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Thabiti Boone grew up in a neighborhood where fathers didn’t exist, he says. The few who were physically present weren’t there spiritually or emotionally.

“I never saw dads in the park playing with their sons,” Boone recalls.

In his own life, Boone, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., says that his father was present but not there. A star high school basketball player, Boone says his father came to only one of his games.

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“I don’t remember my father hugging me. We never heard him say he was proud of us,” Boone says of himself and his brother. “The emotional pain of what I deserve and didn’t get, I have to carry it for the rest of my life.”

Author and spoken-word artist Daniel Beaty also carried the pain of his father’s absence, due to incarceration. He described the lingering emotions in his poem “Knock, Knock”:

… 25 years later I write these words for the little boy
in me who still awaits his papa’s knock …
Papa, come home, because there are things that I
don’t know and I thought maybe you could teach me:
how to shave, how to dribble a ball, how to talk to a lady, how to walk like a man …
25 years later a little boy cries and so I write these words
and try to heal and try to father myself and I dream up a father
who says the words that my father did not …

Even President Barack Obama has talked about the “hole” in his heart left by the absence of his father. In February 2014, Obama announced My Brother’s Keeper. The initiative works to expand opportunities for boys and young men of color in underserved communities with a focus on education, reading, job training and mentoring.

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“I believe the continuing struggles of so many boys and young men—the fact that too many of them are falling by the wayside, dropping out, unemployed, involved in negative behavior, going to jail, being profiled—this is a moral issue for our country,” said Obama at the time of the announcement.

Indeed. Studies have shown that youths in father-absent households have the highest odds of being incarcerated and higher levels of behavioral problems in schools and are more likely to be suspended from school. Research by Princeton University sociology professor Sara McLanahan notes that a father’s absence increases anti-social behavior such as drug use and reduces a child’s chances of employment. And in his report “Growing Up Without Father: The Effects on African American Boys” (pdf), Cory Ellis found that father-absence was the strongest indicator of delinquency, even more so than low socioeconomic status or peer pressure. There is also evidence that fatherless children have lower self-esteem, a greater risk for mental illness and suicide, and increased risk of depression.

National organizations such as 100 Black Men of America, Concerned Black Men and Big Brothers Big Sisters of America work to address some of the issues that fatherless boys may encounter through mentoring and enrichment programs. There are also much-needed programs for black boys to promote achievement. There’s the national Campaign for Black Male Achievement, which grew out of work with the Open Society Foundation. In New York, there’s the New York City Young Men’s Initiative. And in California, Oakland’s African American Male Achievement Office has gotten rave reviews for its focus on restorative justice and emphasis on black history.

The Mental Stress of Being Fatherless

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But who’s taking care of the hearts of boys hurt by the absence of their fathers?

Although there are numerous organizations addressing the social implications of growing up without a father, how can the community address the psychological impact of fatherlessness?

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Leon Caldwell, senior research director at ThinkShift, a Washington, D.C.-based social-innovation collaborative of the DeBruce Foundation, acknowledges that there may be a lack of mental-health practitioners in this space, but points out that after-school programs—those found at the Boys & Girls Club of America or mentoring organizations like Mentoring USA—create the space and time to assess a young person’s mental health and well-being.

“During your interaction with a youth, you can ask, how are you feeling? How are your grades? How are you doing in school? They will tell you if they are frustrated or agitated,” says Caldwell, who has designed and evaluated programming for organizations that focus on African-American boys. “You have to cultivate trust.”

In Clemmons, N.C., right outside Winston-Salem, Cynthia Porter is looking for a mentor for her 14-year-old son, Jalen.

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“He’s never had his dad in his life,” says Porter, 43. “His father does not call. He doesn’t see him.”

Porter and her son’s father divorced after three years of marriage. Her former husband moved to Connecticut and she moved to North Carolina to be closer to family. Around the time Jalen was 7 or 8, Porter says, she started seeing changes in her son. He became violent and acted out in school.

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“He stayed in the principal’s office,” Porter says.

In one year, Jalen was moved to three different schools.

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“He was just angry at everything and everyone. He actually tried to hurt himself,” Porter remembers. “He was always crying. You had to wrap your arms around him and rock him.”

Porter sought help from mental-health professionals, and Jalen was diagnosed with depression, mood disorder and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. He sees a therapist and psychiatrist. They’ve said that father absence may be a contributing factor, says Porter.

“I do understand he wants a father so bad. He wants a complete family,” Porter says.

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It’s not the absence of the father but whether or not there is quality involvement. Many black men who are not with their children are involved with their children’s lives.

The holidays are especially difficult. And Jalen has gotten used to his father not calling on his birthday. But seeing his friends with their fathers only makes him more upset, says Porter.

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“His father can go a whole year without contacting me or checking on his kids,” Porter notes. “He feels a sense of abandonment by his dad.”

In her research, Virginia Commonwealth University professor Faye Belgrave has found that a father’s involvement is more important than his presence in the home.

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“It’s not the absence of the father but whether or not there is quality involvement. Many black men who are not with their children are involved with their children’s lives,” says Belgrave, who is writing a book on African-American boys. “Family structure doesn’t matter as much as long as a boy has quality time and positive involvement with his father.”

Connecting Fathers With Their Children

A number of organizations—including Fathers Incorporated, founded by Kenneth Braswell—work to connect fathers with their children. Fathers Incorporated’s programs help raise awareness of the importance of positive male involvement and educate parents on ways to create healthy father-child relationships.

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With her former husband not stepping up, however, Porter tried to enlist her 70-year-old father to help out with her son. But as a senior citizen, Jalen’s grandfather could only do so much with his teen grandson. So Porter signed up for Big Brothers Big Sisters.

