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The Tragedy of Absent Fathers

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"As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport." So says Shakespeare's desperate and deceived Gloucester in "King Lear." In the play, Gloucester is desperate because of the vicious blinding inflicted upon him. And he wrongly thinks the source of the wound is his loyal son, Edgar.

Modern life routinely resembles the tragic dimensions of Elizabethan drama. In the District of Columbia, that drama has more than its share of wanton boys. Over the past few months the city has been shocked by two barbaric murders that D.C. police say were committed by young men who escaped from juvenile detention facilities.

The cases are particularly gut-wrenching. One concerns a 14-year-old boy who twice fled juvenile homes run by the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. He is accused of being the driver of a minivan who, along with two passengers, sprayed gunfire that killed five people and wounded five more.

Just two weeks later, three 18-year-olds previously under the agency's supervision were charged with murder in the robbery and shooting of a D.C. middle-school principal in his home in suburban Silver Spring, Md. Police on May 18 arrested a fourth suspect, 19. He became at least the eighth ward of the D.C. juvenile justice system to be charged with murder this year.

The 14-year-old had his first run-in with juvenile courts when he was 9. One of the accused in the slaying of principal Brian Betts was 11 during his first stay in juvenile lockup on a child sex charge.

Detention in the District's porous juvenile justice system -- an estimated 150 youths are missing from group facilities or home detention -- is among few options available under the vagaries of the city's rehabilitation-oriented law. The recent cases have spurred calls for reform. Chances are, D.C. officials will form a new juvenile justice commission. There will be demands for better databases, more funding for secure facilities and serious prison sentences for the most violent young offenders.

One member of the D.C. Council spoke of the need for "educational and vocational opportunities" and "intensive mentoring." Apparently, however, only multiple murders get press attention nowadays.

Washington Post columnist Colbert King laments how the April slaying of 17-year-old Kwanzaa Diggs on a city street merited only two lines in his newspaper. King openly frets that his bold writing about the broken system could spur critics to accuse him of wishing "to lock up youthful offenders and throw away the key."

But then, writing about the hardened 14-year-old charged with murder, the Pulitzer-winning journalist names something that no critic can challenge:

"There's an ugliness to childhoods like his, where relentless, wrongful behavior abides; where babies have babies by men who are boys; where children barely known by their fathers are raised by grandparents, uncles and aunts too worn out to keep up; where the warmest attachment is to older boys with guns and attitudes to match."

Spot on. Scan article after article about these homicide cases and you'll find the word "father" mentioned exactly once. And that occurs in a story about a mother who is worried that her own son, now in juvenile detention, is headed for the same fate as so many others. That troubled boy's father is dead, we learn, without further explanation.

Here is the sad reality. In the District of Columbia in 2007, roughly three of every five births were to single mothers. Preliminary data for 2008 -- just released by the National Center for Health Statistics -- show that in the United States as a whole, four out of every 10 births are outside marriage.

For black Americans nationwide, an astounding 72 percent of all births are to unmarried women. But news about this historic breaching of the 40 percent threshold is as buried as the story of the death of Kwanzaa Diggs. Google "out-of-wedlock births U.S." Most of the stories that pop up will be about last year's reports.

The city councilman in the nation's capital who wants "intensive mentoring" of adolescent and teen-age boys is on to something -- but perhaps unknowingly. It's the absence of fathers.

 In communities where single parenthood is relatively infrequent -- and such neighborhoods are vanishing in America -- older married men or younger men who are marriage material can fill much of the mentoring gap.

But where will such men come from in cities where large numbers of males refuse to mentor or monitor their own children? Colbert King and others are asking the right questions. The meltdown at the core of nuclear families in the United States has radioactive properties that a hundred concrete buildings could not contain.

Poor Gloucester. His tragedy, like Lear's, was his failure to recognize a loyal child. Our national tragedy is our loss of loyal fathers.

Charles A. Donovan is senior research fellow in the DeVos Center on Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.

First moved on the McClatchy-Tribune wire service

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