The association between juvenile delinquency and family structure has been long recognized. Before field study, I had already realized the important role of family experience in the formation of a child’s personality and world view. During my internship, I gained a more sophisticated insight into this relation.
My field site was with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Gang Diversion Team (GDT) in Carson Station, and the GDT’s purpose is to deal with “at-risk” youths and help them earn a brighter future. The GDT’s supervisor, Deputy Noya, told us that the biggest challenge in this job is that we do not know the structure in families, seeing guardians have no ability to guide and protect their children, but we are unable to provide a quick fix for those children. Indeed, through the internship, I also noticed that the most of the children came from “broken families”—either single-parent family, stepfamily, or living with grandparents because their biological parents are in jails due to drug dealing, involvement in gangs, or are divorced for other reasons.
The data in our system also proves this situation. In order to do the statistics book, I collected the percentage of different family structures in the last fiscal year, from July 2017 to July 2018. The data shows that around 53.3 percent come from a single-parent family, including 43.3 percent from a single-mother family and 10 percent from a single-father family. Furthermore, 6.7 percent of children lived with grandparents, 16.7 percent lived with foster parents, and 6.7 percent lived with stepfamily. It is reasonable to infer that children in parental absence families tend to be more vulnerable and are more likely to commit delinquency on the grounds of psychological trauma and weaken supervision caused by parental separation.
However, our data is not authoritative since not every child would ask us for help. Thus, it is hard to make the conclusion. For example, we cannot claim that single-father family has less effect on juvenile delinquency than the single-mother family through this data. Thus, to understand how parental separation and how different separation would influence juvenile delinquency, this paper refers to three empirical articles and one popular press source. In addition, since boys, on average, are more likely to be delinquent and are more vulnerable to be impacted by the negative outcomes of family structure than girls, all three empirical articles chose boys as the targeted participants, which is capable of offering a salient result.
In The Atlantic, Fox Butterfield (2018) interviewed Tracey Bogle, a person incarcerated at the Oregon Department of Corrections, and heard that crime tended to be a family affair. The criminal history of Bogle’s family was able to trace back to 1920. Instead of doing sports, his father taught them how to steal or burglarize since they were young and claimed that it was an interesting thing. Children were good at emulating adult’s behavior, not to mention their father taught them intentionally. As the result, this interesting thing brought all of his children, seven sons and three daughters, into the nation’s correctional system. (Butterfield, 2018)
To find out how a family would affect juvenile misbehavior, Coughlin and Vuchinich (1996) examined the relationship between family factors and the emergence of delinquency. In order to preclude the influence of nonfamily factors, the study used eight variables, including four family factors (parent-child relation, discipline practices, family structure, and antisocial trait) and four nonfamily factors (peer relation, family problem solving, intelligence, and socioeconomic status), and used independent arrests data from police as a measure of delinquency in order to avoid report bias. Each variable was measured through a specific test or well-organized interview.
For instance, the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test was used to assess the child’s intelligence. What’s more, participants were also carefully chosen. All the families were white and from working-class and lower-class, having 1 male child in grade four in the first year of the study. In the 194 sample families, 80 were two-biological parent, 55 were single-mother, 59 were stepfamily, and 11 were single-father (which were excluded due to the insufficient sample size). After the experiment, the study conducted a hierarchical logistic regression analysis to determine the probability of the occurrence of delinquency caused by a variable. (Coughlin & Vuchinich, 1996)
Through careful measurement, avoiding the bias caused by nonfamily factors, Coughlin and Vuchinich (1996) obtained several reliable results. The data shows that the family factors did have a significant effect on juvenile delinquency: after controlling the socioeconomic status and intelligence, children’s risk of arrest in the stepfamily and single-mother family was more than twice as many as two-biological families (2.39 and 2.28). In addition, contrary to the previous hypothesis that stated the “broken family” tended to have more family problems, children in those families were likely to have higher ability in problem-solving and decreased the delinquency, the result showed that family problem solving per se didn’t have obvious effect, but interaction effect existed in family structure x family problem solving. In a stepfamily, good problem-solving ability had a protective effect in juvenile delinquency.
