Families, police fight to keep kids on track
Program targets youth at risk of being recruited into gangs to end supply of ‘cannon fodder’
The deadly war erupting on city streets is so vicious, it steered a former gang member to police seeking help rescuing his own son from its clutches.
“When you’re scared for your kids, you’d do anything,” said David, who spent nearly two decades ensnarled in an outlaw motorcycle club and doesn’t want his name printed.
“What I see on the street now, I don’t want my son anywhere near these guys. There is no loyalty or brotherhood,” said David, once a high-ranking biker in an underworld governed by much different street rules.
The gang war may have claimed its latest victim after a fatal shooting Saturday night in Chinatown.
Through a phone call from the school board just over a year ago, David learned the worst about his troublesome boy — 15-year-old Dean was running with a bad crowd on the periphery of a dangerous gangster network.
The cold hard truth struck the single father with fear. He was desperate for answers.
The former outlaw called the Calgary Police Service gang help line.
“I figured there was no one better to talk to than the guys who know this stuff,” said David. “I called and said, ‘I want to know if he's in a gang, and who they are, and where they hang out.’ ”
David was planning on confronting the gangsters to deliver a message himself.
Instead, the next day he got a knock on his front door that he says changed his family’s life.
Const. Allan Devolin rived with a plan.
“He reassured me: ‘This is how deep your kid is in.’ It was at the point where it could have gone either way, but it wasn’t too late,” said David.
It is an unlikely friendship — the biker, the cop and the troubled kid.
But over time, Devolin has become a bridge connecting the generation gap between father and son.
“He gave me back my son. I owe him everything,” said David.
Devolin is one of two police officers and two social workers behind the Youth At Risk Development (YARD) program targeting kids 10 to 17 who are showing symptoms of falling into the street gang world. YARD works with families to intervene and help steer teens out of the criminal realm.
Gang members in Calgary have doubled in the past five years, police say. The city has an estimated 400 gang members involved in up to 12 active gangs being watched. The average age is 20.
By the time David realized how deeply Dean was entrenched in the wrong crowd, the wedge between father and son seemed insurmountable.
“To him, I’m a chronic windbag, actually. I’m carping on him on the same thing over and over. When you’re talking, they’re not hearing. It’s not their fault, it’s how they’re programmed,” said David.
“Al took his blinders off. What they talk about stays between him and Al. It’s been beneficial for him to have a sounding board.”
It took some time, but Dean started listening to Devolin. And then he started talking.
“Al got me my first job. He showed me I could get one. He knows I’m not stupid,” said Dean, who is now 16. “It’s good to know he’s on my side.”
Dean said he sees life a little
than he did
last differently year.
“The more choices you make, the more options you have.
“It helps me look at it in a bigger picture, not so much one track.”
David said he sees the results already.
“I’ve seen a big difference in him. A more grown-up outlook. An understanding, the whole maturity thing,” he said. “His eyes have been opened.”
As a parent, David said the reality of Calgary’s gang problem is frightening, especially for teens who are all too eager to make powerful friends.
“I know exactly what it would lead to. You don't want their life expended by some dirt bag in his 40s that no one knows. They use their loyalty to line their pockets. They’re cannon fodder.”
The lure to join the criminal crowd can be hard to resist, Devolin says.
“It’s a lot more nebulous than you would think. There’s no manual on recruitment. These young guys, a lot of these kids are marginalized in the community. Predominantly that’s what we see,” he said. “Before they know it, they’re in a situation where they’re involved in violence or drugs or both.
“They’ll sell it a bunch of different ways. One of it is family. If they don’t have positive relationships at home, then they will seek them out in the community. The gangs will welcome them with open arms. One of the packages the gangs will sell is that they have got their back, they are family and they provide that sense of belonging that all kids need and want. If they’re not being provided that in the community, they’ll seek it out in less positive and anti-social ways, and that’s a gang.”
YARD began as a gang strategy pilot program two years ago. The federal funding is now nearly $1.2 million (with in kind funding from the city and police) from the National Crime Prevention Centre and runs until 2011.
Dean, who is on probation for petty crimes that were rapidly adding up, isn't out of the woods, yet. He still runs with the same crowd.
But through Devolin, the YARD program has shown him that the gang life is not going to serve him, but rather sacrifice his life.
“It takes a special kind of guy to do this. Once in a while a man gets the privilege of meeting someone like that,” said David.
“I owe him a lot. There's some things you just can’t ever repay.”
The gang help line number is 403-205-8191.
Seen in shadows, a father who was once a member of a biker gang and his son, who was following his footsteps into a gang life. But with the help of Const. Allan Devolin and the Youth at Risk Development program, the family and police force are steering...