Gangs were responsible for
70% of the shootings last year in Los Angeles, and local lawmakers are proposing
numerous measures to address the gang crisis. One package of bills, recently
endorsed by Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton, Sheriff Lee Baca, and
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, would make it more difficult for gang members to get
firearms. Another, introduced by Compton
Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, would create Gang Alternative Education Programs in
selected inner-city areas.
While these measures have merit, one central truth is being ignored—the presence
of fathers, including nonresident fathers, greatly reduces the likelihood that a
teen will become involved in crime or gangs.
A study just released by Boston College finds that when nonresident fathers are
involved in their adolescent children’s lives, the incidence of violence, crime,
substance abuse and truancy decrease markedly. Most of the families in the
study, which was published in the journal Child Development, are
low-income African-American and Hispanic families. The study's lead author,
professor Rebekah Levine Coley, explains:
in low-income, minority families appear to be an important protective factor for
adolescents…Greater involvement from fathers may help adolescents develop
self-control and self-competence, and may decrease the opportunities adolescents
have to engage in problem behaviors."
The study also found
that when teens begin to slide towards delinquency, nonresident fathers increase
their involvement in response. The researchers found such involvement to be
effective--the impact of father involvement was the greatest on the kids who had
previously been the most troubled.
The new study’s findings are consistent
with a wealth of research on the impact of fathers. One study published in the
Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency concluded that
fatherlessness is so predictive of juvenile crime that, as long as there was a
father in the home, children of poor and well-to-do families had similar juvenile
crime rates. A University of Chicago study of crime in the African-American
areas of 171 cities found that fatherlessness was the strongest predictor of
violent juvenile crime.
The link between fatherlessness and crime has
long been axiomatic for law enforcement officials. Michigan Attorney General
Mike Cox says he’s examined hundreds of pre-sentencing reports detailing the
family histories of convicted criminals, and found one common denominator:
“Uniformly, there was a parent, usually the
father, missing from the home.”
The devastating impact of fatherlessness is
clearly understood behind prison walls. In an interview of juvenile offenders at
the California Youth Authority in Stockton, reporter Ramon McLeod quotes one 20
year-old gang member, who was incarcerated for trying to kill a gang rival, as
saying, “[My father] was never around when I needed him…[my mom] did OK until I
was 10--she could control me up to then. But then I went to the gangs, like my
brothers…It might have mattered if he was around.”
“Teenage inmates in the room nodded. Most of
them come from single-parent families, too…73 percent of the young men in
California's massive juvenile prison system grew up in single-parent and broken
While some nonresident fathers voluntarily
remove themselves from their children’s lives, there are many low-income
African-American and Latino fathers who seek a greater role in their children’s
lives and are thwarted by the family law system.
Most California child custody arrangements
provide fathers only a few days a month to spend with their children, and
fighting for shared parenting is expensive and difficult. Misguided custodial
mothers frequently fail to honor visitation orders, and while California spends
several hundred million dollars a year on child support enforcement, there is no
system in place to help enforce visitation orders. In such cases, fathers must
scrape together money for an attorney so they can go to court, and even then
courts enforce visitation orders indifferently.
Moreover, many inner city noncustodial fathers owe child support to the state to
repay the cost of the welfare their children’s mothers’ received. A study of
California child support obligors conducted by the Urban Institute found
that the system’s demands upon low-income men are often wildly unrealistic. This
and the enforcement system's abusive practices often make it hard for young,
low-income men to function as fathers.
Lawmakers can’t turn
a disinterested parent into a caring one, but they can do much to break down the
barriers separating children from caring nonresident fathers. Tougher law
enforcement measures and gang prevention programs have their place. However, the
best way to keep teenagers out of gangs is to help them get the much-needed
discipline, care and love that so many fathers are skilled at providing.
This article first appeared in
the Pasadena Star-News & Affiliated Papers (3/25/07).
McCormick is the Executive Director of the American Coalition for Fathers and
Children, the world’s largest shared parenting organization.
Sacks' columns on men's and fathers' issues have appeared in dozens of America's
largest newspapers. Glenn can be reached via his website at
via email at Glenn@GlennSacks.com.