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New Fatherhood Initiative Leaves Some Dads in the Cold

The Bush Administration's new initiative to improve fatherhood in America raises questions about how best to strengthen families: by encouraging parenting skills or by promoting marriage?
 
 
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"What's up, man?"

It's rush hour on Beverly Boulevard in East Los Angeles. Cars whiz past noisily as a man strolls into a Latino community center and extends a warm greeting to his companeros. A few more guys soon wander in and plunk themselves on chairs and couches that form a circle, helping themselves to iced tea and pretzels on a tray.

Nestled in a row of storefront shops and offices, the Calmecac Youth Center offers an array of services to the surrounding community, among them educating young Latinos on STDs and birth control. At this moment, however, the talk is not about preventing pregnancy but rather being a good father. The center is the site of a class on fatherhood for Mexican-American men of a variety of ages, and it offers a window into recent efforts to improve fathering in America.

New to the group, Bill shares a story about his ex-girlfriend not allowing him to see his newborn baby, even when his son was ill for two weeks. Bill is a huge bear of a man who tears up soon into recounting his struggles, prompting another man in the group to hurry over with a box of tissues. Once, Bill says, he was in his car when the mother of his son pulled up next to him and announced with gleeful vengeance that she would never let him see his child. "I miss him. I miss his cry, even when he wakes up in the middle of the night," Bill says, an ache in his voice.

It's hard for young men and women fighting over the children of a short-lived relationship to maintain respect for each other, for the sake of their kids, but respect is the key value that teacher Armando Lawrence tries to hammer home. Lawrence's group is called Con Los Padres, and its goal is to make life better for children by getting their fathers involved in their lives in an ongoing, reliable way. His class takes 16 weeks to complete, and most of the men come voluntarily to improve their standing in custody disputes, although some attend under court order.

In his classes, Lawrence focuses on personal dignity and encourages men to embrace the wisdom of their ancient forefathers, the pre-Columbian Toltecs in Mexico. Lawrence talks a lot about love and trust, but he doesn't talk as much about marriage and nuclear family. In this way, Con Los Padres may be increasingly out of step with the new wave of fatherhood programs recently funded by the Bush Administration.

No fathers left behind?
This fall, the Bush Administration awarded $42 million in grants to nearly 100 fatherhood initiatives around the nation, the first in a five-year funding effort. While the fatherhood funding is injecting new life into a long-neglected yet promising area of social policy, it could potentially leave many fathers, such as those in Con Los Padres, in the cold. That's because many of the men in Con Los Padres never married or have long since broken up with the mother(s) of their children; some have children from new relationships. Meanwhile, socially conservative policymakers in Congress and the White House are fixated on promoting marriage and traditional family life. (The parent organization of Con Los Padres, Bienvenidos Family Services, did not apply for Bush grant money, and Lawrence declined to explain why.)

The Administration's fatherhood initiative will test a variety of programs over the next five years, with grant recipients offering services in marriage education, parenting skills and, to a lesser degree, job training. But marriage education is a popular approach, leaving many family and policy experts concerned.

Vicki Turetsky, a senior staff attorney with the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), has long argued against fatherhood initiatives that mainly promote marriage. Instead, she believes, programs need to reach out to men who are no longer romantically involved with the mother(s) of their children, and thus for whom matrimony is not a solution

Turetsky also wants fatherhood programs to address economic challenges -- helping to get men into long-term employment so they can take greater financial responsibility for their kids. She calls family stability and economic security "two sides of the same coin," acknowledging the importance of marriage but favoring programs that include fathers with non-traditional family lives.

The marrying kind
In the heart of suburban Orange County, California, licensed therapist and relationship expert M.P. Wylie counsels married couples; she also advises mature single women seeking a compatible partner through her program Journey to Love. Wylie is busy putting her new $250,000 fatherhood grant to use.

The fatherhood grant is "my dream come true," says the soft-spoken mother of five and grandmother of 10. Wylie formed the non-profit Relationship Research Foundation in 2000 through which she has trained more than 100 community and church leaders how to teach marriage preparation and relationship skills to couples. Using her grant, Wylie plans to maintain her focus on marriage education. The goal is to keep fathers in their homes with their children, says Wylie, who believes that, "The best way to do that is through happy marriages."

