Lennie came to me about 18 months ago, with an attitude. He was a gangbanger and liked to rob people — by force. Not a very nice kid.
His mother cried in court as Lennie looked on with emotion — the kind where the eyes roll and he is thinking, “Whatever!”
So back during that bad time: Lennie is making straight “F’s,” doesn’t come home some nights, curses his mother, and Daddy is not around.
Yep! Lennie was pretty pissed at the world. I am sure there are other reasons, but none as big as the “No-Daddy Factor.”
Back then, the recommendation made to me was two years in a youth prison. Instead, I placed him in my Second Chance Program — an intensive probation designed solely for high-risk youth.
Lennie, like many other African-American adolescent males growing up without a father, is at risk to commit crimes.
Consider what we do know about adolescents with absent fathers –specifically African-American adolescent males. They are disproportionately represented in our juvenile justice systems. African American males ages 10-17 represent only about 15 percent of the youth population, but they constitute more than 23 percent of juvenile arrests and 41 percent of commitments to state facilities. A plethora of studies attempt to explain this racial disparity. Most obvious is inherent systemic bias — zero tolerance policies for example.
What about our failure to consider rehabilitation from a psychosocial vantage point — that our environment primarily defines us, and that race and ethnicity are secondary? The concept of homogeneous clustering suggests that humanity gravitates toward that which we are familiar — race and ethnicity brings people of likeness together, but it does not solely define culture. How we treat each other in the past can have a long-term effect on culture — it can be good or bad.
The history of African Americans in this nation have certainly placed them at a disadvantage in our society — from enduring complete denial of liberty as slaves to the equally, if not worse, paradox of being freed but deprived of equal treatment and humiliated daily. Even Homer Simpson could conclude that it may take as many years in slavery and segregation to undo the harm perpetrated on African Americans. Poverty, drugs, single-parent homes and crime that plague many African Americans are undoubtedly the fallout of many years of dehumanization.
It disappoints me when I hear someone quip that “slavery ended years ago” in a vein of bewilderment over the African-American contemporary predicament — as if they don’t understand why African Americans can’t turn this disproportionate racial phenomena around. I remind them that it’s like that old adage about digging yourself into a hole so deep that it’s hard to get out–except that African Americans were pushed into the hole.
Notwithstanding the horrific treatment of African Americans, it doesn’t change the realities of crime and punishment. Society will not make exceptions in how punishment is meted out in mitigation for the reprehensible treatment received through the years.
Still, I think it’s time we figure out the best and most appropriate strategies to ameliorate the psychosocial dynamics negatively affecting African- American children and youth. The fact that history is helpful to explain present circumstances, it can never justify wrongdoing. Regardless of race and ethnicity, individuals must be held accountable for their conduct, but accountability must be meted out fairly and with common sense.
It is important that heterogeneous societies like the United States develop systemic tools to guard against bias, assess the underlying reasons for delinquent behavior, and develop effective programs that abate those reasons — including the “No-Daddy Factor.”
The studies bear out that the most critical factor affecting the probability that an African-American youth will be referred to the juvenile justice system is the presence of his father in the home. Studies show that all other factors, including income, are less important. The expanse of research informs us that fathers play a critical role in the rearing of boys and young men. Aptly stated by the researcher Douglas Heath, “Rejecting a son turns out to be the most demoralizing thing a father can do to his son.”
What are the policy implications for us in juvenile justice? How do we replace absent fathers — or should we try? For example, stepparent households had higher incarceration rates than single-parent households. The introduction of a stepparent can create dynamics that can make the situation worse for the child, and let’s not forget the divided loyalties between a parent, stepparent, and child.
Maybe it’s not so much replacing the absent father in the household as providing positive male role models, pro-social activities, and parental and family counseling. The research is adamant that juvenile justice must do more to build up the family — not tear it down! We know there is a problem. We know why there is a problem. We should avoid the blame game. I think sometimes we are pretty good about reciting the problem, but we are just as confused as parents about what to do to repair it — and yet we’re the ones outside the hole looking in with perceived objectivity.
I spend every Tuesday evening with Lennie and his mom along with 15 other youth and their mothers. We talk about life, responsibility, relationships — the same things I discussed with my son. After the meeting the parents attend family counseling to work on family dynamics.
Lennie and the rest are picked up everyday after school and taken to an evening reporting center, where they are cut off from the anti-social network. They now consume cognitive restructuring, life skills training, substance abuse counseling, and more.
Lennie saw my wife and me last week at his school. A big smile brightened his face when he saw us — it was honors night.
From robbing people, gang banging, and straight “F’s” to honor roll — his eyes are set on Georgia Tech!
How many Lennie’s do you know? How many do we lock up when they piss us off?
We should never excuse poor behavior, but we must try to understand why — to know how — before positive change can happen.
Isn’t that the goal of juvenile justice — to reach into that hole and grab as many hands as possible?
Author Note: I would like to thank Michael Finley of the Hayward Burns Institute in San Francisco for his guidance in the writing of this column.