In two-biological family, there was no significant effect of problem-solving ability. But in single-mother family, it was surprised to know that good problem-solving ability led to a higher risk of arrest. What’s more, the result also indicated that all family factors had significant effect before peer and antisocial characteristic factors involved, but only family structure mattered after peer and antisocial characteristic appeared. Moreover, clear evidence proved that family factors had little influence after age 14. Thus, it is reasonable to say that in order to get the efficient outcome, family factor-based intervention program should be applied before age 14. (Coughlin & Vuchinich, 1996)
As mentioned, one of the biggest limitations of Coughlin and Vuchinich (1996) is that it excludes a specific family structure—single-father family because of the sample size. However, Demuth and Brown (2004) did very detailed and convictive research to make it up, illustrating the difference among five separations (all family structures) that usually occur: single-mother, single-father, mother-stepfather, father-stepmother, and two-biological parents family. On contrast to Coughlin and Vuchinich (1996), Demuth and Brown (2004) focused on how parents involved in children’s growth when choosing independent variables. They used three direct controls, including three-item supervision index, four-item parent involvement index, and seven-item parent monitoring index, and one indirect control, a four-item scale of parent closeness to test five different kind of family structure.
To reflect the juvenile delinquency, the study chose self-report with 10 questions about the frequency of various delinquent activities. In order to avoid sample bias, researchers used national Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health as the data set, including 9,505 two-biological parent families, 3,792 single-mother families, 525 single-father families, 2,039 mother-stepfather families, and 443 father-stepmother families. Also, the study controlled other nonfamily factors like children’s gender (boys), race, age, parent’s education level, family income, household size, and precluded other adults in the household despite parents. Due to the large size of normality, the research used negative binomial regression models to analyze the data (Demuth & Brown, 2004).
The biggest advantage of this study is that it contained various separations specifically, helping us to compare them intuitively and find cause. The result showed that when taking all variables into account, the delinquency level was highest in the single-father families, followed by father-stepmother families and single-mother families. Two-biological parent families were at the lowest delinquency level. But it didn’t mean that the parental gender was a significant factor which contributed to juvenile delinquency. Notably, the average level of direct and indirect control was highest in two-biological parents families and lowest in single-father families. When controlling direct and indirect controls, the examination showed that there was no significant difference between single-father families and single-mother families. In the other words, it was not the single father that caused more juvenile delinquency, but single-father families tended to have weaker direct or indirect controls which had a protective effect in delinquency. Despite proving that parental gender per se was not a factor that caused juvenile delinquency, Demuth and Brown (2004) also found that weak supervision, involvement, and closeness more likely occurred in those “broken family,” which in turn accounted that separation from two biological parents would lead to higher juvenile delinquency. This means that parent-children attachment was the most significant factor in children’s delinquency (Demuth & Brown, 2004).
The two previous studies proved how parental separation had significant negative influence on juvenile delinquency from family structure aspect, and Murry and Farrington (2005) tested how different types of separation would affect delinquency, the reason of separation, focusing on whether a specific separation, parental imprisonment, would have worse effect on children’s misbehavior than other kinds of separation.
To get longitudinal data, Murry and Farrington (2005) chose the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development as the database. They also made one experimental group—23 boys who suffered parental imprisonment during the first ten years of life (group E), four controlled group—227 boys whose parents were never incarcerated and never suffered parental separation (group A), 77 boys who experienced parent-child separation because of hospitalization or parental death during the first ten years of life (group B), 61 boys who suffered parental separation due to other reasons in the first ten years of life (group C). And in order to preclude the genetic factor, they also made the fourth group of boys whose parents were imprisoned before they were born, but never imprisoned again (group D).
