Teen Fatherhood And Gang Membership: A Qualitative Study

Principal Investigator: Geoffrey Hunt
Co-Principal Investigator: Karen Joe-Laidler
Supported by a grant from the National Institute of Childhood Health and Development (R01 HD 53369)

Given the significance of gang life for many ethnic minority youth and the strong association between the risk factors found in gang life and early fatherhood, this project filled a significant gap both within the available research on fatherhood and within gang research. Building on our previous research on gangs in the San Francisco Bay Area, including our recent research on motherhood and gang activity, we focused on the social processes and meaning of fatherhood among gang members.

In this 36 month exploratory qualitative project we examined three critical areas of interest including: the impact of gang involvement on a male gang member’s ability to fulfill his role of father; the impacts of social, economic, cultural and institutional factors which may inhibit or promote a young gang members abilities in their roles as fathers; and the impact of fatherhood on a gang member’s involvement in the gang. Our sample consisted of 220 male gang members between the ages of 14 and 28 years old. The median age was 17 years, and the mean age was 18. One third of the sample was African American fathers, and almost one-third were Latino. Asian/Pacific Islanders comprised a little more than twenty-two percent, and twelve percent of the sample were of mixed and/or other ethnicity.

In the street dominated environment of the gang, the chances of a young male gang member acting as a responsible parent would seem remote. Nevertheless, while it is true that the world of the gang is an unlikely arena for responsible fatherhood, and that many gang members are only intermittently involved in the lives of their children, we discovered that for some homeboys (gang members) becoming a parent is a highly significant development in their lives. That development may lead them to question their attachment to the gang and their involvement in high risk behaviors. Unfortunately, while it may be the case that for some homeboys becoming a father is an important and positive turning point, for many others the culture of the gang and other barriers, may encourage them to consider paternity as merely an “emblem of street masculinity,” thereby hindering them from adopting more socially approved relationships with their children.

We are presently working with the qualitative data analysis for this project. Using the open ended interviews we will explore the life histories and backgrounds; family experiences; risk behaviors, experiences in the gangs; notions of masculinity, gang membership and fatherhood; life experiences prior to learning that they were to be fathers; experiences during the pregnancy and after the birth of their child; and their past and on-going relationships with their child(ren) and the mother(s) of their child(ren). We have also collected data on the social and cultural roles of the gang, the family, and other environmental and institutional influences in their lives.

Papers from the Fatherhood And Gang Membership Project:

  • Moloney, M., MacKenzie, K., Hunt, G., and Joe-Laidler, K. (2009). “The path and promise of fatherhood for gang members.” British Journal of Criminology, 49: 305-325.