Surrogate fathers act as paternal figures for many children in poor, urban settings

August 17, 2002

Chicago, IL-- The image of the "fatherless" child in low-income families may be an oversimplification. While many children in inner-city neighborhoods are being raised by single mothers, some of these mothers receive support from the children's "social fathers" (usually a relative or a romantic partner) who appear to substitute for the children's biological fathers.

Research conducted by sociologists Mark King and Andrew Cherlin at Johns Hopkins University explores the role of social fathers in the lives of children living in poor and near-poor minority families residing in central cities. Involved "social fathers" are called "surrogate fathers," and are said by the mothers to be "more like a father" to their children than "their real biological father." These "surrogate fathers" often take at least some responsibility for daily childcare activities.

King and Cherlin will present their findings on Sunday, August 18, at a panel session of the American Sociological Association's Annual Meeting in Chicago.

The paper documents the presence and identity of involved social fathers, called "surrogate fathers," in the lives of children living in poor and near-poor minority families residing in central cities. These surrogate fathers are men who are said by the mothers to be "more like a father" to their children than "their real biological father." Many children have involved "surrogate fathers" who take at least some responsibility for daily childcare activity.

The study found that 22 percent of the children in the sample families have an involved surrogate father. The data are from a study of 2,400 children and their families from randomly selected, low-income neighborhoods in Boston, Chicago, and San Antonio.

King and Cherlin found that the most significant predictor of the children's surrogate father status was the mother's union status and her age. When a mother is cohabiting with, or married to, a man other than the biological father, that man is likely to be considered an involved surrogate father. Yet, if the biological father had previously lived with the mother, he may retain enough contact to discourage a romantic partner as a surrogate father.

Children of single mothers (i.e., no co-resident romantic partner) and young mothers were the only subjects with more than marginal probabilities of having a relative surrogate father. "If biological fathers cannot, or do not take on the primary role of father, other men may step in," say King and Cherlin. When the relatives of a single parent sense that assistance is needed a surrogate father may emerge from among her relatives.

The study found that black children were more likely then non-black children to have surrogate fathers who were romantic partners of the mother. Furthermore, nine percent of the sample of primary caregivers was surrogate mothers (i.e. grandmothers or aunts) and the majority was black. Children with surrogate mothers were likely to have surrogate fathers too.

In their findings, King and Cherlin discuss the implications of their study for theories of racial and ethnic differences in kinship patterns, such as the role of informal adoption within black families. They hope that their new data on surrogate fathers will improve current conceptions of fatherlessness and social fathers as well.
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