There has been a notable and detrimental uptick in gang activity, recruitment and sex trafficking among youths in Greater Victoria and when school is out for summer, there is always an increase in teens getting themselves indebted to gangs.
These gangs exist in Victoria, on Vancouver Island and in recent years, they have been coming to the island from the mainland in increasing numbers for recruitment.
On May 30th, School District 61 (SD61) sent out a letter to parents warning them of the fact that gang activity does occur and youths are often made targets in the summer months because they are vulnerable and have free, unsupervised time to spare.
In this letter, Aaron Parker, Principal of Victoria High School warned of some telltale signs of gang involvement and pleaded with parents to have conversations with their children regarding the harm that can befall them if they continue on that path.
Following this letter being sent to parents, SD61 subsequently issued a media release to let parents know the letter was informed by local police and was issued out of an abundance of caution.
SD61 was simply trying to keep parents informed of the issue of gang activity, what it can lead to and the impact it can have on children who fall prey to being groomed to participate in these criminal organizations.
What’s being done to prevent gang recruitment?
In Greater Victoria, efforts are being made to thwart youth gang activity through the collaboration of the Crime Reduction and Exploitation Diversion (CRED) program, which is funded by the Pacific Centre Family Services Association and the regional police’s Mobile Youth Services Team (MYST).
This collaboration consists of one confidential youth counsellor representing CRED and a police officer partner who will rotate out every two to five years.
Mia Golden is the counsellor who has been representing CRED since the collaboration began in 2014.
“The whole mandate is having one counsellor and one police officer, and even though there’s a police officer attached, there’s no arresting of youth,” Golden told Victoria Buzz.
“This is solely support.”
Golden and her MYST counterpart work with over 200 youth who have or have been making decisions that unknowingly put themselves and their families at risk.
Day-to-day, the two-person team will hold a triage meeting to arrange their day which could include information sessions at schools, searching for a missing youth, meeting with the youths they work with, providing information to parents whose children may be at-risk and much more.
Ultimately, they are providing resources as well as counselling to get Victoria’s youth out of their gang affiliations and helping prevent at-risk teens from going down a path that could alter the course of their lives.
What happens when a youth is recruited for gang activity?
Typically young males and females between the ages of 12 to 19-years-old are both targeted, but for different reasons.
Golden says that boys are oftentimes targeted for drug dealing, which might begin with selling vape supplies and girls as well as boys who are gay are usually the targets for sex trafficking.
Gangs have many ways to recruit and indebt the youths they target.
“What we see is a lot of kids are asked if they want to make money,” Golden said.
She explained that they are usually given something easy like vapes or high-end clothing to sell to their peers or they are asked to bring a package somewhere, but it typically starts out relatively easy.
It usually escalates from there after they have made a bit of money — then the youths will find that their groomer will be asking them for money.
“It’s always different and sometimes it’s immediate but usually what happens is they will get jumped and that is pre arranged by people that they are working for,” Golden told Victoria Buzz.
“It will seem like it’s a random person but it’s not, and their product is stolen and now they owe a significant amount of money to their handler, to their gang.”
From there she said that they are sometimes given more product which is more in quantity and could be a ‘higher quality’ substance, such as cocaine or crystal meth.
This is much harder for them to sell in order to make up the money, which effectively traps the youths in the gangs service until they can pay back what is owed.
Another method gangs will use to recruit youths is to be ‘friended’, meaning their groomer will invite them out drinking or bring them to a party.
That friendship will sometimes escalate to having them do favours for their groomer or the youth will be intentionally hooked on drugs to keep them close and in debt to the gang recruiting them.
In these friendships, sometimes the recruiter will give gifts like bluetooth earpods or cell phones which are able to be tracked by the gang, so the youths’ movements are always known to them.
Although there are patterns, these gangs are inventive and always finding new ways to exploit their targets.
How can parents protect their children?
Golden says parents can be on the lookout for warning signs to avoid having their children be recruited.
“The warning signs are a change in a friend group, having potentially some older people showing an interest in them, changes in behaviour, dropping extra-curricular activities, wearing [gang] colours, suddenly having money or new things they didn’t have before… just really noticing a change in behaviour,” Golden explained.
If any warning signs are noticed by a parent, Golden recommends first and foremost, having honest conversations with their children.
“Definitely have conversations,” said Golden. “We recommend having ongoing conversations anyways.”
“What we hope for is what we call the ‘approachable parent’, so parents who are able to take in information, even if it’s scary, and to still be able to be there for their child.”
There are also resources in Greater Victoria such as CRED and MYST as well as local police departments.
If a youth has become involved in gang activity?
It is a very difficult and arduous process to get a youth out of a gang once they are involved, according to Golden.
The impacts of trying to get a youth out of this lifestyle once their indebted is a long and arduous one that impacts the entire family and in some severe cases, will continue to do so for years.
“Often there’s a price for them to pay to get out,” Golden said. “Some will pay that but sometimes that’s not enough.”
“We recommend moving, getting rid of your old phones, moving off all social media sites which is really challenging for youths because that’s their connection to their peers.”
“The reality is that in some situations it’s just not going to be safe, so moving away for six months to a year to two years depending on the situation and just starting completely fresh, but staying off all social media platforms for quite some time,” she added.
CRED and MYST approach each situation as unique and continue to work with hundreds of youths directly and indirectly who have become involved in gang activity and other forms of exploitation.
SD61, CRED and local police departments throughout Greater Victoria are all working in collaboration to prevent and intervene in the increasing gang activity, but parents are always the first line of defense in protecting their own children.