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Debate Over Welfare Reform Broadens to Include Fathers

Policy: Advocates urge education over punishment for 'deadbeat dads.' Many in Congress are listening.

June 16, 2002|JONATHAN PETERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It was a group of fathers with a lot of explaining to do.

Child-support debts soaring into tens of thousands of dollars. Tenuous ties to their kids. Bitter ex-wives and ex-girlfriends. Scant evidence that lifelong behavior patterns were about to change.

The judge could have shipped them off to county jail for failing to support their children. Instead, he sent them to school.

"I was mis-educated," declares Lee A. Council, 38, father of eight children by four women, as other men murmur agreement during the recent class in responsible fatherhood. "I'm being re-educated now."

For six years of welfare reform, attention has focused on the struggles of poor children and single mothers. But now, an emerging movement says it is time to spotlight the father--that long-overlooked family member who may be missing, estranged, incarcerated or trying to find a way back into the lives of his kids.

More than 2,000 grass-roots efforts have cropped up across the country in recent years to counsel and advocate for nonresident dads, according to the National Fatherhood Initiative, a Maryland-based group. And as Congress debates the next stage in welfare reform, some lawmakers want to add hundreds of millions of dollars to spread the responsible fatherhood message.

About 7 million poor children live without their fathers, according to research by Elaine Sorensen, an Urban Institute economist. Their absence, advocates maintain, is linked to a grim catalog of social woes: poverty, drug use, violence, teen pregnancy, academic failure, depression and suicide.

Yet if fathers' financial and personal contributions could potentially transform the lives of their children, welfare policy has focused little on their role.

"There's more to welfare reform than simply saying that these mothers have to get a job," notes David Blankenhorn, author of "Fatherless America" and president of the Institute for American Values. "And the main 'more' is recognizing that these children have fathers too."

Such fathers are not just invisible in national policy. They are villains in popular culture, scorned as "deadbeat dads," living symbols of irresponsibility.

But those who speak on their behalf maintain that the traditionally punitive approach toward them often fails, and that not every "deadbeat dad" wants to stay that way.

The path forward can be difficult, however, particularly for those lacking in job skills. The child-support debt rises each month; states may charge interest on the red ink. Typically, government safety net programs are not designed to help such men.

"The question isn't whether they're deadbeat. The question is whether they're dead broke," insists Jeffery M. Johnson, president of the National Center for Strategic Nonprofit Planning and Community Leadership, which has closely followed the issue. "The unfinished business of welfare reform is, how do we now increase the skills and educational levels of low-income men, so they can be contributing financial partners of women leaving the welfare system."

The 10 men seated around a table in the Kansas City classroom--blue-collar workers, former athletes, hardened street survivors--have reached the last of their 12 classroom sessions. But the organizers do not want to let them graduate without a final round of soul searching.

"Who would like to be the first to share?" asks George R. Williams, executive director of Kansas City's Urban Fathering Project. "Involvement is what?"

Thomas Caffrey, a bearded man in a gray carpenters union shirt, responds in a low, deliberate voice: "Being there mentally, physically and emotionally with my kids." Others nod approvingly.

Craig Scott, a muscular man in sunglasses, jumps in with his own contribution: "Spending time with children and listening to what the children have to say."

Instructor Amos Johnson III wants everyone to hear the message loud and clear: "This isn't Week Three anymore," he admonishes. "We've got to cut through the fat and get right to it. There's no excuse for not making time to be with your child!"

The National Center for Fathering in Kansas City launched the urban effort four years ago in a bid to increase child-support payments from the many dads who were paying nothing at all. Under the program, fathers charged with criminal nonsupport may opt for rehabilitation instead of punishment.

Charges are dropped for men who report regularly to the judge, attend the fathering class, begin paying their debts, stay clear of drugs, hold on to jobs and meet other requirements. The program even directs some of the fathers to job counseling.

But aims reach beyond the financial. Organizers want the nonresident fathers to establish lasting emotional bonds with their children--an effort that may force clear-eyed reflections on the meaning of manhood, commitment and personal responsibility. To move forward, many of the fathers must try to break a pattern of distant, unreliable fatherhood that has been passed down from one generation to the next.

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