Tyler Perry’s new movie Daddy’s Little Girls tells an important truth about African–American fathers. The film, which reached number five on the Media By Numbers list of top movies, is the story of Monty, a blue collar African–American father played by Idris Elba. Monty fights long and hard in family court to be a father to his three adoring little girls.
Today African–American men are often excoriated–most recently by presidential candidate Barack Obama–for being irresponsible towards their children. Yet we don’t hear nearly enough about men like Monty. These dads cherish their kids and, like Monty, often find that the family law system prevents them from playing a meaningful role in their lives.
In the movie, Monty is raising his three girls when his ex–wife, who has drug and personality problems, decides to demand full custody. As is typical, she goes to family court and wins, and Monty is given only occasional visitation with his girls. He decides to fight this and, with the help of a lady lawyer friend working pro bono, gets his daughters away from their abusive mother and back with him. Of the movie’s entire storyline, the only unusual part is the last one–most fathers cannot get shared custody of their children, and are relegated to being mere visitors in their children’s lives.
New research on minority inner city fathers demonstrates the harm these family court norms are doing to African–American children. A just–released Boston College study found that when nonresident fathers are involved in their adolescent children’s lives, the incidence of substance abuse, violence, crime, and truancy decreases 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, says the study found involved nonresident fathers to be “an important protective factor for adolescents.”
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 positive impact of fathers. 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. 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 is a father in the home, children of poor and well–to–do families had similar juvenile crime rates.
According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 31% of young women will become pregnant at least once during their teen years. Anybody watching Daddy’s Little Girlswould consider the statistical likelihood that at least one of Monty’s three daughters will become pregnant as a teenager. Research shows that the largest single factor in preventing this is Monty.
According to a long–term study conducted in the United States and in New Zealand and published in the journal Child Development, a father’s presence greatly decreases the risk of teen pregnancy. The study found that it mattered little whether the child was rich or poor, black or white, born to a teen mother or an adult mother, or raised by parents with functional or dysfunctional marriages. What mattered was dad.
The way to preserve the loving bonds between these fathers and their children is to institute a legal presumption of shared parenting in divorce or separation. Under this presumption, as long as both parents are fit, they will each have the right to spend roughly equal physical time with their children.
It is sad but true that there are fathers, both black and white, who do not come through for their children. While no judge or lawmaker can turn a disinterested parent into a caring one, much can and should be done to break down the many barriers which separate loving fathers from their children.
- Wilmington Journal4/6/07
- Los Angeles Watts Times6/14/07