Florida's streets are dangerous territory. Youth, who in times past were rarely involved in juvenile delinquency, are today both the victims and perpetrators of sinister acts of teen crime and violence, often hostile and deadly. As the real world drama is played out in our streets, it has become evident that father absence plays a critical role.
Take for example Valessa Robinson in Tampa. In an act of senseless violence, Valessa, along with Adam Davis and Jon Whispel, stormed into Vicki Robinson's home and killed her. Authorities say she had been injected with bleach from a syringe, stabbed to death, and stuffed in a trash can. According to friends, Valessa, whose parents were divorced, couldn't get over not having her dad at home.
In another shocking incident, Haines City was rocked by the bloody shooting spree of three teenagers named Sylathum Streeter, Curtis Shuler, and Victor Lester. Their final rampage occurred at John's Resort in Haines City where they burst into a hotel and opened fire on a family of five. When investigators asked Lester's stepbrother, Maurice Moore, what they had planned to do, Moore said, "Hurt somebody. Take a life, I guess." Here, too, all three teenagers came from broken families.
These horrible acts of violence lead us to ask: Are we on the verge of a teen age crime explosion?
To respond to this difficult question, we completed a detailed report entitled Kids and Violence: A National Survey and Report. We surveyed public opinion, examined statistics, explored the details surrounding numerous high-profile cases covered by the media, and reviewed scholarly opinion about the possible causes.
Though many kids are still doing the right things, our report reveals a chilling picture of today's youth. According to Florida Department of Education statistics there were a total of 227,872 incidents of violence for a total student population of 551,456 in 1996-1997. Topping the list of crime and violence per county were Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, Alachua, and Polk. Shockingly, from 1985 to 1993, the number of murder cases involving 15-year-old juveniles increased 207 percent nationwide.
What propels young kids to commit such cold-hearted acts of violence? To answer this, I reviewed several studies which revealed a link between violent behavior and fatherlessness. For example, public health researchers in Albuquerque, New Mexico studied the social background of elementary schoolchildren involved in violent behavior and found that "compared with matched control students, children who exhibited violent misbehavior in school were eleven times as likely not to live with their fathers and six times as likely to have parents who were not married."
Father involvement is a powerful influence on the development of children.
As Shawn Johnston, forensic psychologist in Sacramento, put it, the bottom line behind these blood-chilling acts is the "fundamental failure to socialize boys at risk. And the research is absolutely clear that the one human being the most capable of curbing the antisocial aggression of a child is his or her biological father."
Officials at the state and local levels have proposed several approaches to combat juvenile delinquency, such as removing violent juvenile offenders from the juvenile justice system, new dispositions and sentencing options, and more open juvenile proceedings and records. Though these measures are thoughtful, they are merely bandaids. If we're going to reclaim our communities, we need to turn fathers' hearts toward their kids.
A positive legacy for our kids will require the active involvement of fathers with their children. However, if we give credence to the notion that fathers have less importance in their kids' lives, then youth crime will continue to cast a dark shadow on Florida's streets.
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