Seeking a Secure Base: Gangs as Attachment Figures

Katherine De Vito

Study Purpose

De Vito, K. (2019). Seeking a secure base: Gangs as attachment figures. Qualitative Social Work. Advanced online publication. doi:10.1177/1473325019852659

Street gangs are problematic throughout the world. Youth involved with street gangs are at a higher risk for winding up seriously physically injured, dead, or incarcerated. The purpose of this qualitative research study was to examine (a) how the childhood experiences of former gang members shape their decision to join a gang and (b) the factors that contribute to former gang members’ decisions to disengage from gang membership. This study will promotes the use of attachment theory to analyze motivating/disengagement factors for gang involvement. The voices of fourteen former gang members are heard through qualitative interviews. Thematic analysis was used to identify the following themes: Lack of Family Consistency, Brotherhood, Sisterhood, Unity: Gang as Replacement Family, “No other Option,” and “Death, Jail, or a Turnaround:” Making the Decision to Disengage. Findings could be used to aid in youth gang prevention and intervention.

Source: NPR

                 Study Findings                 

Lack of Family Consistency

Participants of the study all experienced a lack of family consistency with their primary caregivers. There was a disruption in their attachment. 

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Source: Nicolas Enriquez, The Daily News

Brotherhood, Sisterhood, Unity

Participants felt that gangs were a replacement family. When the primary attachment figure is absent, the youth looked outside to a gang to fill that void and provide what was missing, such as attention, support, affection, and a sense of unity. 

MSpencer Green AP US News.jpg

Source: MSpencer Green AP US News

No Other Option

Some participants felt as if they had no other option but to join a gang because of social environment factors. Joining a gang seemed like it was an inevitable life course. With no secure attachment at home, participants had to look outside the family and gangs were readily available in the environment. 

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Source: Boston Globe/Chron

Death, Jail, or a Turnaround

Participants reached a point where they wanted a better life for themselves and wanted to embrace another life and a complete turnaround. They realized that staying in the gang lifestyle would only lead to a grim outcome like death or jail. 

Marvin Recinos Chron.jpg

Source: Marvin Recinos/Chron