Dolores Walker says goodbye to her son Joseph Briggs during a funeral service at New Zion Grove Missionary Baptist Church on June 20, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Sherri Landrum’s life has been turned upside down by gang violence not once, but twice.

In 2003, her 17-year-old daughter, Shekura, was shot while hanging out with a friend. “From what we’ve heard the shooting was an initiation for some guy to prove himself to get into a gang,” said Landrum, 49, of Denver, a single mom of nine children. “She still has a bullet lodged in her right ankle and even to this day is in constant pain.”

Then, just a year later, Landrum’s 21-year-old son, Kurt Levias, was shot to death coming out of a hip-hop concert at Denver’s Bluebird Theatre. “These kids think the way to say they are tough is to use a gun and take someone’s life.”

Like many black-on-black crimes, despite witnesses, the perpetrators have never been arrested. “When it’s a crime in our community it’s brushed under the carpet and no one seems to care,” says Dianne Harrell, of Denver, whose son was murdered six years ago.

Indeed, gang violence is a growing epidemic across America and according to the 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment, gangs are expanding, evolving, and posing an increasing threat to communities. In fact, a disturbing trend is for children as young as 8-years-old to be involved in gang activity.

“Gang violence is an enormous and big problem in every major city,” says Brian Center, Executive Director of A Better LA, a non-profit organization committed to reducing violence by empowering change in L.A. communities.

“In Los Angeles we have multi-generational gangs, with kids growing up in gang families,” says Center. “We also see gang members recruiting kids who are around 8-years-old. It’s only when they are teenagers that we really we start to see the violence”

There are many reasons why a pre-teens and young people decide to join a gang. At the top of the list is a need for power and recognition, especially for youngsters who feel a sense of hopelessness because of racism, poverty or a lack of support.

“We are trying to tackle the issue of urban decay and kids living in war zones,” says Terrance Roberts, a former member of the Bloods gang and founder of the Prodigal Son Initiative, an after-school program in Denver for at-risk youth.

“A lot of people look at what they are running to but we look at what they are running from,” says Skipp Townsend, executive director of 2nd Call, a Los Angeles based organization which works with at risk youth and ex-felons. “It’s a lack of something, like they could be running from a dysfunctional home.”

”Most often they feel isolated and cut off and the gangs offer them love, family and protection,” says Center.

There are several clues that parents can spot to indicate that a child is involved in gang activity.” Some of the early signs that kids have joined gangs are signs or symbols parents haven’t seen before, changes in behavior at home or in school, becoming more secretive and starting to wear specific colors”, says Bruce Ferrell, president of the National Alliance of Gang Investigators Associations.

“Parents need to be active in their children’s life and not give them the chance to create alternative role models,” says Townsend. “They need to be bilingual to understand the language of their children and what their child is going through.

“Parents can protect their children by being involved in their activities and making sure they have positive role models to keep them out of gangs,” says Ferrell. “We provide after school programs which soaks up the downtime that a lot these kids have,” says Roberts.

In Los Angeles, the deputy mayor Guillermo Cespedes is spearheading an innovative, relatively new gang strategy, to combat street gangs in a city blighted by violence. “We implement a comprehensive strategy that includes prevention, intervention, re-entry and law enforcement,” Cespedes told theGrio.

His Gang Reduction and Youth Development program, or GRYD, uses a scientific and methodological approach to identify how likely high-risk kids will join a gang, says Cespedes.

There are many indicators whether the child is likely to join a gang, such as whether he or she is committed to the code of the street, a lack of commitment to school or substance abuse, says Cespedes.

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