When a child loses a parent through death, desertion, divorce, or long separation, some form of deprivation is bound to result. Where, as is generally the case, the male parent is missing, the child is placed under an obvious economic handicap. Absence of either parent may also cause a certain affectional loss for the child. In addition, the complementary control, example, and guidance given by both parents are wanting and complete socialization of the child is rendered more difficult.
At the death of a parent no cultural opposition is imposed upon the situation. Rather, social and economic assistance both public and private is readily forthcoming. Furthermore, the acquisition of a stepparent through remarriage of the remaining parent may even reestablish something of a family norm for the bereaved child.
But, in cases of desertion and divorce (and illegitimacy) we have an entirely different set of circumstances. Here we frequently find the child exposed to a highly emotionalized atmosphere of discontent and discord. The child most often remains with the mother only, financial support may be withheld by the father, or the parents may fight over the child’s custody. In case of desertion no new father may legally become part of the child’s home. And the subtle challenge of public disapproval of the family situation and the psychological impact of a seeming rejection by one’s parents may becloud the child’s outlook.
Divorce in many cases is indeed simply a formal recognition or acknowledgement of an already socially broken home, and it is generally appreciated that the home in constant discord might cause the child more harm than if the parental relationship were severed. Such reasoning has merit, but, interestingly enough, this argument has been used to justify divorce rather than to plead for the rehabilitation or prevention of unhappy families. Such a viewpoint, it should also be noted, contradicts another social philosophy which holds that even a bad home is better than no home at all for the child.
There are many varieties of broken homes and many correspondingly different kinds of family relationships involved. Even the social disparateness in family structure which results from long-term hospitalization, military service, or employment of the breadwinner away from home, may bring about some serious consequences for the members of a family. On the other hand, the conventional family structure may cloak a host of baneful influences or situations harmful to a child’s wholesome development. To say it in another way, all broken homes are not bad ones, and all conventional types are not good ones.
This article is not concerned with a delineation of all possible types of homes and their effect on children, but rather it is restricted to a consideration of the more evident types of broken homes as they relate to children who are apprehended for committing delinquent acts.
With the establishment of juvenile courts in the United States around 1900 and the compilation of social statistics on youth who were brought before these courts, observers were struck by the high proportion–40 to 50 percent–of all delinquent children who came from broken homes. Since it was far beyond normal expectancy that such a proportion of all youth was similarly disadvantaged, early writers saw broken homes to be an important, if not the greatest single proximate (causal) factor in understanding juvenile delinquency.
There was no denial that the broken home was only one of a number of factors to take into account and that the age of the child and the quality of the home life, as well as the mere fact of a break, were important. A number of studies have shown, however, that abnormal or defective family relationships are much more prevalent among families of delinquent children than among families of comparable children who do not become delinquent. This aspect of the matter is a subject unto itself.
Not counting the statistical tabulations of many juvenile courts over the years, dozens of studies have been made which deal with the broken home and juvenile delinquency or crime. Some of the early studies attempted to estimate the proportion of broken homes in the population at large from existing census data, to use for a comparison with their special groups of delinquent or institutionalized children.
A common conclusion was that delinquent children had about twice the proportion of broken homes as did children in the general population. A few comparisons were made of boys in the same school or city area, revealing a greater prevalence of broken homes among the delinquent group; while one such comparison of several groups of children in 1918 suggested that more orphans were found in the delinquent group.
The first major attempt at a controlled comparison was made by Slawson in 1923, using delinquent boys in four state institutions and boys in three New York City public schools, from which he concluded that there were over twice as many broken homes in his delinquent group.6 Concurrently, in England, Cyril Burt analyzed a group of misbehaving (“delinquent”) children and public school children of the same age and social class.
Although his classification of “defective family relationships” included other factors besides the broken home, he, too, found the problem children to be doubly disfavored. And, in 1929, Mabel Elliott compared the family structure of her group of Sleighton Farm girls mostly sex offenders with that of a group of Philadelphia working-class continuation school girls, revealing the respective proportions of broken homes to be 52 and 22 percent.
Even greater refinement was introduced into the question by Shaw and McKay when they compared boys against whom official delinquency petitions were filed in the juvenile court of Chicago in 1929, with other boys drawn from the public school population of the same city areas. They found that a rather high proportion (29 percent) of the school boys 10 to 17 years of age came from broken homes. After the school population data were carefully adjusted statistically for age and ethnic composition to make them comparable with the delinquent group, the proportion of broken homes rose to 36.1 percent for the school group, as compared to 42.5 percent for the delinquent boys.