But Vivian Gadsden, the director of the National Center on Fathers and Families in Philadelphia, is wary of fatherhood programs that exclusively focus on marriage, saying they put the cart before the horse. Instead, she says, marriage promotion needs to be part of a larger effort that also helps fathers find work and raise their children successfully -- whatever their matrimonial status.

"Fathers need to be involved with their children in a positive way and should get married only if it's the right situation," she says, citing research that shows that fathers often marry after gaining steady employment and stabilizing their lives, and not before. "We need to figure out all different configurations of families without judgment."

Pressuring fathers into matrimony could lead to short-lived marriages that destabilize children's lives, according to Barbara Risman, executive director of the Council on Contemporary Families. She adds that American living arrangements continue to deviate from tradition, a development recently highlighted in a New York Times article about the increase in women living without a spouse.

"The notion that getting people married creates a long term way to support women and children is downright foolish," Risman says. "Women may or may not stay married. Better to make sure each parent is competent."

For richer or for poorer?
There's another issue raised by Wylie's program, based in largely affluent Orange County, and it strikes at the heart of the fatherhood initiative: Is the effort meant to be a poverty program to improve the lives of children by encouraging more responsible parenting (in the context of a stable marriage, when possible)? Or is the goal really to get and keep more people -- of all economic levels -- hitched?

The answer may depend on whom you talk to. In Wylie's case, marriage is the overriding goal. Her organization's services are available to participants of varying income brackets throughout Orange County, she explains: "We serve lower income, as well as upper-middle class communities and churches."

Wylie has hired Spanish-speaking trainers and developed Spanish-language materials to assist diverse constituents. She also developed a curriculum that addresses the challenges facing low-income couples with children; still, her emphasis will remain on the parents' relationship.

"Our main objective is to lower the divorce rate in Orange County, which affects all income groups," Wylie says.

Get a job, be a dad
Children and not marriage are the focus at the Children's Institute in Los Angeles, which won $1,500,000 from the Bush Administration to expand its work helping fathers in troubled families. The fathers in the group meet weekly for an hour and a half for about a year, led by the program's co-founder, Hershel Swinger, a professor and licensed clinical psychologist. It is the group's responsibility to make sure each member is employed, Swinger explains.

"I want the children to see their father as the one that's taking care of them, so the money is coming from their father, not welfare or any other entitlement," says Swinger, who counsels fathers on non-physical ways of disciplining children and leads discussions on child development, abuse, neglect and healthy relationships. Group members also talk about the hardships of living in poverty and what they have learned -- good and bad -- from the men in their own lives. They consult Swinger on strategies for child-rearing, such as how to help children with intimidating homework assignments.

"A typical scenario might be that my child is not doing well in school, and I don't understand his school work," Swinger says. His group is a mix of divorced, never-married and married men, including a contingent of single fathers with sole custody.

What all of the men have in common is that their children have been deemed by social services to be at risk of abuse or neglect. A father, grandfather and great-grandfather, Swinger would like to see more stable marriages among the men in his group, but his curriculum "really is about the children," he says. He proudly cites a low recidivism rate: Less than two percent of kids whose fathers complete the program end up back in the care of social services.

"The atmosphere of the group is friendly, warm and supportive," Swinger says. "The men get it."

Gadsden, of the National Center on Fathers and Families, has found in her research that fathers loom large in their children's lives, no less so when they are distant.

"Whether the men were physically present or absent, they were emotionally present in these kids' heads," Gadsden says. "Much of what they did was in response to interactions with their fathers. Kids should be at the center of the discussion. There is an incredible yearning for male companionship."

Although advocates of fatherhood programs may disagree on what methods work best, they all recognize that men’s importance and obligations to their children need to be factored into policymaking. With more resources and attention being focused on fatherhood, answers to the question of how to strengthen fathers' bonds with their children may well emerge in the next few years.

Amy DePaul is a writer and college instructor who lives in Irvine, Calif. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post and many other newspapers.

 
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