Net Loss

Robert is in his mid-teens and has been involved in gangs since he was 10.

That kind of admission has become almost a cliché in the past decade, as the media, the courts and the political system grapple with the pressing problems of a dysfunctional society and the increasingly violent nature of its children.

Robert fits the stereotype well, and there are other things about him that make him perfect for one of the many taxpayer-funded programs designed as a societal safety net for so-called at-risk youth.

He is a member of a gang that he prefers did not see him quoted in the paper. He believes -- knows -- he'll be beaten or worse if his real name and gang affiliation are revealed.

Like many youngsters who fall from families to gangs and the streets, he has seen more than his share of family problems and abuse. He has seen family members beaten. He has felt himself an outcast.

He moved with his family to the Valley several years ago and immediately fell in with the wrong crowd. He sniffed paint, and used and sold marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines. He has been in and out of numerous counseling programs. None has worked. He is a bright kid, but has shown little interest in school. He says one day he'd like to help other troubled kids. He has been in and out of jail and juvenile detention. He has been on probation. He wants to leave the gang, but he says he can't shake its "state of mind."

"Gangs give you a bigger front," Robert explains. "They give you more power. I know if I really need help, it'll be there for me. It's almost like a second family. For some people, it is their family. We keep in touch."

Now, Robert is in trouble again because he chose not to call his probation officer one day.

Anti-gang programs haven't really done Robert much good. They kept him busy for a few hours or a few days that he otherwise might have spent getting into serious trouble. The criminal justice system -- punishment and intensive supervision -- also hasn't impressed Robert.

The grip of the gangs has proved too strong for Robert and thousands of Valley kids like him. It is very hard to pry them loose.

"One of the things I'm afraid of is if I get out of it, I won't know how to live," says Robert. "In the gang, I know I can depend on people and they can depend on me.

"If I get out, I won't know who to go to. It means new friends. It would almost be like losing another family."

Gang violence has been a serious problem in the Valley for more than 20 years, although gangs have been a more benign part of the social structure for much longer. Gang violence rose steadily through the early 1990s; between 1990 and 1994, gang-related homicides climbed 800 percent, police records show.

But while gangs have grown, city and state officials have been slow to react; in Phoenix, many gang and youth programs have been in place for only a few years.

And many are arguably ineffective. A recent New Times survey of city agencies, schools and civic groups in the Valley neighborhoods most plagued by juvenile crime revealed a haphazard network of programs, inconsistent in their focus and their quality.

New Times examined programs offered by hundreds of schools, parks facilities, teen centers, YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs, Salvation Army centers, Little Leagues and other community organizations. They touch on everything from child care and T-ball to gang prevention, tattoo removal, tutoring and parenting skills. Many institutions lack facilities, staff and, in the case of programs that attempt to get kids out of gangs, follow-through.

The survey also found a profound lack of safe venues outside of school for teens in these crime-plagued neighborhoods. Most schools depend entirely on outside money and programs for after-hours activities. If schools can't or won't host them, these neighborhoods have few alternatives for children within easy walking distance.

Most religious institutions also have turned their backs on the neighborhoods that need them most. A similar New Times survey of 310 religious organizations in the same neighborhoods found only about a dozen programs geared toward neighborhood kids.

Moreover, many of the programs available to Valley youth are aimed at intervention -- dealing with kids already in gangs and already in trouble.

But experts have said for years that prevention should be the focus -- keeping kids from getting in the gangs in the first place. That means catching kids at a very young age and fixing entire families. And confronting poverty and economic blight in neighborhoods that have little, if any, political voice.