Father Figures

By Jessica L. Sandham — May 12, 1999 14 min read
A program in the Boston schools helps young fathers balance parenting and education.


Fifteen-year-old Sean Brite remembers the day in February 1998 when his life turned upside down. He was halfway through his freshman year, working to stay afloat academically and make a name for himself as a nose guard on the football team at East Boston High School. Then, all at once, he was in a hospital standing by as his then-girlfriend suffered through what he calls a “long four hours” of labor and their son, Rayshawn, entered the world.

For the first few months of his newborn child’s life, Brite would stay up most nights--elbow high in dirty diapers and sticky formula--then drag himself to school every morning to struggle through math class. Burned out and barely passing, he knew something had to give.

That’s when Joe Gomez stepped in.

David Ortiz,18, and his 5-month-old daughter, Natalie.

--Benjamin Tice Smith

As one of two case managers in a program run by a private social service agency in Boston, Gomez shuffles between offices at two inner-city high schools to work with teenage fathers and fathers-to-be. The 44-year-old Boston native sometimes refers students to parenting classes or psychologists, but mostly he specializes in straight talk: counseling the young men to stay in school and get a job. A longtime drug and alcohol abuser who got sober only seven years ago, Gomez also gives some of the fatherless students he counsels something even more exceptional--a man they can trust and talk to without fear of judgment.

“We talk about a whole variety of things,” Brite says, sharing a knowing laugh with Gomez.

“He helped me realize I had to drop a couple of things in my schedule,” says the student, whose stocky, athletic build and natural self-confidence belie his youth. “He helped me realize I had a responsibility to take care of.”

Teen Pregnancy:
A Closer Look
  • Fewer than one-third of teenagers who begin families before age 18 ever complete high school.
  • Fourteen percent of high-school-age males report having caused at least one pregnancy.
  • Children of teenage parents often do worse in school than other students and are 50 percent more likely to repeat a grade.
  • Students cite teachers and counselors as second only to their families as the most reliable sources of sexuality-related information.
Source: The National Campaign To Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

Started in 1993 as an outgrowth of a comparable initiative for teenage mothers launched in 1986, the school-based program for teenage fathers run by the nonprofit Crittenton Hastings House here in Boston was one of the first of its kind in the country.

Now, some three years after Congress adopted a dramatic overhaul of the federal welfare system that is pushing more single mothers into the workplace, nonprofit groups and state child-support divisions are looking with renewed urgency at how to induce unmarried fathers of all ages to become more financially and emotionally invested in their children.

Unmarried young fathers have been tarred over the years by the “patently false” perception that they all have one-night stands and abandon their children, says Ronald Mincy, a senior program officer with the Ford Foundation, which has launched a national initiative to engage unmarried fathers in their families.

“You have resources that zero in on mothers and children that don’t recognize that the father is there and wants to be involved.”

Ronald Mincy,
senior program officer,
Ford Foundation

“You have resources that zero in on mothers and children that don’t recognize that the father is there and wants to be involved,” Mincy says.

According to a 1998 study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 14 percent of high-school-age boys reported having caused at least one pregnancy.

The nationwide birthrate for girls ages 15 to 19 has declined by 16 percent from roughly 116 pregnancies per 1,000 girls aged 15-19 in 1991, to 97 pregnancies per 1,000 girls in 1996, according to a study released last month by the Alan Guttmacher Institute.

However, paternity rates for Hispanic and black teenage males remain high, with 22 percent of black males and 19 percent of Hispanic males reporting that they made a partner pregnant in a 1997 study by the Urban Institute. Only 10 percent of white males, by comparison, reported a pregnancy.

For state officials, the reason to help fathers is simple, says Richard Claytor, the director of a fatherhood project run through the Massachusetts Department of Revenue. If a family can rely on two steady paychecks, instead of just one, it is less likely to be caught in a cycle of poverty that stifles opportunity and boomerangs people back to the state’s doorstep for financial help.

“There is a distinction between deadbeat and dead-broke,” says Claytor. “In a lot of cases, teen fathers fit that second category distinctly. We need to support them.”

