by Julia Steiny
Cool-headed, rational Rob DeBlois, Director of the Urban Collaborative Accelerated Project (UCAP), once had to get this haunting story off his mind:
A UCAP social-studies teacher gave students a crime scenario, and divided them into groups to determine who was guilty and why. Students get into UCAP’s alternative program if they should be in middle-school, but are at least 2 grade levels below their peers. They’re the sort of disaffected kids that regular schools don’t want.
The scenario, if memory serves, was this: A 16-year old walks into a convenience store intending to hold it up for some cash. His weapon is a toy gun in his pocket and a street-tough manner. He’d dropped out of school because his struggles with reading were never fully addressed (unlike those of UCAP students). His mom is around, but consumed by drugs. Dad never was in the picture. The scenario included details about the failures of Child Protective Services and other public agencies. So the offender’s prospects were super dim even before he made his stupid choice. Since the store itself is in a tough part of town, the owner has a security system — cameras and the like — and a real gun. The robbery goes bad. The owner kills the kid.
Essential question: Whose fault is this and why?
The groups broke up, deliberated, and drafted arguments. There are lots of possible culprits, including the kid himself, of course. But when the groups reconvened, each had the same answer: The cause of the crime was the kid’s father.
The father?! Huh? He wasn’t even in the picture. But that’s exactly what made the kids so angry. Where was he? Their teacher probed them, but the students were adamant that the crime never would have happened if the kid’s father had been in his life. What if he were a bad father? Doesn’t matter. He should have been there.
Statistically, they’re right. Their collective hunger for dads led them to the exactly same conclusion researchers had found. It was that hunger that so impressed the teacher, DeBlois, and finally me.
According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, U.S. Census Bureau data shows that over 24 million children live apart from their biological fathers. Their site elaborates, “That is 1 out of every 3 (33%) children in America. Nearly 2 in 3 (64%) African American children live in father-absent homes. One in three (34%) Hispanic children, and 1 in 4 (25%) white children live in father-absent homes.
“In 1960, only 11% of children lived in father-absent homes.”
The UCAP kids were dead on the money. “Children who live absent their biological fathers are, on average, at least two to three times more likely than their peers who live with their married, biological (or adoptive) parents to:
Experience educational problems
Experience health problems
Experience emotional problems
Experience behavioral problems
Be victims of child abuse
Engage in criminal behavior”
So, happy Fathers Day to you lucky ones who have dads well-installed in your lives, and to the fathers who’ve stuck by their kids through thick and thin — and been allowed to. Often Family Courts have helped divorced and estranged mothers use the law to get the dads to pay support, if they can, but stay out of Mom’s way, thereby pushing fathers out of kids’ lives. Family Courts reflect society’s disdain for estranged fathers.
Seemingly each Fathers Day I focus on some bit of the mountain of research pleading to elevate the importance of fathers. Last year I interviewed a Child Protective Services worker who’d had a change of heart towards “dead beat” dads, once he’d learned that most were “dead broke” dads.
The year before was a story about “Dads Making a Difference,” where older male mentors help estranged dads parent their kids better. Prior to that, I summarized an impassioned social-work researcher’s lecture on the specific value fathers bring to children’s lives.
Kids need dads. While social issues do not lend themselves to right answers, there are, I would argue, ideals. Ideals are images of what it looks like when we’ve got it right. Wildly-imperfect humans can’t often meet high ideals, so there’s no reason to be nasty to those who don’t. Marriages dissolve (some too easily); parents get sick, disabled or die; unprepared teens get pregnant, and sometimes, to quote the very imperfect Woody Allen, “the heart wants what it wants.” Families fragment or were never properly formed.
But those realities are not ideal. Kids would like us to affirm that traditional families, in the context of extended relatives and larger community, are good things. Because by all statistical accounts, they are.
Yes, for heaven’s sake, fatherless children can do fine. And a great step-father, if he is great, can fill the void. Other family members can step in; strong communities can wrap around a kid or family and supplement where needed. All sorts of arrangements can be ideal under the circumstances.
But we can’t lose sight of the ideal. When we do, we get lazy about working to find those best-possible solutions and start convincing ourselves that having no one for a father is okay.
In every kid’s head and heart is a mom AND a dad. Be active about making sure every kid gets one.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.