Sins of the fatherless: how broken homes contribute to juvenile crime

Last month’s shooting at the Kansas City Chief’s Super Bowl rally, in which one person was killed and 22 were wounded, involved two juveniles. They have since been charged with gun offences and resisting arrest.

The two youths have not been identified. However, I can make an educated guess about their family dynamics – they probably came from a dysfunctional home.

A recent report from the Institute for Family Studies, Stronger Families, Safer Streets, examines the connection between family structure and crime in American cities.

It says that: “strong families are associated with less crime in cities across the United States” and “public safety is greater in communities where the two-parent family is the dominant norm”.

Fathers in the home protect boys against delinquency, crime and jail. And fathers also determine the course of their daughters’ lives, as Meg Meeker shows in her classic book Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters.

Most of us will agree that this is just common sense. But I sense that law enforcement and juvenile justice officials, as well as some in academic circles, don’t always see it this way.

This year’s national conference of  The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges fails to feature a discussion of fatherlessness and family structure, or why encouraging marriage is in the public’s best interest. Similarly, the Juvenile Justice Association of Texas 2023 Spring Conference did not include a discussion of why marriage leads to positive outcomes for juveniles and the surrounding community.

Firsthand experience

I have more than two decades of experience as a juvenile probation officer. I have worked in field services, the juvenile district courts, and residential services, as well as training, accreditation and quality assurance.

I’m retired now, but two themes throughout my career were absent fathers and an unstable family structure. To come across juvenile delinquents raised by their own biological mother and father who were married and lived in an intact home was a rarity. More often, the youth was being raised by a single mother, a stepparent, a grandparent, a relative, or a family friend. Many had been wards of the state.

One of the current trends in juvenile probation is expressed in specialised caseloads and units, as well as specialty court and diversionary programs. This vision of juvenile probation does help meet some of the needs of youth. Staff in the juvenile system often go above and beyond in helping families access various services and programs.

I remember one program called “Ties for Life”, for boys who had been convicted of some offence. Staff members donated dress shirts and ties. The boys were shown how to dress for job interviews and showed how to button a dress shirt and how to tie a Windsor knot.


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However, no government program can replace the experience of growing up in a happy family. I remember speaking with one young man before he appeared in court. When I asked about family dynamics, the youth expressed in tears that what was most desired was a relationship with his biological father.

A father's love

The presence of fathers in intact families contributes to the healthy development of their sons and daughters in a variety of ways.

My mother and my late father were married for more than 60 years. During that time, my father served his country in Korea in the US Air Force, and later as a chaplain in his VFW Post. Along with other fathers, he helped form a dads’ club for the boys in the neighbourhood which promoted football and baseball activities.

When I was 13 years old, to keep me from wasting time at home during the summer, my father took me to work. As a truck driver hauling freight, he taught me the skills of organisation, customer service, and punctuality. I learned to appreciate hard work and how to hand-roll 55-gallon drums onto the back of a truck.

My father’s witness to marriage, faith, family, and the importance of quality work has served me well during my career, marriage and family life.

One policy recommendation from the Institute for Family Studies is to “advertise and advocate the ‘success sequence’, the idea that a high school education, a full-time job, and marriage should precede parenthood, in schools and social media across American cities.”

That advice is gold.

I recall a man who wrote us a note of thanks for the guidance he had received during his time in the juvenile justice system years earlier. He said that his father had never given him advice and structure, and that his mother had been too busy working.

He did well. He finished high school, got married, had a family, and started a business. It was wonderful to hear that our work in the juvenile justice system had paid off.

But family structure does matter, and the gold standard for children remains an intact marriage between a biological mother and father. Take it from a former juvenile justice professional who has witnessed firsthand the devastation that results from family breakdown and absent fathers.

How can we build stronger families and lower the juvenile crime rate? Let us know in the comments.

Craig Ortega retired from a career in juvenile probation after more than twenty years. He worked in field, court and residential services as well as training, accreditation and quality assurance. His interests include juvenile delinquency, culture, disability, and history.


Showing 11 reactions

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  • Marty Hayden
    commented 2024-04-18 06:39:01 +1000
    Awesome article. Thanks Craig for pointing out the woolly mammoth in the room!
  • Michael Cook
    followed this page 2024-04-03 21:26:42 +1100
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2024-03-27 10:57:27 +1100
    David Page, why do you need a gun to make you polite? Basic human decency should suffice.

    I’m glad the laws in Massachusetts make it difficult for criminals and the mentally unstable to obtain firearms. But unfortunately, there are always loopholes, and online sources to obtain guns. And the mass production of firearms and ammunition only makes that easier.
  • David Page
    commented 2024-03-27 10:19:16 +1100
    Paul Bunyan, I am a few months shy of 80. My ‘subduing’ days are in the rear view mirror. My handgun makes me feel secure. And, as an added benefit, it makes me polite. I am the last one to escalate any situation. I know where it could lead. And the laws in my fair state of Massachusetts are comprehensive enough to ensure that I am well trained, not a criminal, and with the mental stability to warrant the trust that a license to carry a firearm implies.
  • David Page
    commented 2024-03-24 12:16:06 +1100
    My guns are on my person or locked up. No exceptions. And the keys are always with me.
  • mrscracker
    Firearms have greater collateral damage than knives, it’s true but subduing any sort of attacker can involve the same sort of defensive actions.
    Guns are stolen on a regular basis & gun owners shouldn’t make that easier by leaving firearms in their vehicles overnight. That’s one of the ways they end up in the wrong hands where we live.
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2024-03-21 08:19:26 +1100
    You’re right, mrscracker. I should’ve used the phrase “difficult to purchase” instead of “difficult to obtain.”

    In any case, it’s much easier to subdue someone wielding a knife than someone wielding a gun.
  • mrscracker
    Mr. Bunyan,
    It’s actually quite easy for those under 18 in the US to obtain firearms. For the most part, guns that are used to commit crimes where we live have been stolen.
    I have family in the UK. Firearms are greatly restricted there but anti-social British young people just use the next best weapon of choice: knives.
    The article is correct in its solution: fathers in the home & stable marriages.
  • Dave Doveton
    commented 2024-03-20 19:12:07 +1100
    As an Anglican Priest I agree that fatherlessness has a devastating effect especially on boys as I saw it in my ministry. In my retirement I ran several discipleship groups with boys/young men (age 16-22), mentoring them, teaching them biblical ethics and life skills. All of them without exception have developed into fine men of integrity. Every father can help a boy from a broken home or a fatherless boy by mentoring him. Start a group in your local church, or community hall. It’s the relationship which is so powerful – it is the way manhood is transferred and a youngster becomes secure in his identity. Delinquency arises when a boy lacks a strong sense of identity and confidence in himself. He seeks other anti-social ways of establishing his male identity which often result in unhealthy and destructive relationships with the women in his life.
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2024-03-20 11:20:21 +1100
    Stable families are always going to be helpful. But the US has one ingredient that causes more violent crime than other developed countries: easy access to firearms.

    While it’s difficult to obtain a firearm until one turns 18, most families have guns in the home (or know someone with guns in the home). There are more guns than people in the US. It’s much easier to reduce the number of firearms in a society (Australia and New Zealand demonstrated this) than it is to keep families stable and parents at home (especially since living expenses are so high).
  • Craig Ortega
    published this page in The Latest 2024-03-20 11:17:08 +1100