LOS ANGELES — Melissa Pirraglio spent many of her 11 years of gang life in drug-addled despair seeking a way out.
"There's an inkling in every single gang member looking for an opportunity to come out," said Pirraglio, now 34 and a counselor to troubled youth. "You get to the point where you see the whole lifestyle is a lie."
Anti-gang crusaders have known for years that tapping that inner desire can provide a path out of gangs — the problem is finding it in young people hardened by deep mistrust of outsiders and holding little hope in their futures.
Now researchers in Los Angeles think they have a test to measure how likely a gang member is to leave the gang.
"The big question has always been 'how do we get folks out?'" said the city's anti-gang chief Guillermo Cespedes.
The new experiment in the field of gang intervention continues a psychology-based approach started two years ago by the mayor's anti-gang office with a test aimed at finding youngsters likely to join a gang.
Social psychologists at the University of Southern California developed the questionnaires to identify youths likely to either join or leave a gang and get them the support they need to avoid gang life or help them leave it.
The new test is set to be rolled out this month with 80 gang members who anti-gang counselors know through their street outreach programs.
If their loyalty wavers, anti-gang counselors will step up efforts to encourage them to quit. That can include enrolling in drug rehab and job training, as well as working with gang members' families to mend fractured relationships.
Gauging someone's tendency to leave a gang is difficult. It's a decision that usually takes time to come to, and is often triggered by major life change such as the birth of a child, the death of a loved one to gang violence, or the prospect of a lengthy prison sentence. Some gang members simply burn out.
"People come to personal individual turning points and it's not something you can measure," said Jorja Leap, a University of California, Los Angeles social welfare professor who is in the third of a five-year study of gang members who escape the lifestyle.
The new survey, which cost about $65,000 to develop, follows the moderately successful gang-joining test. Approximately 3,000 pre-teen and early teens were found at risk of gang membership, according to report released last summer by the Urban Institute.
After those kids participated in after-school programs and their parents took part in parenting workshops, they were found to have more positive attitudes and fewer delinquent behaviors.
That's encouraging in a city that has been beleaguered by a four-decade-old gang problem. Los Angeles is the nation's gang capital with an estimated 41,000 gang members in 700 gangs.
The new psychological test picks up where the first left off.
USC researchers came up with measures of the strength of a gang member's allegiance and to what extent he derives his identity from the gang.
"The group exerts a powerful influence on the individual. With gangs, we want to try to reduce that group influence," said Karen Hennigan, assistant psychology professor at USC who developed the questionnaire. "So the question is 'how well can you hold your own against the group?' We call it the 'I position'."
Anti-gang counselors, who are often former gang members, will ask questions ranging from participation in sports and church groups to the number of family dependents to reactions to such statements as "being in a group is an important part of my life."
One challenge may be finding gang members willing to take the survey, particularly if it's perceived as judgmental.
Hennigan said anti-gang counselors will approach gang members saying the survey will be used to help improve their lives. At the very least, the aim is to get gang members to stop violent behavior, if they can't exit the gang altogether.
"There can be resentment," Hennigan said. "They may not want to leave per se."
It also may not do much for the hard-core gang members who are responsible for much of the violence, but repeated testing could show if ongoing mentoring by anti-gang counselors is changing attitudes or behavior.
Former gang members say anything that could steer more support to exiting gang members, from helping them reconnect with estranged family members to job leads, would help.
"There's a lot of drifting," said Trent Grandberry, a former hardcore South Los Angeles gang member who is now an anti-gang counselor.
It took him more than 20 years for Grandberry to eschew gang life. Having children and getting fed up with a revolving prison door helped him get out, but life without the gang was initially emotionally difficult.
"The gang culture is embedded in you — the way you walk, talk, dress," said Grandberry, 41. "You don't have friends outside the gang. You have to come to a point where you can deal with being alone."
Pirraglio said she ended up alone on Skid Row when she abandoned her gang.
"Everything got so despairing," she recalled. "I walked away from everything. Everybody thought I was dead."
It took a life-threatening heart condition and a six-week hospitalization when she had a spiritual epiphany that finally turned her life around. Now, she often wonders whether anti-gang counseling would've sped up her exit from drugs and violence.
"The power of someone investing in you and pointing out your potential is so important," she said. "You need someone to believe in you."
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