Abstract: The Importance of Social Ecologies and Adaptable Service Approaches for Addressing Youth Gang Substance Use (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

The Importance of Social Ecologies and Adaptable Service Approaches for Addressing Youth Gang Substance Use

Friday, January 17, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 8, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Asia Bishop, MSW, Predoctoral Research Associate, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Christopher Fleming, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR
Paula Nurius, PhD, Professor, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Jessica Ramirez, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Washington, WA
Background and Purpose: Research has emphasized risks and consequences of youth gang involvement, implicating policies and programs focused heavily on violence prevention and gang desistance. Yet, many gang youth experience social and economic marginalization, and like other marginalized youth, are at increased risk of health risk behaviors (Sanders et al., 2009). These include consistently higher rates of substance use, including earlier onset, more frequent and/or chronic use, and higher average lifetime use. Importantly, research to date has largely focused on these youth’s differences from non-gang youth, thus treating gang-involved youth as a homogeneous group with similar ecological risks. There are gaps in documenting within-group heterogeneity for gang-involved youth, including the social-ecological factors that are likely to promote or inhibit particular patterns of use, which is the focus of this study.

Methods: Data come from the 2016 Washington Healthy Youth Survey (HYS), a state-representative sample of students in 8th, 10th, and 12th grades. The analysis sample consisted of 2,770 youth who self-identified as gang-involved. The sample was racially/ethnically diverse, 60% male, and on average 14.84 (SD=1.65) years old. Latent Class Analysis (LCA) using indicators of substance type, frequency of use, and access sources identified classes of gang-involved youth relative to their substance use patterns. Using social-ecological theory as a guiding framework (Merrin et al., 2015), ANOVA and chi-square tests examined group mean and proportional differences across an array of indicators linked to adolescent substance use.

Results: Based on model fit (AIC, BIC), interpretation, and parsimony, a four-class solution was selected, identifying: Non-users (19%); Past users of illicit drugs (8%); Non-illicit experimenters with low access (40%); and Regular multi-substance users with high access (33%). Social-ecological risks across the individual, family, peer, school and community domains were consistently highest for the Regular use group. Regular users were less likely to live with two parents in their own home, and more likely to experience poverty, poor mental health, engage in physical fights, truancy and worse grades, feel that school is unsafe, and have lower perceptions of substance use as harmful. Regular users also reported higher parental, peer, and neighbor acceptance of substance use. Non-illicit experimenters had elevated, but slightly lower risk than Regular users. Non-users and Past users were similarly lower in their social-ecological risks. Past users had similar or lower risk than Non-users, but greater consequences associated with use. Groups varied little by demographic characteristics.

Conclusions and Implications: Findings provide valuable insight into the importance of social ecologies for varied substance use among gang-involved youth, highlighting the need for service approaches that are sensitive to context. While a large proportion of the sample were active and/or frequent users, many gang-involved youth were not users, underscoring the need for less assumptive models (Sanders, 2012). Additionally, gang-involved youth with increasingly serious patterns of use had worsening ecological risk across domains. Addressing disparities in social and health outcomes will require moving beyond traditional approaches. Research and practice efforts that are sensitive to gang-specific differences in social ecologies of risk will be discussed.