This result, as Shaw and McKay interpreted it, “suggests that the broken home, as such, is not an important factor in the case of delinquent boys in the Cook County juvenile court,” while other writers further interpreted the findings as showing that broken homes generally are “relatively insignificant in relation to delinquency.” Even accepting the above figures for Chicago, mathematical exception has been taken to such interpretations.
From an over-all viewpoint it is well to remember that a large proportion of children from broken homes do not become delinquent, but this hardly refutes the inescapable fact that more children from broken homes, as compared to unbroken homes, become delinquent. Even among families having delinquents, siblings are more often delinquent in the broken family group.
For the social analyst, the broken home may be regarded either as a symptom or as a consequence of a larger process, but for the child it becomes a social fact with which he has to abide. In a very real sense the abnormal structure of his family may impede his own normal adjustment and in some cases may bring him into conflict with the requirements of the larger society, more so than if he were surrounded by a conventional family milieu. That so many children surpass this handicap is an exemplification of their own resilience and a demonstration of the presence of other forces acting towards the child’s socialization in the community, rather than a proof of the unimportance of normal family life in the development of norms of conduct or the unimportance of the handicaps experienced by me child in the broken home.
In former years when divorce was less common and desertion less apparent perhaps, broken homes were probably thought to be largely a result of the death of a parent. The material and other losses to such children may not have been readily perceived. How such a simple event as death could wreak enduring havoc with the child’s development was difficult to discern. Hence, disbelief in the importance of orphan hood as to delinquency causation, coupled with the very unsatisfactory nature of the early studies, no doubt led some sociologists to take exception to the prevailing beliefs and to question the whole relationship.
A convergence of information from the other disciplines as to the deleterious effects of divorce and desertion or family separations upon the child, as well as a psychological appreciation of the different nature of these types of family disruption, brought a more unanimous acknowledgment of the importance of the socially broken home. In some quarters the recent “wave” of delinquency has been interpreted to be a result of the growth of divorce and separation.
However, information on the particular family relationships of children in the community and those who become delinquent are generally lacking. We know that over the past 50 years there has been a lessening of orphan hood through improvement in life expectancy, and an upward rise in family dissolutions through desertion and divorce, until now there seems to have been a reversal in the relative importance of the two factors of death and social discord in the breaking up of a child’s family. Oddly enough, in spite of the change in the nature of broken homes the high over-all proportion of delinquent children from broken homes apparently has not changed significantly.
One large minority in the population consistently shows twice the average rate of socially broken homes and twice the average rate of delinquency. Other groups with strong family cohesiveness show below average rates of delinquency. Such apparent associations cannot be dismissed as happenstance.
On the whole very little disagreement has been expressed over the probable harmful influence of the socially broken home on the child. This does not gainsay, however, the deprivation consequent to the loss of a parent through death. Indeed, the same high proportions of delinquents were found to come from broken homes more than a generation ago when orphan hood loomed larger as the reason for family disruption. Of even more importance to the child than the nature of the break is the fact of a break in his home.
All in all, the stability and continuity of family life stands out as a most important factor in the development of the child. It would seem, therefore, that the place of the home in the genesis of normal or delinquent patterns of behavior should receive greater practical recognition. The relationship is so strong that, if ways could be found to do it, a strengthening and preserving of family life, among the groups which need it most, could probably accomplish more in the amelioration and prevention of delinquency and other problems than any other single program yet devised.
If delinquency is more likely to occur in a disorganized family than in a “normal” one, the family situation may somehow create the delinquency. But how? Perhaps a disorganized family tends to produce children with sick personalities, and sick personalities have unusual difficulty conforming to social rules.
On some such assumptions consensus appeared possible on the causal connection between family disorganization and delinquency. Then Shaw and McKay suggested, after a comparison of the incidence of broken homes among Chicago schoolboys and male juvenile delinquents, “. . . That the broken home as such [does not seem to be] a significant causal factor in cases of delinquent boys brought before Cook County Juvenile Court.” To many, this study seemed to imply that the family, an institution so important in the socialization process, was irrelevant to delinquency. The authors of the study did not draw so radical an inference from their data.
Although the formal break in the family may not in itself be an important determining factor, it is probable that the conflicts, tensions, and attitudes which precipitate the disorganization may contribute materially to the development of the delinquency and the personality problems of the child. The actual divorce or separation of the parents may not be so important a factor in the life of the child as the emotional conflicts which have resulted in the break in the family relationships.