The meaning of family and home for young Pasifika people involved in gangs in the suburbs of South Auckland.

AuthorNakhid, Camille


This article uses in-depth interviews conducted with 26 Pasifika (1) youth gang members from two South Auckland suburbs to explore how these youth perceive family and home in the context of their role as a gang member. The voices of these youth, obtained in a series of focus group interviews organised according to their gang affiliation, provide us with the opportunity to understand the place and meaning that family and home have in the lives of these young people. The data show that being a member of a family remains a key desire for youth gang members, and that a supportive immediate family takes priority over the gang family. Home to the youth included the streets, neighbourhood and community in which their immediate family and gang family resided. Of interest is that young Pasifika people involved in gangs were not seeking to replace their immediate family or home with a gang family or for a life on the street but extended their meanings of family and home to include the gang and the street.


Demographic Profile of Counties Manukau

Research into the meanings of family and home for young Pasifika people involved in gangs was carried out in the communities of Mangere and Otara in the Counties Manukau area of Auckland, identified by the Ministry of Social Development as a key area of youth gang activity. Counties Manukau has a young age structure, a high proportion of Pasifika peoples and areas of high economic deprivation. At the time of the 2006 Census, 67% of Pasifika peoples (177,933) lived in the Auckland region. Manukau City's Pasifika population was 27.8% compared with 6.9% for New Zealand. The Pasifika populations for Otara and Mangere were 78.9% and 49.18% respectively, and 34.2% of the population of Otara and 28.53% of Mangere were under 15 years of age, compared with 21.5% for New Zealand. (2)

Counties Manukau has some of the poorest areas in New Zealand. Suburbs such as Mangere and Otara have a higher level of "economic deprivation, poverty, transience, housing overcrowding and employment" compared with the rest of New Zealand (Auckland Youth Support Network 2006:6). Ninety-four per cent of the people in Otara and 78% of the people in Mangere live in some of New Zealand's most deprived (decile 9 and decile 10) areas. The 2006 Census showed that the median income for Otara and Mangere for those aged 15 years and over was $16,450 and $21,800 respectively, compared with $24,200 for Manukau City and $24,400 for New Zealand. Unemployment for those aged over 15 years of age was 7.1% in Manukau City compared with 5.1% for New Zealand. (3)

Government Initiatives for Pasifika Youth

A number of government reports and strategies have focused on Pasifika youth development and support. The Youth Development Strategy Aotearoa (YSDA) report (Ministry of Youth Affairs 2002) focused on how government and society could support young people aged 12 to 24 years to develop the skills and attitudes to participate positively in society, as these years are seen as critical to human development. The YSDA report noted that healthy relationships among young people with similar experiences or interests are very important for positive development because they allow young people to gain friendship and support, and are a natural setting for talking, negotiating, socialising and exploring future options, as well as providing opportunities for leisure. The report listed common protective factors such as safe, supportive neighbourhoods and a large network of social support from wider family, teachers, school, workplace, church, youth organisations and leaders. Common risk factors were a lack of social support from family, neighbourhood and the wider community; parenting that was overly harsh or that set insufficient boundaries; and problems or disadvantages in the family, including violence, crime and poverty.

The Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs' (2003) consultation with Pasifika youth about their views on identity, prosperity and leadership revealed that these concepts held little meaning for these young people unless they were understood in the context of family. Family was identified as a central organising principle for Pasifika peoples, and New Zealand's youth development policy acknowledges the family as an important arena in youth socialisation. The Pacific Youth Development Strategy (Ministry of Social Development 2005) is aimed at delivering a positive life change for, and affirmation of, all Pacific youth in Auckland. In particular, the Auckland sector of the Pacific Youth Development Strategy draws together three elements of a young Pasifika person's life: family, church and the youth themselves.

In 2006 the Families Commission held a series of fono (4) with Pacific leaders and Pacific community representatives around the country to identify research themes and to gather relevant, meaningful and useful information about the characteristics of, and challenges facing, New Zealand Pacific families now and in the future (Families Commission 2007). One of the major themes identified was Pacific youth and the need to hear the "voice" of Pacific youth (aged 15-25 years), including alienated youth. The fono participants were also concerned about whether the gangs and the street were replacing "family" and what these two factors provided that led to the perception that they were causing an increasing number of young Pasifika people to join gangs.

Improving Outcomes for Young People in Counties Manukau (Auckland Youth Support Network 2006) detailed a plan of action that was a commitment by government and non-government agencies to work together for better outcomes for young people in the Counties Manukau region. The plan of action included a number of activities such as crisis management response, intervening with young offenders, and preventing poor outcomes among at-risk young people. The plan also recognised links with other activities, including mention of the Counties Manukau District "Pacific Peoples' Strategic Plan 2005-2007", which it described as identifying family violence and youth offending as two major areas of concern for Pacific peoples.


Libbey et al. (2002) state that young people who have healthy relationships with their families are less likely to engage in risky health behaviours. Studies by Blum (1998) and Resnick (2000) show that family relationships are fundamental to the positive health and development of young people. In Thai's (2003) study of Vietnamese gangs, many of the Vietnamese families said it was hard for parents to understand why their children had changed after living in America, while the children did not understand why their parents still clung to traditional ways. Researchers (Tunufa'i 2005, Macpherson 2001, Tiatia 1998) have confirmed that young Samoans growing up in New Zealand experience tension between their lifestyles and those of their parents, as well as conflict with the parents' struggle to control their children's choices.

Fa'alau and Jensen's 2006 study of Samoan youth and family relationships in New Zealand revealed that most youth said their families cared about them a lot and reported having close bonds with them. Fa'alau and Jensen's Adolescent Health Survey, which included 30 Samoans aged 13-27 years, showed that many considered their siblings to be their greatest source of support and protection. Most of the students interviewed felt close to their parents most of the time and said that their parents also spent enough time with them, but also commented on "the large amount of control that their parents exerted over them", including control over who their peers were, money, leisure time, cultural values and schooling (Fa'alau and Jensen 2006:21). Thai (2003) believes, however, that parents can help to prevent their children from joining gangs by influencing who their children associate with and who their friends are, as well as being aware of the activities in which their children are involved.

Youth gangs arose as a phenomenon in New Zealand in the 1950s, although the incidence of gangs remained small through the 1960s. At the time, most gang members were palagi. (5) Throughout the 1970s gang membership mainly comprised those adults who had grown up as younger members with the gangs. The main source of information about gangs during this period was the police, though some researchers believe that police information about practices regarded as socially deviant is unreliable (Ferrell 1999, Chesney-Lind and Hagedorn 1999, Monahan 1970). In the 1980s, gangs were composed mainly of adults and membership was long-term. Established gangs became more pronounced in the 1990s in relation to the amphetamine trade, and gangs became more organised.

Ethnic gangs first came to public attention in New Zealand in 1971, when gang members, most of whom were in their early to mid-teens, claimed they had been brutalised by police (Meek 1992). In the 1970s Maori and Pasifika gangs expanded, specifically in depressed rural and urban settings. The increase in Asian migrants in the 1980s saw an increase in Asian gangs in the 1990s. Eggleston's (2000) participant observation study of New Zealand youth gangs found little evidence of a national youth-gang culture, though the author claimed that youth were involved with emerging and established adult gangs. Eggleston's study, which included individual interviews at a youth facility as well as with those gang members who were being observed, noted that youth street gangs of "ethnically homogenous composition" had become common in the cities (p. 149).

The New Zealand Police estimate that there are currently approximately 73 youth gangs comprising 600 youth gang members in Counties Manukau, though accurate data on numbers are difficult to obtain.

Thrasher's 1927 study was the first serious academic study of gangs. Based on the cultural and ecological context at the time, Thrasher concluded that gangs...

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