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Family Structure Imperiled by Social Changes

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Washington--If present trends continue, the traditional American family will completely disappear soon after the turn of the century, a researcher told the Senate Subcommittee on Family and Human Services last week.

Such a trend obviously will not reach its final stage, said Amitai Etzioni, director of the Center for Policy Research at George Washington University in the capital. But, he added, a high divorce rate and alcohol and drug abuse threaten to render families helpless to teach children the values they will need to function as responsible adults.

Among the proposals forwarded by Mr. Etzioni and others to counter these problems: a comprehensive survey of the changing family, a "cooling off" period as part of divorce proceedings, requiring estranged fathers to give more financial resources and time to their children, more counseling and education in schools about problems of families, and changes in program formulas for welfare and health care for the elderly.

Even when families stay together as groups, their members take part in fewer activities together than do family members in any other modern society, said Armand M. Nicholi, the former chairman of the Massachussets Governor's Commission on Children and Family.

"There is little juvenile delinquency in Russia [because] Russian fathers wouldn't let a day go by without spending two hours with their children," said Dr. Nicholi. By contrast, he said, the American father spends a small fraction of that time with his child.

Senator Jeremiah Denton, the Alabama Republican who chairs the subcommittee, said the "breakdown of the traditional family unit" is perhaps the nation's most serious problem. But, he added, the media would ''only make fun" of efforts to address it.

George Gallup, president of the Gallup Organization, recited a list of survey findings to support the view that the family faces unprecedented problems:

One of every eight American children lives with a single parent; half of all black children live in one-parent homes.

The divorce rate doubled be-tween 1965 and 1976, and one of two marriages now ends in divorce, although recent data suggest a decline in the divorce rate.

More than 15 percent of the adult population knows personally of at least one serious instance of physical abuse of children.

Discipline is regarded as a major school problem, and one of five teen-agers is fearful of being physically hurt on campus. Both parents and teenagers call drug and alcohol abuse a major community problem.

But even attacking these problems will not help much until the economy improves, Mr. Gallup added.

"It's not going to change much as long as we have this serious youth-unemployment rate," he said.

The experts testified that divorce is probably the most serious problem in family life because it often results in serious difficulties for children later in their lives.

"There are a staggering number of angry, depressed, and suicidal children [because of divorce]," Mr. Etzioni said. "There's going to be a higher incidence of mental illness than we've ever experienced unless something is done."

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