Skip to main content.

How absent fathers are hurting African American boys

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

How absent fathers are hurting African American boys

Blog body

In Washington, D.C., Kecia Brighthaupt struggles to raise her teenage son, Jamari, alone. (Photo by Lottie Joiner)

The winter snow in Washington, D.C., always reminds me of the boys who lived next door. There were three of them. They would shovel my sidewalk, the youngest trying his hardest to keep up with his two older brothers. When I first moved to the neighborhood, their father urged them to help me with the heavy boxes or carry my groceries inside. He kept close watch over them, warning his boys of the dangers that lurked in the streets.

Then their father died and life became dramatically different for the boys next door.

Our neighborhood, less than four miles from the U.S. Capitol, is one of the most neglected areas of the city. Here, 73 percent of children live in households headed by a woman. There is high poverty and unemployment, devastating crime and violence, substance abuse and homelessness, rising rates of high school dropouts and teenage pregnancy. Far too often, gunshots pierce the dark quiet nights, followed by police sirens and ambulance horns. At times helicopters will hover above, trying to find the thieves that steal lives.

It is in this place, littered by check-cashing storefronts, liquor stores and carryouts, where mothers struggle to both make ends meet and keep their children safe. And it is in this place where too many black boys like the boys next door have to navigate life alone.

Not long after their father’s death, the boys started skipping school and missing curfew. Typical teenager behavior turned into serious crime. More than once I witnessed one of the boys being led away in handcuffs by police. Their mother, for her part, sought help — from the school system, the courts, the government.

But her efforts fell short. None of the boys graduated from high school, two have been in the criminal justice system, and the youngest has had several stints in drug rehab.

So what happened?

Would their lives have been different if their father had lived? What did these young men need in their lives that their mother could not provide?

According to the latest Census figures, about 50 percent of African American boys under age 17 live with a mother only, compared with 16 percent of their white counterparts. Research shows that children in fatherless homes are more likely to drop out of school, exhibit behavioral problems, end up in the criminal justice system, suffer unemployment, and are at a greater risk of substance and drug abuse.

But why?

That’s the question I posed as a 2015 National Health Journalism Fellow.

In my story for and a more in-depth narrative for The Crisis magazine, I examined the impact of father-absence on the mental health of black boys. My goal was to understand what happens to a boy — specifically young African American men who are often faced with the eye of scrutiny from the world — who does not have a father present in his life. I wanted to learn about the tools and resources needed to address the often deeply buried emotional pain African American boys experience as a result of a father’s absence. I wondered: How do we take care of the hearts of black boys without fathers?

“That’s the tough part,” said Ron Mincy of Columbia University’s School of Social Work. He added: “At some point in their life every man is vulnerable. You have circumstances in your life that you need to be able to go to a man to debrief.”

Indeed. There was no shortage of knowledgeable experts — psychologists, family therapists, academics — who could discuss how father-absence impacted the mental health of black boys. University of California San Francisco Professor Howard Pinderhughes, for example, noted how fathers help black boys deal with the “structural violence” — institutional racism, bias in schools, profiling in the streets, employment discrimination — they often endure growing up in America.

“If you don’t have a father in the home who can act as a source of support and one of your pillars for your formation of resilience, then you’re less likely to be resilient in the face of a lot of sources of trauma,” Pinderhughes said.

A big challenge in reporting this story was finding an organization or a grassroots community program that provided mental health services to fatherless boys. There are numerous afterschool programs, mentoring organizations and weekend enrichment activities for boys. However, it was difficult finding a program that incorporated a mental health component. I reached out to a number of mental health organizations that served youth. I found the Washington, D.C.-based Hillcrest Children and Family Center, a 200-year-old nonprofit organization that provides mental health services to children and families. Family therapist Ayize Ma’at said that 90 percent of his clients are black boys without fathers, many of whom come in with major depression disorders.

“We look at our youth and say that they’re bad. I like to say they’re hurting,” said Ma’at. “Their behaviors are behaviors of them acting out pain. They’re just trying to meet a need — the need to be included, to be loved, to be welcomed, respected and wanted.”

But my greatest challenge in reporting the project was finding what my editor described as the “turkey” — the main dish of my story, a family to profile that demonstrated the impact of a father’s absence. I spent several months with a family in Washington, D.C., and witnessed a hardworking mother trying her best to raise her son alone. I saw her struggle to get help with her son’s mental health issues while also pleading with his father to be more connected.

And though the experts agreed that structured extracurricular activities such as sports or arts programs where boys have access to a positive male figure are the most effective solutions to father-absence, the family I profiled was representative of those on the fringes of society who are often unaware of the available opportunities and resources. There was also the issue of transportation, which can make getting to such activities difficult.  

University of North Carolina associate professor Wizdom Powell emphasized the need for a “community of male social fathers.” Men, she said, who could step in and provide the support boys may need from a male. But men are only part of the solution, Powell noted.

“This is village work — father, mother, brother, sister, aunt — we need everybody, all hands on deck, to raise healthy successful boys,” Powell said, emphasizing that millions of boys are raised by single mothers everyday and grow up to be productive citizens.

I walked away from this project with more questions than answers: How do communities help young men in our most neglected and vulnerable places find the people and activities that will nurture their natural talent and abilities? How do we address issues such as cost and transportation that may prevent talented young men from participating in programs that could change the trajectory of their lives? How do we get boys off the street and celebrate their gifts? What role should schools or churches play in ensuring that boys from our most underserved communities have access to such opportunities? How can our government help create environments where success is the norm, not the exception? How do we reach mothers who may not be tapped into the resources available for their sons, and how do we support them in their struggle to survive and see their sons thrive? But more urgently, as Ron Mincy asks, how do we sustain this emphasis on black boys when Obama leaves office?

As the African American community grapples with the school-to-prison pipeline, high unemployment and mass incarceration of young black men, it’s important that we look at the “structural violence” they endure, and form a community of social fathers to help guide, protect and support them. This is an issue that touches the lives of not only African Americans but all those who want to create a society of emotionally healthy men. Their skills and talents are needed for a better world.

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve seen the boys who lived next door. But I know now that what they sought in their father’s absence was a place and a space to be welcomed, respected and wanted.

There’s still much work to be done for those who need it the most.

For those working on a similar project, here are a few recommendations:

1. Start early: Try to do some reporting before you apply for the fellowship. If possible have interviews lined up and data sources.

2. Develop a schedule: When you will work on your project? Nights? Weekends? Time management is important.

3. Summarize your interviews: You may see that some views overlap or you may have to interview others to get different perspectives.

4. Pay for transcription services: Transcribing takes up a lot of time. An hour interview may take a week to transcribe, a week that could be used writing or reporting. Listen to the interviews and read the transcriptions for little nuggets.

5. Write an outline: An outline will show you where you need to do more reporting and help shape the story.

6. Fresh eyes: Step away from your final draft for a week. Then read it with a fresh set of eyes. Do you need to do more reporting? Are you satisfied with the final product?

Read Lottie Joiner's fellowship story here.


The nation's top infectious disease specialist will join us for a conversation with national health reporter Dan Diamond of The Washington Post. We’ll talk about the evolving threat posed by monkeypox, the current state of the COVID pandemic, and broader lessons on how we respond to emerging diseases. Sign-up here!

The USC Center for Health Journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is seeking two Engagement Editors and a social media consultant to join its team. Learn more about the positions and apply.


Follow Us



CHJ Icon