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The Parenting Trap: Forgotten Fathers

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LANCASTER, PA.--When Jose Schley became a father at age 16, he did not abandon his girlfriend, Tara, or his role as a parent.

"I knew what I had to do, and I made that decision,'' said Mr. Schley, now 20, married to Tara and the father of 4-year-old Latae.

But when the youth first cast about for help in coping with his new responsibilities, he drew a blank.

J.P. McCaskey High School that he and his wife attended here offered a Teen Parent Program, including parenting- and life-skills classes, a school-based child-care center, and help getting support services in the community.

There was one hitch: The program was geared toward mothers.

"I started noticing that everything was for the girls--it seemed like there was nothing for fathers,'' Mr. Schley recalled recently. "It seemed like we were always being put down.''

Despite public concern over the rising numbers of children living in single-parent homes and outrage over "deadbeat dads'' who fail to pay child support, programs to help young and at-risk parents be successful in their roles as nurturers typically target mothers.

Mr. Schley's recommendation that his school form a group "to get fathers involved'' prompted the teenage-parent program to launch a fathers' support group, step up efforts to involve fathers in the school's parenting classes, and help connect them to other needed services. (See related story, this page.)

Without such aid, Mr. Schley doubts he would have been able to finish school, get the job he now holds as an electrician trainee at a construction firm, or support his child, emotionally or financially.

More Than Mothering

But in many prevention and intervention programs aimed at strengthening families, the term "parenting'' remains synonomous with "mothering.''

"Traditionally, there has been a mindset that parenting is a mother's job,'' noted Aaron Parker, who works in St. Louis with the Parents as Teachers program.

Defying that stereotype, census data show that more and more fathers are serving as the primary caregiver for their young children. (See Education Week, Sept. 29, 1993.)

At the same time, experts from child-serving professions increasingly stress the importance of father involvement in the psychological, emotional, and social development of children.

These advocates argue that more than standard sex education is needed to break the cycle of early parenting and deprived environments that put children in jeopardy.

"If the only message boys are getting about fatherhood is that they should not impregnate a girl or should use a condom, that limits fatherhood to that one thing: insemination,'' said Richard Louv, the author of the books FatherLove and Childhood's Future.

Focusing only on financial child support can also skew the message.

Too often when teenage parents are estranged, said Bernice Weissbourd, the president of the Family Resource Coalition, a national network of family-support programs and workers, "a father feels that if he can't afford to pay, he doesn't have a role.''

"We've tried hard to cross that barrier by indicating the very important emotional role they have to play with their kids,'' she added.

A Desire for Involvement

Youth workers offer many theories on why parenting interventions tend to sidestep fathers, including narrow gender stereotypes; systems of public aid that offer few incentives for father involvement; the desire by some young mothers to sever all ties with absent fathers; and the fact that the programs often are administered by women.

Some policy analysts also argue that it makes sense to channel the limited social-services funds available to the parents who are most accessible and involved on a daily basis, which usually means mothers.

It is also true that many young fathers are not prepared to accept responsibility--a scenario Mr. Schley calls "hit and run.''

Some of them also have records of crime, gang activity, or substance abuse that make it impossible--and some would say undesirable--for them to bond with their children.

But administrators of programs that have reached out to young males maintain that even those in the most troubled circumstances are more concerned about being good parents than many people assume.

"Not all of them are like JosÀe,'' said Timi Kirchner, the coordinator of federal programs for the Lancaster school district. "But our experience is that once we get them involved, they begin to see that they can be helped a great deal through the support services.''

"One of the things that most surprised us was to see the level of interest of these young men,'' said Tom Flood, a senior program officer with Public/Private Ventures, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit group that has launched pilot projects for unwed fathers in six cities.

A study of the projects' first year showed that they were having mixed success in attracting fathers, but that those participating were much more involved and eager parents than might have been expected. (See Education Week, Nov. 25, 1992.)

"Many of them don't know their own fathers very well or have been abused,'' Mr. Flood said. "But when they open up and get talking, they say they want to do better than they were done by.''

"A lot of young black fathers really need help--they want to help themselves, but they don't really know how,'' said Shawn Smalley, a participant in the Responsive Fathers Program in Philadelphia, one of the projects funded by Public/Private Ventures. "All they need is a push in the right direction.''

Men 'Boxed In'

The time is right for that push, family-services experts say, because the public is becoming more concerned about the problem of absent fathers and is also more ready to adopt a broader view of fatherhood.

