Bill Muehlenberg

Kids and Crime

Two recent articles about teen crime in Victoria make for disturbing reading. But of more concern is that most of the “experts” seem to have no idea what the real cause is. On August 1 the Herald Sun ran with this headline: “Teen crime soars” while on August 3 the Sunday Age had this headline, “Net blamed as 10,000 kids turn to crime”.

Both articles spoke of the huge increase in youth crime, and the concern of police and authorities. The first article said this: “The number of Children’s Court cases has soared alarmingly amid concern about child safety and worsening juvenile crime”. It said the “number of young defendants found guilty of an offence almost doubled from 5784 to 10,836 in the year to June 2007”. It also said that “Court president Judge Paul Grant is worried the court can’t keep up with demand caused by a spike in child protection applications, criminal cases and intervention orders.”

The other article also examined this worrying trend, and offered as a reason the Internet: “About 10,000 Victorian children aged 10 to 14 have been cautioned by police, arrested or ordered to appear in court in the past year, as a surge in youth crime continues. Victoria Police say the escalation in juvenile crimes – ranging from break and enters to drug offences and assaults – is being fuelled by children’s growing exposure to sexual and violent images on the internet.”

That youth crime is getting out of hand is undeniable. And it seems that the issue of Internet exposure is surely a contributing factor. I would not limit things just to the Internet, since prime time television is coming close to dishing up the same amount of trash.

Surely constant exposure to sexually explicit and violent and graphic content on the Net and in the rest of the media will have a negative impact. Young impressionable kids soaking up this stuff on a regular basis are of course going to be adversely affected by it.

But none of the newspaper accounts mentioned the real factor that is behind all this. I refer to family breakdown. The truth is, as more and more marriages and families break down, and more and more kids are not raised by their biological mother and father, such criminal activity will arise and worsen.

Now I can already hear my critics hyperventilating, so let me say what I am not saying here. I am not saying family breakdown is the only variable in the equation. There are many factors at work when kids go off the rails. And I am not saying that if a kid grows up in a broken, blended or single-parent family, he or she will automatically become involved in crime. And I am not saying that two-parent families produce perfect children.

Nor am I saying that families where one of the biological parents is missing do not need help and support. Single parents need all the help they can get. But what I am saying is what common sense, along with a wealth of social science data, already suggests: kids are much less likely to become involved in criminal behaviour if raised by a mother and father, preferably cemented by marriage.

That is the overwhelming conclusion of some forty years of research into this issue. Not only are kids who are raised by their biological mother and father much less likely to get involved in crime, but they are also much less likely to use drugs, commit suicide, do poorly in school, or engage in other anti-social behaviours.

Here is a small sampling of the evidence. One study of 522 teenage girls found that girls in divorced families committed more delinquent acts (e.g., drug use, larceny, skipping school) than their counterparts in intact families.

A study of street-gangs reveals this linkage as well. In a recent book on the subject, Francis Ianni found that most gang members in America come from female-headed households. And a study of British communities found a direct statistical link between single parenthood and virtually every major type of crime, including mugging, violence against strangers, car theft and burglary.

A study reported in Psychology Today found that “90 per cent of repeat adolescent firestarters live in a mother-only constellation”. A Michigan State University study of 72 adolescent murderers discovered that 75 per cent of them had divorced or never-married parents. And a study of 108 violent rapists, all repeat offenders, found that 60 per cent came from single-parent homes.

One study tracked every child born on the Hawaiian island of Kauai in 1955 for 30 years. It found that five out of six delinquents with an adult criminal record came from families where a parent – almost always the father – was absent.

An American author, reviewing the evidence, reports the following: “Poverty alone does not explain all of these effects. Indeed, poverty may not explain any of them”. He cites a 1988 study by Douglas Smith and G. R. Jarjoura which analysed victimisation data on over 11,000 individuals from three urban areas in New York, Florida and Missouri. They arrived at this startling conclusion: the proportion of single-parent households in a community predicts its rates of violent crime and burglary, but the community’s poverty level does not. Neither poverty nor race seem to account very much for the crime rate, compared to the proportion of single parent families, Smith and Jarjoura found.

In Australia, a book by Alan Tapper highlights this connection between broken families and crime. In a study of rising crime rates in Western Australia, Tapper suggests that “family breakdown in the form of divorce and separation is the main cause of the crime wave”.

A longitudinal study of 512 Australian children found that there are more offenders coming from families of cohabiting than married couples, and there are proportionally more offenders who become recidivists coming from families of cohabiting than married couples. The study concludes, “The relationship between cohabitation and delinquency is beyond contention: children of cohabiting couples are more likely to be found among offenders than children of married couples”.

Those who work with juvenile offenders in Australia confirm these findings. One youth worker in Melbourne has spent nearly two decades working with homeless youth and young offenders. He says that “almost 100 per cent” of these kids are from “single parent families or blended families”. And a recent New Zealand study found that 64.6 per cent of juvenile offenders had no birth father present.

The connections between crime and family breakdown have been made by the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, which compared crime rates with out-of-wedlock birth rates from 1903 to 1993. It found that the “percentage of ex-nuptial births correlates significantly with both serious and violent crime at both one and two decades time lapse”.

Drug usage is also higher among those who come from broken homes. An American study of over 1700 youths found that adolescents growing up in a single-parent or stepparent family often feel estranged and consequently drift into drug use and abuse. And a New Zealand study of nearly 1000 children observed over a period of 15 years found that children who have watched their parents separate are more likely to use illegal drugs than those whose parents stay together.

The truth is, until we get serious about family breakdown and the erosion of marriage, the trends in youth crime will not disappear, but only get worse. By all means, deal with other factors, such as the steady stream of toxic entertainment found in our media. But until the real cause of family disintegration is dealt with, we will simply see more criminal activity amongst our young people.

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