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PORTRAITS / JOSEPH N. BELL

Expert Pins Delinquency on Parents

August 05, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

Arnold Binder got a great deal of attention from some unexpected quarters recently when he published a college textbook entitled "Juvenile Delinquency: Historical, Cultural, Legal Perspectives" (written in collaboration with associates Gilbert Geis and Dickson Bruce).

An enterprising UC Irvine publicist, exploring the book for newsworthy angles, discovered that the three academicians cited "the way the family carries out its business" as a prime factor in juvenile delinquency. In a press release on the book, Binder amplified this point by saying that "many parents today are so busy making money and spending it that they neglect their children even if they don't intend to. These children are in as much danger of becoming delinquent as children from poor, single-parent families who are left alone at home while the parent works."

Sitting in his tiny office at UCI a few weeks after distribution of the press release, Binder is still astonished at the impact. "I've had about 30 calls for interviews from radio and TV stations, and several news services picked up the story. I was even quoted in the National Enquirer. And all because I argued that the greed and neglect that go along with the yuppie families have a high probability of producing juvenile delinquency."

Binder is not new to controversy. As a UCI psychology professor in 1970, Binder expressed a powerful urge to "bring the talent of the university to bear on social problems." The instrument he designed for that purpose was the social ecology department, which has grown and flourished over the past two decades, much of that time under Binder's direction. Its Youth Service Program (now called Community Service) provided counseling for thousands of Orange County juveniles in trouble with the law, and was so effective, studies of two control groups showed, that the recidivism rate was 25% lower for young people who received counseling.

Other creations of Binder's social ecologists have included a restitution program allowing young offenders to pay back their victims, a victim-witness program offering support to victims or witnesses of a crime, and drug/alchohol awareness groups in which young people can discuss with counselors the risks of substance abuse. More controversial have been Binder's studies on police violence and police training films, but his even-handed approach has prompted cooperation from police departments across the country.

Binder says he didn't have to look very far, however, to find the prototypical Yuppie Community. "It's right here in Irvine," he says, "a microcosm of yuppie priorities: financial gain, immediate gratification and getting ahead both socially and economically."

He relates these characteristics directly to juvenile delinquency. "Selfishness," he says, "comes naturally to all human beings. And antidotes like religion and the extended family have become much less important to yuppie parents, who are usually not home and when they are home tend to be busy planning their next trip. Kids need close interaction with their parents, and that doesn't come naturally. We have to work at it."

Binder feels there is a decided trend away from interaction between today's young people and their parents, but--at least in suburbia--he blames it more on greed than the economic demands that require both parents to work.

"We're not the same people we used to be," he says. "We need constant pressure from other directions--from church, state, family--to put down selfishness. We need strong social forces to counter this normal human characteristic, and they are missing today. In other generations, parents felt guilt if their kids were being shortchanged but that is much less true today. Now the question is more likely to be: How is this affecting me ?"

Binder's credits for making these statements are impressive. He is a slight, animated, native Californian in his mid-50s with a 10-page dossier of awards and publications. He has a Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford, where he made Phi Beta Kappa, and taught at the University of Indiana, UCLA, New York University and the University of Colorado before joining the UCI faculty in 1966. He has been a Fulbright Scholar and has written and published a number of books and articles in professional journals.

In spite of these academic credits, he is highly pragmatic in conversation and is quite willing to examine his charges against Yuppies in the specifics of his own family. He has three children: a 30-year-old married daughter, Andrea, by his first marriage; and a son, Jeffrey, 15, and daughter, Jennifer, 11, by his second wife, Virginia, who is a psychology professor at Cal State Long Beach.

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