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Fatherless America? A third of children now live without their dad

Published: Saturday, May 21 2011 11:00 p.m. MDT

"Most of these couples are together when the baby comes and they have high hopes for staying that way," Hawkins said. "Unfortunately, only a small percentage are able to hold that together and solidify that relationship. It's even easier to leave your kid when you haven't got a legal commitment holding you there."

In a five-year study following 5,000 children, the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, D.C., found 80 percent of fathers provide support to mothers during pregnancy and more than 70 percent visit their children at the hospital. At the time of birth, a vast majority indicated they wanted to help raise their child.

Five years down the road, however, only 35 percent of unmarried couples had gotten married. About 40 percent of unmarried mothers had already broken up with their child's father and entered into at least one new partnership. Fourteen percent had a child with a new partner.

"Most fathers care about their children," said Victor Nelson, a marriage and family therapist from Logan. "They've given up on making things work with the mother, but most want to figure out some sort of solution for their kids."

But even if fathers keep in touch after a breakup, children suffer, said Nelson, who specializes in helping couples make co-parenting plans after a relationship has gone south.

"The bottom line is, kids really need frequent contact with both parents to successfully navigate developmental stages as they grow up," he said.

Growing up without Dad

While he's careful to take responsibility for the way he's run his life up to this point — criminal record and all — in the back of his mind, DeBoer, who dropped out of high school to help his mother provide for his younger siblings, has always wondered if things might have been different had his father been around.

The family was poor. At times, DeBoer's mother worked three jobs in order to pay the bills.

"She worked so hard," DeBoer said. "There wasn't nothing she wouldn't do for us kids."

But the combination of a working mom who wasn't around much and living in a crime-riddled, low-income neighborhood proved difficult for DeBoer. The first time he got arrested, he was 17 years old. He started drinking in middle school. He picked up drugs in high school. When he started drifting toward gang activity, his mother sent him away to live with his aunt and uncle. DeBoer continued, though, down the path he'd started.

"My dad wasn't there to teach me how to be a man, so I looked to my friends," he said. "I didn't have no one to look up to. I had to teach myself everything."

The research backs DeBoer up.

A study by the Wisconsin Department of Health and Social Services found only 13 percent of juvenile delinquents come from families where the biological mother and father are married to each other. Thirty-three percent come from families where the parents have divorced. Forty-four percent have parents who were never married. The University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University both found young men who grow up in homes without fathers are twice as likely to end up in jail as those who come from traditional two-parent families — even when other factors like race, income, parent education and urban residence were held constant.

"Something about not having a father in the picture seems to make at least certain types of boys more likely to engage in aggressive violent behavior," said Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. "The theory is, they are trying to signal to others they are a man. If they don't have a good model in the household, they are more likely to embrace what they see on TV or what they see their friends doing."

Today's dads still bring the majority of financial resources to the table, Wilcox said. Money translates into things like food, tutoring and college.

Despite socioeconomic status, however, just having a father at home makes a child more likely to succeed at school, according to a study by the Charles F. Kettering Foundation. Children from low-income, two-parent families outperform students from high-income, single-parent homes. Almost twice as many high achievers come from two-parent homes as one-parent homes.

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