What do Cumberland County Sheriff Earl Butler and local psychologist Dr. Robin Jenkins have in common?
    {mosimage}They both agree that the county has a serious gang problem — especially youths involved in gangs — and both are working with local agencies and officials to clean up the mess before it steals the future of more children and creates more victims of gang-related crime.
    But taking up the fight hasn’t always been a priority.
    Butler said the old party line was that Cumberland County didn’t have any gang problems. He changed his mind following a summit on gangs 10 years ago that featured officials and officers from the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, as well as law enforcement representatives from such gang-infested cities as New York and Chicago.
    After the summit, Butler said he felt a need to take a closer look at the problem.
    Then came the murders.
    In 1998, as part of a gang initiation for the local branch of the nationally known Crips, Francisco Tirado and Eric Queen abducted and murdered Tracy Lambert and Susan Moore. They also abducted Debra Cheeseborugh, who was shot and left for dead on Fort Bragg Reservation, though she survived and was able to identify her would-be killers.
    The bullets were painted in the Crip’s signature blue.
    “I’ve been in office going on 14 years and that was my first real experience with a gang as creating a real problem, particularly a murder,” said Butler.
    While Butler classifies most youthful gang members as “wannabes,” living the gangster lifestyle they see portrayed by the mass media, law enforcement agencies have documented the presence of 11 verified gangs in the county, including such infamous groups as the aforementioned Crips, Bloods, Folk Nation, Gangster Disciples and MS-13.
    Butler said the sheriff’s department is utilizing several methods to identify and crack down on gangs, including enlisting the aid of the community to identify potential and actual gang members through the Cumberland Gang Hotline (433-1524) — which allows the caller to remain anonymous.
    The sheriff’s department has released Gang Awareness: A Guide For Parents & Community Members, free to the community to provide warning signs of gang involvement.
    As another answer to the growth of gangs, Butler tapped two officers to make gang investigation their primary focus. Butler said he would like to hire an entire unit to confront the problem, but economic realities make that impossible. So, standing on the thin line between gangs and the county’s residents is a pair of officers specializing in gangs: Sgt. David Dowless and Detective Nicole Poverone.
    Dowless, a member of the sheriff’s department since 1996, has steadily watched as gang influence has grown in the schools, attracting members as young as 9-10-years-old.
    “In the Spring Lake area I was called to one of the elementary schools by one of the teachers who said she never thought she’d see the day she’d be calling us out to look at one (gang member),” said Dowless. “The mother had requested that a gang officer talk to her son.”
    Dowless and Poverone said that cracking down via law enforcement helps neutralize gangs and the problems they create in the schools and communities; however, Dowless said this is only a “Band-Aid” approach — that the problem is social and must be confronted at its roots.
    That’s where Dr. Jenkins comes into the picture. As executive director of CommuniCare — a nonprofit agency under the auspices of the United Way of Cumberland County — Jenkins accepts referrals from school resource officers and legal and judicial authorities when children at risk of joining gangs or already involved in gangs are identified. CommuniCare then works with the child and the child’s family to formulate a plan to alter the destructive behavior.
    However, the trick is getting the parents to come along for the ride.
    “If they’re not court-compelled to participate, we can’t force them to do that, only recommend that they do so,” said Jenkins. “Our biggest challenges are to try and educate parents that this is not a passing fad because it can grow into something serious. We are faced with a lot of parents who are doing the best they can, working a couple of jobs, maybe with two or three kids at home — they need help supervising and structuring their children’s lives because they are relying on the older children to watch their child.{mosimage}
    “Even if they come and say ‘I agree. I want my child to have all these services,’ getting them to those services is problematic,” added Jenkins, noting that working parents often don’t have the time or can’t afford to take the time off to make the appointments.
    If the parents and suspected gang member do agree to visit CommuniCare’s office, Jenkins said behavior modification is used to try and set the child straight. The child is taught life skills and how to make ethical choices and form positive relationships. He’s also given the hard truth: Gang life ends in prison.
    But Jenkins said you have to be diplomatic when you talk to suspected gang members. “It’s not useful to try and argue a kid out of a gang,” said Jenkins. “It’s the same as if in a normally developing child who wants to grow his hair long or wants to wear the same dirty shirt for three days straight. The more you hammer away at somebody, the more oppositional they become.”
    While Jenkins said the county’s school system records “hundreds” of suspected gang activities annually, CommuniCare had just 40 youth walk through the door in about a year’s time. And even though he said the group has had some success, the final outcome is not known. What he does know is that it takes a whole community to solve the youth gang issue.
    “Parents really need to be involved,” said Jenkins. “Law enforcement and CommuniCare can’t solve this. What makes a community safe from youth crime is a very positive system of parental engagement, strong social supports, church and faith-based organizations — a real community effort. We can’t do this by ourselves.”


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