“He got paired with a young man—24 years old,” says Porter. “He hasn’t called Jalen yet.”

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She pulled her son from the program because she didn’t want him disappointed again. But as Jalen gets older, Porter says, she needs help.

“I need some male mentors for my son, someone to show him how to be a man,” she says. “I’m trying to keep him out of the judicial system, keep him from being the angry black male that goes out in society.”

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On the rare occasions when father and son meet, Porter notes, Jalen is a different person.

“He melts like butter,” says Porter. “It’s a look of ‘I want to be around you, but I don’t know if I can trust you.’”

Jawanza Kunjufu, author of several books on African-American boys, including the 2007 Raising Black Boys, calls it “post-traumatic missing daddy disorder.”

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“Most boys are not going to be honest and say, ‘I’m really hurting because I’m missing my daddy,’” says Kunjufu. “A mentor once a week is extremely important. I don’t want to belittle that. But there is no one that a boy wants to please more than his father.”

Boone remembers his father taking him to pool halls and prostitution houses, but he didn’t care.

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Black males need a nurturing environment that will help restore faith and trust in humanity.

“Even though my dad was bad, I just wanted to be around him,” says Boone. “Even with him beating my mother, taking me into pool halls, at the end of the day he was still my father. I wanted my father, but he never allowed me to be his son.”

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Porter says she knows that her son longs to see his father more often, but her former husband’s absence has taken an emotional toll on her as she tries to find her son the resources to thrive. 

“I feel like I’m going through this by myself,” says Porter. “It’s become a struggle for me. It’s tough.”

Caldwell says that there was a time when there were men and institutions, such as the church, in the black community that guided young men—but not so anymore.

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“Structurally, we have to look at how we support people in the ecosystem where black boys live. Black males need a nurturing environment that will help restore faith and trust in humanity,” says Caldwell. “Our community has stopped creating those nurturing environments. Our community has become fragmented. Neighborhoods have been decimated from lack of economic opportunity.”

As a result, black boys’ aimlessness ends up as hopelessness and is reflected in the ongoing violence in many urban areas.

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Kunjufu notes that initiatives such as My Brother’s Keeper are a step in the right direction in terms of addressing some of the issues related to father absence. He also gives a nod to single-gender schools such as the all-boys Eagle Academy in New York or Urban Prep in Chicago. Organizations such as 100 Black Men and fraternities certainly make a difference. And coaches play an important role in getting boys off the street, says Kunjufu, who had his own rites-of-passage program for black boys.

But the million-dollar question is, according to Kunjufu, Is that enough?

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“The positive men we have willing to be coaches and role models are doing a great job, but we can’t raise 72 percent of children who are missing fathers,” says Kunjufu. “The village is not strong enough. It’s still 5 million black boys who need a father.”

Absent Fathers Aren’t a Barrier to Success, Expert Says

Wizdom Powell, associate professor of health behavior at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, warns against the notion that black men need fathers to be successful.

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“I’m not arguing that fathers aren’t important and that they don’t play a critical role, but I think we essentialize the notion of black fathers, and also in turn pathologize black mothers, when we say that if fathers aren’t there, then boys can’t be healthy and whole, and I just don’t think it’s that simple of a story,” says Powell. “It’s like mothers are essential, but then they’re not enough. So I think that’s why I’m always helping to push back on the argument that boys absolutely, positively have to have a man in their life or they’re not going to develop appropriately.”         

Powell also stresses that the tone a mother sets around a father’s absence—whether it’s from death, incarceration or the lack of a presence in child-rearing—also plays a role in a boy’s emotional and mental functioning.

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“It’s how we set up that relationship and how we frame his father’s absence that makes the most impact,” notes Powell.

One of the biggest challenges around father absence is the lack of someone to teach boys how to emote from a male’s perspective.

And when fathers aren’t present, Powell says, we have to think about how to create a community of male “social fathers” who can step in and provide the support boys may need from a male.

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“One of the biggest challenges around father absence is the lack of someone to teach boys how to emote from a male’s perspective, and how to manage, how to catalyze, anger productively; all of the rules around emotional functioning that they have to actually learn on the fly—that if they don’t have a male in their life to do that, then it can create a kind of void, but more of a socioemotional void than one that really rests on having a physical presence of someone there,” says Powell.

Belgrave says that mothers have to structure opportunity for their sons and monitor their activities. She noted that sports and rites-of-passage programs provide opportunities for positive male involvement.

“Do not let these children come home and hang out and select their own friends and play video games,” says Belgrave. “You have to know who the parents are of their friends, where they go after school. All they need to do is be in a negative peer group” to get off track.

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Thabiti Boone, like many others, found his “social father” on the basketball court. His high school coach, who is now 84, saw potential in him and guided him, he says.

“He understood the impact and pain that I was dealing with without my father. He helped me deal with that,” says Boone.

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On Tuesday, Boone was headed to President Obama’s last State of the Union address. He is a White House Champion of Change for his work on fatherhood issues. He is also the international representative for Omega Psi Phi Fraternity’s fatherhood-and-mentoring initiative. In addition, Boone helps the NBA with service projects and serves as an adviser to Fathers and Men of Professional Basketball Players Inc.

Yet despite his success, his still yearns for his father’s love.

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“I wanted to work hard to still seek the love and value and appreciation of my father,” says Boone, who was a teen father who took his daughter to college with him and gave up a promising NBA career. “I’ve learned to take the love I didn’t have from him and turn it into my passion to be a fatherhood leader. Fathers need to know that their sons need them so that they can be emotionally stable.”

Lottie L. Joiner is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.