LAWNDALE — Ronald Johnson shook his head and thrust a hand into the air. "I swear to you," he said, putting the hand to his chest, "that is a true story."
It went like this:
Shortly after his son was born, Roberto Hernandez dropped out of school and went looking for a job to help support his girlfriend and their son, both of whom lived with her parents while Hernandez lived with his. After Hernandez searched fruitlessly for months, his son suddenly fell ill. Penniless, Hernandez went to the county to apply for Medi-Cal. At length, the request was denied because it was up to the mother to apply for it.
Get a job, he was told.
Johnson found Hernandez three weeks later, working as a clerk in a butcher shop. He helped arrange medical care for the child and, among other things, persuaded Hernandez to return to a junior high school in Gardena.
Hernandez is 13 years old.
"I thought I had seen just about everything," said Johnson, 34, rubbing his chin during an interview. 'But the more I get into this job, the more I realize that these are not the 13-, 14- and 15-year-old kids that we were."
75 in Program
Hernandez is the youngest of about 75 boys enrolled in Teen Fathers, an experimental, largely state-funded program run by Johnson on the campus of Leuzinger High School in Lawndale. It tries to get teen-age boys throughout the area to own up to their responsibilities as fathers, and to teach them how to do so. They also are informed of what child-related services are available while they stay in school.
Teen Fathers, part of the Early Parenting Program at the Youth and Family Center in Lawndale, is one of only two programs in California (the other is in San Francisco) that attempt to ease the problems of adolescent pregnancy and parenthood by offering counseling and job training to some of the thousands of teen-age boys who become fathers every year. Nearly all of the participants are unmarried.
Los Angeles County records about 17,000 live births to mothers age 19 and under each year. Nearly 75% of teen-age mothers are under 17, according to the county Department of Health. The department does not keep track of the number of teen-age fathers.
Each Tuesday and Thursday after school, while their peers practice fielding grounders and hitting curve balls, the boys enrolled in Teen Fathers sit in a classroom and learn how to change diapers, mix formula and remain patient when their children
refuse to stop crying.
"I still haven't mastered changing cloth diapers," one 16-year-old father said earnestly. "I think it's like driving. You can watch someone do it a thousand times and it looks so easy, but once you get behind the wheel, you are totally lost."
But more than just teaching the mechanics of diaper changing, the program also is designed to help the young fathers remain in school.
"If he quits, what happens then?" said Gayle Nathanson, Youth and Family Center executive director. "Certainly, the best he can do is obtain a minimum-wage job. The same is likely to be true next year and the year after that."
Since beginning the program last October, Johnson, a former high school teacher and counselor, has enrolled about 100 boys, mostly from the South Bay, in Teen Fathers. The task hasn't been easy.
Johnson cannot force a young father to participate in the program, and in some cases they deny paternity. "Ninety-nine percent" do not join willingly, but must be persuaded through dozens of telephone calls and chance meetings, Johnson said. Most of the boys are referred to him by young mothers.
Many teen-age fathers wrongly assume that Johnson and others at the center are merely acting as agents for the county district attorney's office who only want to get them to pay child support. Some are illegal aliens afraid of deportation. Most, however, simply refuse to acknowledge that they are or will soon become fathers.
"We have to go out and literally beat the bushes for these guys," Johnson said. "We go to the high schools, we go to every coach in every high school, to the churches and the streets. We hang cards around town.
"If I catch them when they first find out the girl is pregnant," Johnson said, "my job is easy because they are dying to talk--to anyone."
Many Play With Toys
To look at them, it is difficult to imagine that the boys enrolled in the program are fathers. Many of them play with toys. Some read comic books while waiting to pick up their sons and daughters at the Youth and Family Center's day-care facility.
A few weeks ago, Johnson said, he gave a Transformer doll--a toy made popular by Saturday morning cartoons--to one of the toddlers at the day-care center. "Not two days later," he said, "the child's father drove up and the doll was hanging from the rear-view mirror."
The young men who willingly enter the program usually have developed a relationship with their child, Johnson said. Others have been spurned by their girlfriends and want to be involved with the baby.