LOS ANGELES — Robert was looking for love. What he found was a gang.

“I joined a gang for a family,” he told the PBS show Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. “I never had one when I was growing up. I joined the gang for a family. That’s it.”

Living with his new “family” led him to eight years in prison — for robbery and car-jacking.

He ended up being part of Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles program for ex-gang members run by Jesuit Father Greg Boyle.

Robert’s story is not unusual — a young man without a father in his life who falls into a life of crime.

But a federal study on crime seems to be ignoring what one expert calls the “huge gorilla” in the midst of a violent crime increase.

While the national crime rate has remained at record low levels across the country over the past couple of years, FBI and Department of Justice surveys have demonstrated a 2.2% increase in violent crime (homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault) in several cities — the first increase in such crimes since 2001.

In response, the Department of Justice announced in October the creation of its Initiative for Safer Communities — a three-part plan that will include a federal crime study targeted at 18 cities and suburbs searching for clues as to why such crimes are on the rise nationally. While the survey plans to examine demographic, economic and social matters that affect crime rates, sociologists say the key factor the study should be examining is that of modern family structure.

“When you control for marriage, the crime rates between blacks and whites show no difference,” said Patrick Fagan, the William H.G. FitzGerald Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “The huge gorilla sitting in the center of the floor is boys without fathers.”

Sociologist Bradford Wilcox agreed.

“It would make sense for them to look at modern family structure and fatherlessness in any kind of trends in criminal activity,” said Wilcox,” assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and author of the 2004 book “Soft Patriarchs.” “Most studies confirm the notion that boys raised outside of an intact household are more likely to run afoul of the law.”

Wilcox referred to a study by Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson that found that one of the strongest predictors, if not the strongest predictor, of murder and robbery rates in urban America is the percentage of families headed up by a single parent.

Fagan noted in a recent National Review article that out-of-wedlock births now account for 36.8% of all births, an increase of 3% since the early 2000s. By 2006, he expects that one in every two Hispanic children will be born out-of-wedlock.

The data is clear.

According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, 85% of all children exhibiting behavioral disorders come from fatherless homes. Studies going back a quarter century show that 80% of rapists and 70% of juveniles in state-operated institutions are from fatherless homes.

Wilcox said there are good reasons for the correlation.

“Boys that grow up in fatherless homes engage in compensatory masculinity,” explained Wilcox. “They try to separate themselves from their mothers, yet prove their masculinity by being more aggressive, more violent and more sexually active. Without an appropriate model in the home, they do not learn the appropriate cues.”

Wilcox added that the role of a father is irreplaceable. Non-residential dads, such as an uncle or Big Brother, cannot easily fill in for a missing father.

“They tend to treat the kids to a movie or sporting event,” said Wilcox. “That’s not really what kids need from men. They need men who can challenge them, discipline them and show them how to handle stress.”

Among the cities being studied by the Department of Justice are: Atlanta, Boston, Houston, Miami, Minneapolis, Omaha, San Diego, San Bernardino, Calif., and Tidewater, Va. The Department of Justice’s deputy director of public affairs, Brian Roehrkasse, did not return the Register’s repeated telephone calls for further inquiry into the initiative.

The Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis is also looking at the crime problem — and said that deterrents are important.

“If you raise the likelihood that criminals will be arrested, prosecuted and spend lengthy time in prison, you reduce crime,” said Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow at the center.

But he admitted that the center hadn’t examined the controversial issue of family structure.

Others suggested another often overlooked factor in crime rates — that of faith.

“What [the Department of] Justice has never done is look at the correlations between criminals, their family background and religion,” said Fagan. “Researchers Sampson and John Laub said there are two big things in the male adult who reforms from being a criminal: The first is marriage; the second is religious conversion.”

“Sports, the workplace, leisure and pop culture do not motivate men to spend more time with their families. Churches can play a unique role for men. They aren’t a panacea, but they do move men toward a more family-friendly direction,” said Wilcox. “Faith helps men to focus on their families and place them first.”

David Pence, editor of the Minneapolis-based magazine City Fathers, sees the faith factor at play over a longer period of time. City Fathers examined crime rates in Minneapolis.

“While there might be one- to two-year increases or decreases, usually related to aggressive policing, the rates have never fallen to the percentages found in the 1950s,” Pence said. “For Minneapolis and most of urban America, 1980 was the 30-year culmination of the breakdown of civic order. In 1950, Minneapolis had 140,000 more people, 400 fewer rapes, 40 fewer murders and 3,000 fewer burglaries. The population was poorer, denser and there were 500 fewer police officers.

But, he said, the world in 1950 had not yet witnessed de-Christianization of certain segments of society, or the “de-sacralization of marriage” or the loss of the kinds of jobs that a man without a college degree could work at to support his family.

He said that crime is the result of a lack of socialization of males not only within the family, but among other groups in society, as well.

“The No. 1 cause of the breakdown among the black population in big cities was the crisis of identity in the black male who rejected the Christian model for a combination of criminality and a newly-manufactured ‘black identity,’” said Pence, a Catholic physician. “That’s why programs that deal with religious conversion are the ones that will bring the criminal class back to religion, marriage and work.”

Programs to Help

In Boston, Rev. Eugene Rivers, pastor of the Azusa Christian Community in Four Corners, has developed alliances between black, Catholic and Jewish clergy to develop strategies for reducing crime and violence, particularly among black youth. Among their initiatives: adopting abused and neglected inner-city black children, encouraging local business development, standing up to drug dealers and “adopting” gangs for evangelical outreach.

One of their programs is the Ella J. Baker House, a community and faith-based center that mentors, monitors and ministers to high-risk youth. Since 1988, the center has provided direct service to thousands of youth and their families, helping them to read, gain access to jobs and avoid violence.

Meanwhile, an Idaho program is focused directly at fathers.

“One in six children in our parishes does not have a father or grandfather at home,” said Patrick Mitchell, founder of the Catholic Dads Matter! Project. “That has a huge impact. Not only do they model the faith, but what it means to be a good man.”

Mitchell provides a tangible image of involved Catholic fathers and grandfathers through his project. Mitchell conducts interviews with involved fathers and grandfathers and produces a newsletter insert about the fathers that is available for use by Catholic parishes. He currently provides local newsletters for St. Thomas Church and St. Pius Church in the Diocese of Boise.

“Households without a father at home are at an increased risk for the negative outcomes associated with father absence, including growing up poor, getting into trouble with the law, abusing drugs and alcohol, early sex, teen pregnancy, dropping out of school and even suicide,” said Mitchell. “How much more appropriate can it be to talk about fatherhood in the Church that talks about God the Father?”

Tim Drake is based

in St. Joseph, Minnesota.