"For the first time, in a serious way, people are beginning to say, 'Hey, what about the man?''' noted James A. Levine, the director of the Fatherhood Project of the Families and Work Institute in New York City. "All these foundations are saying, 'We really have to start working on this.'''

Ralph Smith, the executive director of the Philadelphia Children's Network--the nonprofit group that runs the Responsive Fathers Program--said that even when children do not live with their fathers, getting fathers more engaged boosts children's "social capital.''

"Children are better off if they've got two adults to care for them, support them, and advocate for them,'' he said. "Custody shouldn't define terms of the debate.''

Conservative groups championing "family values'' share that view.

The Family Research Council based in Washington, for example, last June launched a national media campaign that stresses the unique contributions fathers can make to a child's development and highlights that a lack of father involvement is not just an inner-city problem.

The group has also promoted workplace policies--including flex-time, job sharing, and "telecommuting''--that would help both parents devote more time to their children.

Stressing that the problem is "far broader than the absence of the father in the home,'' the group has also highlighted the ill effects for children when fathers are present but uninvolved in family life, noted William Mattox, the council's director of policy analysis.

"We have really boxed men into being financial providers and nothing else, and that's wrong,'' Kristi Hamrick, the council's press secretary, said.

Programs trying to alter that dynamic, however, face many hurdles.

The Avance Family Support and Education Program, a San Antonio-based nonprofit organization that provides school-, home-, and center-based services to Hispanic and other families in high-risk communities, got foundation funding to launch one of the nation's first fatherhood programs nine years ago.

But Gloria Rodriguez, Avance's president and chief executive officer, said she had tried for five years to drum up interest.

"We could not get monies from local governments, because they said you won't get fathers involved,'' she recalled recently.

Mr. Levine of the Families and Work Institute said that when he tried to launch his Fatherhood Project in 1981, he met resistance from foundation officials who said, "We haven't solved women's problems--why should we set up this?''

"I said we will never solve those problems unless we look at men's responsibility as well,'' he said.

'Not Macho'

Another reason most support programs for young parents focus on mothers, Mr. Levine suggested, is because "a lot of these projects are staffed almost exclusively by women, many of whom have not had positive experiences with men.''

The federal Comprehensive Child Development Program, which provides intensive case-management services to at-risk families with children under age 5, has hired coordinators to work with fathers and help them redefine their own roles.

"One issue has been the fact that fathers often see us as being involved in women's work--that child development is for women only,'' said Judith Jerald, the executive director of the Windham County Family Support Program, a C.C.D.P. grantee in Brattleboro, Vt. (See Education Week, Nov. 4, 1992.)

The problem is more pronounced among cultures that do not consider some aspects of childrearing "father's duty; it's just not 'macho,''' added Lydia DeSantis, a professor at the University of Miami School of Nursing who has done research on absent young fathers.

A new book by Mr. Levine, Getting Men Involved: Strategies for Early Childhood Programs (Scholastic Inc.), also addresses how early-years programs can do more to get fathers involved in children's early education.

Adversarial Systems

Some observers also fault welfare policies as inhospitable to father involvement.

"One set of reasons why young men are being driven further away from families,'' Mr. Smith of the Philadelphia Children's Network pointed out, is "a set of policies that acts to discourage and impede family formation.''

For example, he and others note, it is hard to identify--much less enlist the involvement of--unwed fathers who may be contributing funds to their children on a regular basis, but fear being caught for child support.

"Many mothers fear seeking child support formally for fear that this informal relationship will be destroyed if they try to formalize it,'' Ms. DeSantis said.

Such fear, she suggested, makes mothers reluctant to identify fathers and fathers "reluctant to surface in any kind of formal program'' focused on parenting.

By targeting aid at single mothers with children, the welfare system also acts in some ways to discourage both marriage and a more active role by unemployed or marginally employed fathers.

Job-skills and parenting programs also tend to concentrate on mothers because they are the ones receiving welfare.

While some mothers "criticize us and talk about deadbeat dads,'' said Vincent Aires, a participant in the Responsive Fathers Program in Philadelphia, "welfare helps them out when they have nowhere to live, but what about guys? The system is against us.''

Mr. Smith of the Philadelphia Children's Network also argued that the child-support system creates an adversarial climate that can shatter already "fragile'' relationships.

