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BROKEN FAMILIES MAY BE LEADING TO BROKEN KIDS

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David Nunez is a big kid with a fast grin, but when talk turns to his father, his expression turns cold and fierce. Nunez is doing time for trying to kill a rival gang member, and in his view, his father is at least partly to blame.

"My mom raised six of us in L.A.," he recalls during a tense conversation recently in a classroom at the California Youth Authority in Stockton. "I never met him. He was never around when I needed him."He left it all up to my mom, and she did OK until I was 10 - she could control me up to then.

"But then I went to the gangs, like my brothers and sisters," Nunez, now 20, says. "It might have mattered if he was around, but he never was."

Other teenage inmates in the room with Nunez nod. Most of them come from single-parent families, too.

In fact, state records show, nearly 73 percent of the young men in California's massive juvenile prison system grew up in single-parent and broken families.

This is no coincidence, according to a small but growing group of criminal behavior experts and social scientists. They are finding intriguing evidence that the epidemic of youth violence is related to the breakdown of the conventional two-parent family.

Children in single-parent families, they say, are more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems, to drop out of school, to get pregnant out of wedlock and - in the most extreme cases - to commit violent crime. Their studies also suggest that the rising number of unsupervised latchkey children, most of them from two-earner families, may also be playing a role in the spread of juvenile violence.

Researchers say it is simplistic to suggest that family change alone can account for the teenage murder arrest rate, which has doubled in the past 10 years.

Instead, they describe family life as just one gear in a complex social mechanism - a gear that can mesh with poverty, lack of education, poor mental health, racism, drugs, media violence, the proliferation of guns and other factors to produce an act of violence.

"What is clear is that the dynamics for kids are getting worse," says Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, director of the Institute for American Values, a politically moderate think tank in New York City that specializes in family issues. "Two-parent families are spending less time with their kids, and it's even worse for single-parent kids.

"But almost no one wants to really look at what's happened to families and how that is affecting the social fabric."

Recent demographic data show that the fabric of family has been torn and tattered by three major changes in American family structure over the past 30 years: divorce, dual-earner families and single parenthood.

Divorce rates are stable, but have doubled since the late 1960s, with about half of all marriages ending in divorce. The increase in two-earner families also has slowed greatly since about 1984. Now, 58 percent of all families have two earners, double the 1960 rate.

The number of single-parent families continues to grow rapidly. In 1993, about 27 percent of families with children were headed by a never-married, divorced or widowed person, most of them women. That was more than double the 1970 rate and up by three points just since 1990.

Because so many Americans are affected and because of the moral, racial and feminist issues surrounding it, the question of single-parent families is as sensitive as an exposed nerve.

One example is during the 1992 presidential campaign, when then-Vice President Dan Quayle attacked the television show "Murphy Brown" because a single woman's decision to raise her baby was shown in a positive light. The reaction was visceral, almost violent.