Political parenting needed for program to help young fathers


INDIANAPOLIS -- For the seven young black men sitting in a classroom here one crystalline afternoon last week, the subject on the table was fatherhood. They were there to talk about strengthening their relationships with their children. But the long shadow in the room was the absence of their own fathers from their lives.

"I knew how I felt when you had father-and-son things at school and I couldn't just call my dad and say, 'Let's roll up,' " said Isreal Burgess, a voluble 20-year-old who spent most of the day with his head buried in a thick directory of career options. "My whole view is that, with my son, I want to be better than my dad."

There are many ways to measure the price America pays for the huge number of children -- about one-third overall -- who live in families without fathers. When the Census Bureau releases its annual report on poverty in the next few days, it will surely find, as it now does every year, that most poor children live in fatherless families. Research shows that children growing up without fathers in the home are twice as likely to abuse drugs, commit crimes or drop out of school as those with two parents to support them.

But the greatest price may be the pattern of pain and loss that cascades through the years as sons repeat the mistakes and relive the absence of their fathers -- leaving another generation of children adrift. "There is a cycle we have to stop," says Wallace McLaughlin, director of the innovative Father Resource Program, which has gathered these young men for six weeks of intensive instruction and counseling on fulfilling their responsibilities as fathers.

Breaking the cycle

The 5-year-old program, which serves primarily black men between the ages of 17 to 27, is at the forward edge of a fragile grass-roots movement laboring to break the cycle of separation. Around the country -- typically in modest circumstances like this -- programs are springing up to help men, usually unmarried young men, reconnect with their families.

Congress could give these shoestring efforts a huge boost in the months ahead. Sens. Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat, and Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican, recently introduced legislation with an impressive, bipartisan list of co-sponsors that would provide about $75 million a year in grants (to be partially matched by states) to launch and enlarge fatherhood programs. Similar legislation is being developed in the House. And senior administration officials -- starting with Vice President Al Gore -- like the idea.

"We spent a lot of time dealing with problems like poverty, juvenile violence [and] drugs, which are really symptoms for a deeper underlying problem -- the epidemic of fatherlessness," says Mr. Bayh. "Rather than just deal with the symptoms, I think we need to deal with the root cause."

That's exactly what Mr. McLaughlin and his colleagues have aimed at since opening their doors in April 1994. Four or five times a year they gather groups of 20 young men -- almost all unmarried, most recruited by word of mouth -- for a six-week, all-day fatherhood boot camp.

Part of the day, the young men (who are paid weekly stipends of about $90) are counseled on parenting skills, anger management, the role of fathers and the need to avoid additional pregnancies without marriage. A visiting psychologist works with them on managing their relationship with their child's mother. The rest of the day they learn job readiness skills: how to write a resume and conduct themselves in the workplace. Many stay late to study for their high school equivalency diploma. At the end of the six weeks -- once they pass a drug test -- an employment counselor helps them find work.

The goal is to stabilize their lives to the point where they can not only pay child support, but also support their children emotionally.

Even with those good intentions, just a day in the program's offices makes clear that this is hard and often frustrating work. As much as half of a typical class drops out.

Those who remain must still cross many miles to connect with a 9-to-5 world of work, family and responsibility. Several have criminal records; few have finished high school.

Estranged parents

Complicating the problem, most are no longer romantically involved with the children's mothers; that means the mothers sometimes don't want them around, especially if either is seeing someone else.

In many cases, it's hard to see how these young men can form the relationship they want with their children without marrying the child's mother. Yet marriage typically isn't even on their radar.

Mr. McLaughlin says that, while programs such as this "must reintroduce marriage as an option in our community," they must be realistic enough to focus on building "working relationships" between young parents unlikely to ever marry each other.

To that end, he wants to hire more counselors to negotiate "contracts" between these young couples clarifying each's role in raising their children. Mr. McLaughlin's greatest ambition is to open the program's own facility -- it now operates inside a somewhat inaccessible hospital -- where he could reach more fathers and mothers alike.

But that requires more than the $500,000 annual budget he patches together primarily from foundation grants. "The possibilities are limitless, but we need funds," says Mr. McLaughlin.

The great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr taught that man's imperfection doomed any human endeavor to disappointment -- but that awareness did not absolve us of responsibility to work for a better world. That counsel applies well to these fatherhood initiatives.

Ronald Brownstein covers politics for the Los Angeles Times.

Pub Date: 9/22/99

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