How the BeLeave project is inspiring young girls to come out of gangs

IPSCJ researcher Valentina Lugli tells us about her journey to the IPSCJ, and the work she’s currently undertaking with the BeLeave project that aims to address the issue of girl gang culture.

I’m from Italy, where I’ve just completed my Master’s degree in clinical psychology. It’s mandatory to do an internship in-between the first and second year, and because my masters is in English, I thought it made sense to look for opportunities in the UK. That led me to the IPSCJ last summer, via professor Jane Callahan, where I undertook two months of my internship.

At the time, I was working on a child resilience literature review, and because it wasn’t finished at the end of my internship, I was offered the opportunity to work for the IPSCJ. I jumped at the chance and have been here ever since!

The team are amazing. The flexibility you get is fantastic, but the help I receive from my colleagues is brilliant; I’ve never worked in an environment as conducive to great research as this one. Everyone is so passionate about their work; it encourages you to continually improve and better yourself.

The BeLeave project

BeLeave is a two-year long project that’s being funded by Comic Relief and supported by the Spurgeons children’s charity. It’s an intervention around girls in gangs in Birmingham and the aim is to empower girls to make positive choices about their future and withdraw themselves from gang culture.

We’re evaluating the intervention which is a five-month long program that started last year and consists of family therapy sessions, individual sessions and engagement with support workers.

BeLeave initially provided us with some qualitative data that contained notes from support workers and a record of the interactions with seven of the girls. They also gave us some quantitative data that showed the pre- and post-assessment of qualities such as self-esteem and the girls’ interaction at school, with peers and at home.

The girls are referred to Spurgeons by schools as potential candidates for BeLeave. They must be aged between 11 and 18 and deemed at risk of becoming (or are already involved in) gangs. Those at risk were defined by negative school performance, problems at home, experience of bullying and a lack of peer support.

My colleague Jo Alexander is leading the evaluation, but my role sees me taking care of the quantitative side of the data, which means I go through the pre and post data we receive and develop it, which enables us to see the difference between pre and post measures.

When I initially worked through the data, I realised that it wasn’t possible to generalise the results due to the fact there were only seven girls who had completed the programme and could be evaluated. That prompted me to go back and look for the most positive, average and extreme cases. I combined this with lots of reading on the subject, which enabled me to provide Jo with only the most relevant data and insight from which she could form the report.

Addressing girls in gangs: a new concept?

Girls in gangs is quite a new concept. We’ve looked at the literature that exists on the subject and there simply isn’t much available – particularly when it comes to addressing the question of why girls get involved in gangs and what the risk factors are. The focus is nearly always placed on male gangs.

The goal of BeLeave is to reduce the percentage of girls in gangs and address the issues that stem from a lack of family and peer support by helping them develop resilience skills and focus on their interests.

For example, there was a case we evaluated where the girl showed an interest in magazine publishing. The support worker picked up on this and helped her look for relevant college courses that might enable her to pursue that career. As a result, there were measurable improvements on her performance at school – a great example of how motivation of this kind can divert girls’ attention away from gang culture.

BeLeave’s interventions are one-to-one sessions with the girls; the families are only brought in when necessary. The families must of course consent to this, and it was fascinating to learn that of the seven girls evaluated, only five had the support of their family during the process. The remaining two didn’t complete the program as a result, demonstrating how a lack of family support really is a risk factor.

From what we’ve seen in support worker notes, there’s lots of examples where the mother of a girl is contacted by BeLeave and they simply don’t reply for weeks and weeks, despite repeated attempts to reach them.

We’ve now completed the initial evaluation, and our report has been submitted, but we’re expecting to work on another two rounds of the BeLeave project, and there’s likely to be much more data that comes from those, so we’re looking forward to delving much deeper into this innovative research.

Upcoming projects

I’ve got two more projects I’ll be starting soon. The first is an evaluation of a wellbeing program run by Pacesetters Sports in Northamptonshire, called Wellbeing Steps.

It involves fifty primary schools in the county undertaking a ten-session program whose aim is to develop children’s resilience, wellbeing and emotional literacy, so that by the end of it they’re able to talk about their own emotions and better understand the emotions of others. Alongside the usual data analysis, we’ll be getting involved in focus groups which will be with both the teachers and kids themselves.

The other project is called SHE, which my colleague Sarah blogged about recently. This takes an innovative approach by working with both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence. I’ll be working specifically on the Fresh Start program, which centres on the perpetrators and will involve interviews with the program coordinators and the men themselves. It’s a fascinating program and one which I’m really looking forward to help evaluate.