) has been implementing programming to help fight youth crime in the city.
On January 31, ACS received $6.3 million over five years from the federal government to help fund programs and staff positions geared toward crime prevention for at-risk youth. Working with key community partners, such as the school district, the police department, and John Howard Society, ACS hopes to give comprehensive local support to youth in need of help.
Youth crime in Abbotsford is unique in that much of it does not consist of young gang members fighting each other, but rather low-level involvement with established gangs that leads to deeper affiliation.
“It’s not as if we have specific gangs of youth who are targeting one another,” explains ACS community coordinator Alison Gutrath. “It’s more teenagers becoming affiliated with an adult gang and don’t even realize it, because they’ve been selling drugs or they’ve been delivering packages for someone and don’t totally see that it’s part of the larger gangs.”
Through new staff positions, such as a school district teacher working to help educators identify at-risk students, and various community forums, ACS hopes to help both youth and their families learn techniques to combat this type of gang involvement. Gutrath notes that one important initiative revolves around educating adults about the role of technology in gang communication.
“From Facebook, to Instagram, to Snapchat … social media is also how youth are communicating with one another and they’re able to do that in such a way that parents don’t always know who they’re talking to,” she says. “It’s not as if the [gang-affiliated] person has to phone on the landline of the house anymore … it’s different now.”
Beyond gang prevention at the school level, the John Howard Society will also help youth coming out of correctional facilities reintegrate with the local community. The hope is, with support, these individuals will not re-enter gang life.
“They will be working with young adults up to age 24, who have served a sentence [for] gang-related charges, or they’re at risk of becoming gang-involved after their sentence,” says Gutrath. “So they will be providing outreach support for people who have been identified and are coming back into the community.”
While the issue of youth gang involvement has been a problem in the city for some time, Gutrath notes that Abbotsford received the federal funding at just the right moment, as all the necessary community players are ready to work together.
“We’ve been working over the years, even over the past decade, around supporting youth who are at risk of gang involvement,” Gutrath says. “Now we’re at a place where we have a lot of our community partners ready to work together and really focus on the needs of our very high risk youth.”