Malik Carter, 17, shared a slice of pizza with his 20-month-old son Makai, who was perched on his dad's lap during the pre-Father's Day celebration this week at the Bon Secours Community Support Center in Southwest Baltimore.
As part of the festivities, called "A Day with Dad," Carter and a handful of other young fathers and their children got free haircuts, ate cake and mingled with community members. One dad quizzed another about whether his baby was on "stage 2" foods yet, while two boys pulled out coloring books from their dad's gift bag.
"We're trying to appreciate these young men, to show them that they are valuable" to the community and to their children, said Anees Abdul-Rahim, manager of the Bon Secours fatherhood program, which targets low-income city fathers ages 16 through 26.
The parenting program is one of dozens of similar efforts in the state and around the country that try to teach men — frequently young, urban, unmarried and jobless — how to be better fathers, which for some simply means showing up to see their children. Such problems are not confined to cities such as Baltimore; there are similar programs in Howard, Montgomery and other counties in Maryland.
"We have record numbers of children living in father-absent homes today," said Vincent DiCaro, a spokesman for the nonprofit National Fatherhood Initiative, based in Germantown.
Census figures show that one out of every three U.S. children lives in a home without a biological father, and many of them rarely, if ever, spend time with their dads. Research shows those kids are more likely to be poor and to abuse alcohol and drugs, DiCaro said. The boys are four times more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system, he said, and the girls are seven times more likely to become teen mothers.
"When kids grow up without dads, they face a number of risks across pretty much every measure of child well-being," said DiCaro, whose organization has developed several fatherhood program curricula used in Maryland and elsewhere.
Carter, who also has a 5-month-old son by a different woman, didn't have a father in his life, though he looked up to his two older brothers as father figures. He wants more for his sons.
"I want them to have me and their mothers in their lives," he said. His own mother urged him to attend the young fathers' program.
Parenting programs traditionally target moms, leaving the dad to figure things out on his own or to follow the mother's lead if she's willing to teach him. Fatherhood programs, typically run by nonprofits or social service agencies, try to fill that gap. They often include a support group, a parent education class and an occasional outing for dads and kids. Many programs teach dads about the developmental phases of their children, along with how to care for kids' physical needs and how to discipline without aggression. But they also address bonding with their kids and how to work with the mothers.
The Maryland Department of Human Resources runs a Young Fathers Employment Program in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Montgomery and Talbot counties to help new dads find work to support their kids. The agency also offers the Winning Fathers Project, aimed at dads leaving prison or jail, in Montgomery, Prince George's and Talbot counties.
In Howard County, The Family Tree, a child-abuse prevention nonprofit, offers fatherhood training through the MENS Program, which stands for Men Encouraging, Nurturing and Supporting. Its dads are typically referred by the courts because of violence issues. Members took their kids on trips to the Maryland Science Center, the National Aquarium and a Washington Wizards game during the past year, said Carolyn Finney, program director at The Family Tree.
And in Northwest Baltimore, the Center for Urban Families, which largely focuses on fathers, runs the Baltimore Responsible Fatherhood Project, serving up to 120 men a year.
The center's founder, Joseph T. Jones Jr., said he grew up in Baltimore without seeing much of his dad after his parents divorced when he was 9 or 10. He, in turn, abandoned his first son, Trey, for much of the now-grown man's life.
"It's really hard to learn how to be a dad if you" didn't grow up with one, Jones said.
Sitting in his second-floor office on North Monroe Street, Jones runs through the short version of his life story in a practiced way that suggests he's told the tale many times. He and his mom moved to the city's west side after the divorce, and Jones was shooting heroin by the time he was 13, and later cocaine. He had his first stint in a juvenile facility by 14 and was in and out of trouble for years following.
When he was 22, Trey was born out of wedlock. "I wasn't in a position to be responsible" for him, Jones said.
He managed to get a General Educational Development certificate, despite his addiction and jail stints, and was eventually placed in a treatment program by the courts. Once he got clean, he earned an associate's degree and started working in human services, first with mothers, but then, at his insistence, with fathers.
The center, founded in 1999, grew from those efforts. Last month, it hosted President Barack Obama, who stopped by on a tour to promote his jobs agenda. There, he met Marcus Dixon, a 30-year-old father of two sons, who's finally chipping away at thousands of dollars in child support debt with the help of the center.
"I'm taking [the] initiative to try and be part of my children's lives," Dixon said this week. Neither of his son's mothers will let him see the boys, ages 10 and nearly 3. But he now realizes that he has a lot to prove to gain their trust.
He dealt drugs for years and said he ran with the "underworld" on the streets. The knuckles on his right hand are tattooed with the number "1800," signifying the block at Rutland and East North avenues where he hung out.
When he came to the center three years ago, he was jobless, owed $50,000 in child support and had a bad attitude. He has since negotiated a reduction in his debt to $15,000, works two jobs and goes to community college with an eye toward an eventual bachelor's degree so he can work in pharmaceutical sales.
The Baltimore Responsible Fatherhood Project has existed in various forms since the center opened. But it was relaunched with a new curriculum in February, developed in conjunction with researchers at Columbia University. It's a four-month program that requires participants to regularly meet with a case worker and attend monthly workshops and weekly group sessions with other dads.
"We motivate each other, we help each out. It's like a brotherhood," said Samuel Wallace, a 38-year-old dad.
The new curriculum has built in evaluation measures that Jones and his Columbia partner plan to use for a scientific analysis of the program's effects.
Unpaid child support and poor relationships with their children's mothers keep many noncustodial fathers from seeking visitation, and many fatherhood programs tend to measure success by whether child support payments and visitation frequency are increasing. Last year, the 80 or so men who participated in Jones' group made $90,000 worth of back child support payments, and 70 percent of them found jobs with the center's help, he said.
But those numbers say little about the effect of the programs on a child's and father's development, which frustrates Jones. He's spent years trying to develop a proper evaluation system with Ronald B. Mincy, director of Columbia University's Center for Research on Fathers, Children and Family Well-Being.
If their latest efforts pan out, "it will have wide implications for the field because very few programs are rigorously evaluating the impacts of their services," Mincy said. The better the analysis showing positive results, the better the likelihood that a program will be funded.
National experts said it's very difficult and expensive to do rigorous evaluations, so many groups don't do them.
Mincy said his work with Jones has been paid for by the Open Society Institute, which also funds the Baltimore Responsible Fatherhood Project, and the Office of Child Support Enforcement, among other backers.
The Bon Secours young fatherhood program, in its second year, is funded by the Maryland Family Network, said director Abdul-Rahim, whose salary comes from the Maryland Family Network. His mandate is to serve 30 fathers ever year, no more than 15 at a time. Some take two years to complete the program, which includes case management and an educational workshop.
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"We teach them the attitudes and skills for nurturing," Abdul-Rahim said, noting that men and women parent differently. "What makes a child balanced emotionally and mature and stable and grounded is when they have both [parents] working together."
At the "Day with Dad" event, Charles Mitchell bounced his 9-month-old son Micah on his lap, his 1-year-old daughter Laneare in a high chair nearby.
At 26, Mitchell just made the cutoff for the young father's program, but he would have likely worked his way into it regardless. He said he's taken just about every parenting program the center offers, including one aimed at teens.
Mitchell, who is in a long-term relationship with the mother of his children, said he grew up in the foster care system and never knew what it meant to be a dad. But through the fatherhood program and talking with other dads, he's getting there.
"We learn from each other," he said. "I learned how to be responsible."