The result clearly showed that a genetic predisposition was not a factor for juvenile delinquency: the percentage of antisocial personality occurred at the age of 14 was 15.9 in group A, 15.6 in group , 32.8 in group C, 11.8 in group D, and 60.9 in group E. The antisocial personality probability of boys who suffered parental imprisonment in the first ten years of life was nearly six times higher than those boys whose parent were incarcerated only before the boy’s birth. What’s more, after controlling the variables like parental criminality, parental imprisonment still had a significant negative effect on children’s delinquency.
This means that parental imprisonment was not only the risk mechanism for children, but also a risk marker. On the grounds of the extremely high risk of delinquency, Murry and Farrington (2005) made the conclusion that parental imprisonment in the first ten years of life was a significant predictor of juvenile delinquency and remained impactful even to lifetime. However, this study was unable to explain why an incarcerated parent would have such adverse effect on children’s delinquency because we can only exclude some accompanying factors that will occur in other kinds of separation, like low income and broken relationship. While the influence of stigma or imitation caused by parental imprisonment still unclear (Murry & Farrington, 2005).
Combing through the researches, the most important result we can get is that separation per se is not the cause of juvenile delinquency. As Murry and Farrington (2005) explained, boys whose parent were incarcerated in prisons were much more likely to form an antisocial characteristic and conduct crime comparing to other kinds of separations. While the data from all three materials also prove that children from “broken families” are more likely to be delinquent in comparison to children come from two-biological families. According to Demuth and Brown (2004), we find that because single-father and single-mother family structures are more likely to have weak supervision, involvement, and closeness to children. Moreover, many family issues are more likely to happen in “broken family,” such as low income, strained parent-child issue, and psychological trauma caused by separation. Thus, we can infer that it is not parental separation that causes a boy’s delinquency, although parental separation does contribute to juvenile misbehavior. And family structure plays a significant role in a boy’s growth.
The evidence of previous studies also shows that enhancing parent-child attachment (Demuth & Brown 2004) before age 14 (Coughlin & Vuchinich) is an efficient way to prevent juvenile delinquency. So we may create an intervention program that focuses on these two points. For example, the program can contain some family games, or questionnaires to let parents and children know more about each other. What’s more, as mentioned before, single-parent families are more likely to be in low socioecnomic status and have economic issues, which may prohibit children to go to school. With low education and a lot of free time, those children who enter society too early have a much higher risk to go astray. Schools and teachers are the main guides of a person except for parents. Thus, a policy which aims to protect the education rights of children who come from low-income families is necessary. While for the separation caused by parental imprisonment, we can design a new study to find the explanation of the adverse effect, like a stigma. Then, we may create children support services focus on those factors.
Juvenile delinquency is not a simple issue since it can be impacted by various factors. For example, even from the family aspect, not only family structure (separation or not) will affect children’s personality. Family size, other adults except for parents in the family, and many other variables also have a significant relationship with juvenile misbehavior. However, in my opinion, if parents are willing to make an effort to create an attachment with the child, and intervention programs can be implemented as early as possible, the negative effects brought by parental separation will be decrease and have a lesser influence on the child when he grows up.
- Murray, J., & Farrington, D. P. (2005). Parental imprisonment: effects on boys’ antisocial behaviour and delinquency through the life-course. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 46(12), 1269–1278. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7610.2005.01433.x
- Coughlin, C., & Vuchinich, S. (1996). Family Experience in Preadolescence and the Development of Male Delinquency. Journal of Marriage & Family, 58(2), 491501. https://doi.org/10.2307/353512
- Demuth, S., & Brown, S. L. (2004). Family Structure, Family Processes, and Adolescent Delinquency: The Significance of Parental Absence Versus Parental Gender. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 41(1), 58–81. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022427803256236
- Butterfield, F. (2018, October 22). When Crime Is a Family Affair. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/10/crime-runs-family/573394/