One teenager formed a gang because his peers were picking on him. Another imagined the lifestyle could be a lucrative career.
"I don't want to be doing this for the rest of my life. But I'm so close to them. I liked it, though, like an adrenaline rush," one former gang leader said. "Police even told us, 'You don't even know what you've been doing.'•"
Such explanations of why troubled teenagers decide to engage in violent crime and street-gang activities are familiar to staff at the Lucas County Youth Treatment Center. Many of these violent offenders, some as young as 12 years old, are missing a father figure in their lives, are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and have dropped out of high school.
Four self-identified gang members sentenced to the six-month rehabilitation program at the facility recently agreed to speak to The Blade on condition of anonymity.
All four told The Blade that they hope to earn their diploma and pursue careers outside of criminality.
One boy wants to be a barber. Another, a flight attendant. All want to start with their GED.
The 44-bed treatment center feels more like a university residence hall than lockup. Youngsters shower and eat their meals in secure wings shared with about a half-dozen peers. Full-time teachers bring residents up to speed on school work. Most participate in art and music-therapy programs. Free time is spent in the weight-lifting area, basketball court, or the game room, which contains billiards and Foosball tables and is decorated with a border of hand-drawn murals created by youngsters just before they were released from the program.
There are field trips to Mud Hens baseball and Walleye hockey games and home visits allowed for those nearing the end of treatment.
The key distinction between this place and college life is that nearly all the residents here enroll in Alcoholics Anonymous or substance-abuse treatment to supplement their group-therapy requirement, Kineka Wallace, a supervisor of residential staff, said.
The substance use and violent acts become a way of life for many gang members, Ms. Wallace said, because "they don't have coping skills. They think, 'If I hurt, you hurt.'•"
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"Fear drives them. We see a lot of their insecurities," Ms. Wallace said. "They are mature enough to do a shooting, but we see them afraid of the dark."
Gang membership, violent activities, and drug use often mask bigger family issues.
"It starts at home," residential specialist Daryl Wilson said. "A lot of parents don't know what their GPA is. Or that they're in a gang, even though the kid is wearing the same colors every day."
Two of the treatment center residents explained that they were first bullied in their neighborhoods before engaging in gang activity.
One of the offenders said he was 12 years old and was bullied at the housing complex he had recently moved to with his single mom when he formed a gang for protection. His father is absent from his life.
"I was like some kid left out, and I was trying to adapt to a new environment," the former gang leader said, adding later, "It just feels good to be around people you trust."
Membership swelled from several buddies who used to play football together outside to 50 members. The gang continues to claim the complex as its territory in his absence during his sentence at the Youth Treatment Center.
Now 18, he wants to leave the gang.
It won't be easy.
"I feel like it's a struggle for me to find people I can completely trust."
The remark is one that he wouldn't have made months ago when he first entered the program, Ms. Wallace said.
Another said he was initially picked on by members of the gang he ultimately joined at 13 years old. A longtime friend that he refers to as a "cousin" was already a member, and his brother followed him into the gang. Both were initiated by being "jumped in" - in which several gang members punch and beat on the initiate until he stops swinging back, the now-17-year-old offender explained.
"I was fighting them at first. I got cool with them basically for protection. We got real close. It was like family. I thought I didn't need anybody else like them."
The group would spend nearly every minute together, drinking and walking the neighborhood by day, looking for a party by night, he said.
He doesn't plan to return to the lifestyle when released because of the birth of his daughter.
"She made me think twice. I was too in love with her," he said. "I didn't have time to stop and think, though."
Another set of gang members - both 17 years old - said their single mothers moved out of walking range of the neighborhoods ruled by their gangs. Both teenagers went behind their mothers' backs and found ways to get back to their friends.
"It used to be fun," one said of gang life. "When I used to be home, I'd be bored by myself. And there used to be girls over there that I'd try to impress."
The 17-year-old gang member said he didn't have to be initiated because his older brothers and cousins were members of the group. Otherwise, he would have been jumped in.
Smoking marijuana and drinking would start first thing when he woke up after sleeping at his cousins' or other gang members' houses on a typical day. When cash ran low, he'd bust into a house or rob someone on the street.
Now, he laments the lost opportunities to play high school sports. He hopes to earn a GED and continue to college in order to leave the gang lifestyle behind to set a better example for his youngest brother.
"I want to teach him to do right. And I was stressing my mom. When I was there, she couldn't sleep," he said. "My mom would give me stuff. I wanted more of it."
Another 17-year-old was initiated after he was ordered to fight on the street - he targeted an older man, who didn't fight back. Most days were spent throwing dice and gambling with fellow gang members until they'd see someone they wanted to fight on the street. The teen dropped out of high school after his first year. He transferred to a charter school but would sneak out.
Now, he isn't so sure gang life was worth dropping out.
"I still wanted to be with them because they showed a lot of love toward me," he said. "They were the same as my family. My family, my real family, they're really there for me. They are the ones that come to see me in here. Even if the [others] could, they wouldn't."
Through the treatment program, he's discovered some hidden talents. Mr. Wilson, the residential specialist, gushes that the youth could be an actor after he nailed a southern accent during a recent theater production put on by the program. The former gang member hopes to earn his GED, attend college, and become a flight attendant.
"You know, I've got multiple skills," the teenager says with a smirk.
And the expression of newfound confidence prompts an outburst of giggles and clapping from staff in the room.
Contact Bridget Tharp at: