Parents are fearful following deaths linked to Denver gangs

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Photo: Gangs Latonia and son from Montbello
Latonia Smith, with her 15-year old son L.B., says she tries to make sure she knows where her sons are at all times.

Parents in neighborhoods with high levels of gang activity are fearful about a recent spike in gang violence. Denver police have linked eight murders since the beginning of the year to gangs.

Latonia Smith of Montbello -- a neighborhood in northeast Denver where many low-income families live -- is raising eight children, including step-children and great-grandchildren. She knows of relatives who were injured in gang-related shootings and worries her own children could be victims.

"It's just really painful to me to think that my kids can be just randomly shot for no reason," says Smith.

She says she always knows what her teenaged boys are doing and makes sure they check in with her.

Denver Police Cmdr. Mark Fleecs, who oversees the city's gang bureau, says a lot of the recent violence can be attributed to a cycle of retaliation.

"You know when somebody from one group is the victim of a violent crime, the likelihood of retaliation is pretty high," says Fleecs. "It's human nature -- they want to reach out and strike back."

Fleecs says some of the recent killings started as disputes on social media, which is a phenomenon police gang units across the country are facing. While he can't point to any one factor that leads kids to gangs, Fleecs believes much of it has to do with poverty and home life.

"A lot of these kids, when they join gangs, they're looking to fill a void," says Fleecs. "And a lot of times they... lack positive role models and there's a lack of parental involvement and family structure."

Pastor Derone Armstrong of Denver recently presided over the funeral of his nephew who was killed while attending a baby shower.

"And someone just ran up and shot him in the heart and killed him," says Armstrong. "They are saying it's gang violence. I believe it is, because his past life, he was involved in gangs. But he had changed his life and was on a good road. "

Armstrong, who's with Battleground Christian Community Outreach east of Denver, says he hears from a lot of families at his church who are concerned about gang violence. He's developed a mentoring program to match up at-risk kids with older role-models.

This story is part of our ongoing exploration of Colorado kids who are living in poverty, how it affects their lives and our common future. We'd like to hear your ideas about about what can be done about child poverty in Colorado. Share your thoughts through our Public Insight Network.