Under a Danforth Foundation grant, the network is piloting a program designed to help estranged parents resolve disputes and work together to support their children.

The group is also exploring ways to work with the child-support, welfare, and criminal-justice systems toward more "family-friendly and father-friendly'' policies.

'Few Minutes of Passion'

Fear, distrust, and lack of knowledge of the legal system can also keep fathers at bay--especially those who have already had negative dealings with the courts.

"They're scared to take responsibility for being the father of a child, even though they would like to, because they don't know what the legal consequences are and they don't trust the mainstream system,'' said Ann Ellwood, the executive director and founder of the Young Dads Program of Minnesota Early Learning Design, or MELD, a network of programs related to parent education.
Other fathers are legitimately leery of social programs that come and go, and wonder, "Why should they come in for another quick-fix program?'' observed Tom Henry, the director of the Responsive Fathers Program in Philadelphia.

Mr. Louv, the author of FatherLove, said that schools send the wrong message by requiring parenting and child-development classes for pregnant girls but doing nothing to instill a sense of parental responsibility in boys.

In his view, high schools should require all students to take a series of classes, sponsored by outside community agencies, dealing in depth with family, parenting, and child-development issues.

But efforts aimed at fathers have not been a high priority for funding.

"There really hasn't been a whole lot of money around for the guys,'' noted Frank Ambrose, an assistant administrative supervisor to the Camden County, N.J., board of social services. He faced that problem when he ran a local program funded under a federal study focused on teenage mothers receiving welfare.

Some, though, question the wisdom of pursuing all fathers.

"If I have only $10, I'm not spending it on services to men who don't live with the children,'' said Douglas Besharov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "I make a distinction between men who, as part of an ongoing responsive relationship with a woman, make a baby, versus those whose only contact is a few minutes of passion.''

Employment Issue Key

Others warn, though, that dismissing such fathers as irresponsible precludes involving them in ways that could benefit their children and prevent them from winding up in the same spot.

"These guys have been sidestepped deliberately by society because they have been viewed as part of the problem--but they are also part of the solution,'' Ms. Ellwood of MELD said.

Negative images can also be conveyed in programs that cater largely to mothers.

"When all these girls around you are putting all the guys down because of what these other guys do, it makes you feel bad even though you're not the one doing it,'' Mr. Schley said.

"People have to be willing to give people a chance,'' Mr. Aires of Philadelphia said.

The Responsive Fathers Program helped give him that chance, he explained, by helping him find a job when "I knew I had a newborn on the way and no money to buy anything--not even Pampers.''

Before a friend referred him to the program, Mr. Aires said, he had become so desperate he almost resumed selling drugs--a crime for which he had already served time.

Unemployment "turns out to be one of the key factors in this whole area of why some of these programs are unable to reach out to young men,'' Mr. Levine of the Families and Work Institute said.

Ms. Rodriguez said Avance also found that, "unless we dealt with issues that were very important to [fathers], parenting education was not going to be sufficient.''

In addition to job readiness, she and others say, those issues include literacy skills, legal help, and mental-health services. But administrators and participants in such programs agree the key factor is a supportive atmosphere that helps fathers set goals and make decisions.

In the Responsive Fathers Program, Mr. Aires said, the most valuable aspect was being able to talk openly with men in similar situations. Although it took him about a month to speak up, he said, the first meeting was "like the first time you ever fall in love.''

'Dangerous' Precedent?

As is the case with school-based services to teenage mothers, some question whether making support services more readily available to young fathers makes their choice seem too easy or sends an overly tolerant message to other youths.

"It's very dangerous to tie the receipt of benefits to being a teen father,'' Mr. Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute said.

Directors of such programs say the key is to balance benefits with expectations and commitments.

The Lancaster Teen Parent Program stipulates, for example, that students who use the child-care center take parenting and life-skills classes, maintain good attendance, and spend some of their study periods pitching in at the center.

"They didn't make it easy on you or baby you,'' Mr. Schley said. "They made sure you did what you were supposed to do.''

Victor Stimmel, another McCaskey student, said he and his girlfriend chose to have a child because "we wanted someone to love for our own,'' and he does not regret it.

But school, a 15-to-30-hour-a-week job, and a rocky relationship with his girlfriend's parents have made his ideals of parenthood difficult to achieve, he admitted.

"If I make one person understand that this is not right for people our age, that's good,'' the youth said.

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