While few in number, programs that work with a captive audience of young fathers still in school are especially promising, he adds, because the earlier that men bond with their children, the more likely they are to build long-term relationships that go beyond support payments.

Meanwhile, by focusing their program on keeping young fathers in school and guiding them toward job-training opportunities, Crittenton officials hope to stem the tide of high school dropouts suited only for low-wage jobs, says Elizabeth Reilinger, the agency’s president and chief executive officer.

“It’s the kind of investment that has a greater chance of return,” says Reilinger, who also serves as the chairwoman of the school board for the 63,000-student Boston district. “When they drop out, they’re harder to reach.”

With two case managers in a total of four high schools, Crittenton’s program is serving approximately 65 young fathers and fathers-to-be this school year.

Academically, the students in the program are a mix. Some do quite well, even with such distractions as after-school work, but others are struggling. When last surveyed in the 1996-97 school year, 75 percent of the participants in the young fathers’ program were African-American, 18 percent were Latino, 2 percent were white, and 5 percent mixed race or other. Almost 60 percent of the students at the four high schools the program serves receive free or reduced-price lunches, offering an indication of the poverty levels in the schools overall.

Before they can help young fathers, Gomez and fellow case manager Eugene Jones have to track them down--a task that has proved harder than program organizers anticipated.

Unlike teen mothers, teenage fathers don’t walk through school doors with swollen bellies or baby pictures. They show no outward signs of change. Some have also become hardened to a society that observers say too often views teenage mothers as victims and teenage fathers as perpetrators with no interest in doing right by their children. As a result, the young fathers are often skeptical when someone comes around offering help. It seems like something for nothing, something suspect.

The biggest obstacle faced by programs designed for young fathers is the “ ‘If you build it, they will come’ mentality,” Claytor says.

“They think that if you have a young fathers’ program, people will just show up,” he adds. “But the group they’re trying to serve does not respond well to services.”

Gomez has had young men visit his office two or three times before they tell him they have a child or one on the way. They have to go through a feeling-out process, he says. They need to make sure he’s not a probation officer or someone from child-support enforcement. They need to know he can be trusted.

“The kids at first say, ‘Who are you? Are you a cop?’ ” Gomez says. “Whenever they ask where I’m from, I say I’m from ‘Sidewalk University.’ It tells them I’m from the streets, too.”

At the 1,100-student East Boston High School, Gomez and another Crittenton case manager who works with teen mothers sit down every Wednesday with the school’s “support team"--a school nurse, a disciplinary official, and school psychologists. Together, they peruse referral sheets given to them by teachers who have noticed troubling changes in their students--frequent absences, sinking grades, unkempt appearances, or despondency. They divvy up the workload accordingly, passing Gomez referrals of young men who look as if they could benefit from his brand of help.

Though the program’s target audience still remains teen fathers, in recent years case managers have tried to broaden their approach by working with at-risk young men without knowing whether they’ve already fathered children.

Sometimes, they learn later that they have. Other times, “the only difference between those guys and the young fathers is luck,” says Jenny Freeman, Crittenton’s vice president for program development.

Gomez and Jones also roam the halls every day in the high schools, subtly spreading the word about who they are and how they can help. To find new recruits and keep up with the old ones, they say, you must stay visible.

In the chaos between classes one recent morning at East Boston, Gomez zig-zags his way through slamming lockers and chattering students to corner a young father he’s worked with in the past. One he hasn’t seen in a while.

Crittendon Hastings House case manager Joe Gomez.

--Benjamin Tice Smith

Neatly dressed in a sweater vest and tie, Gomez comes across as easygoing and affable. But he’s also more than 6 feet tall, thickly built, and tough to duck around.

“Yo, I thought you were going to come and see me,” he says bluntly.

Caught, the student stammers an excuse.

“Come and see me,” Gomez says and moves on, later explaining that he had heard the young man had gotten into “some type of scrap,” but hadn’t yet talked to him about it.

“He’s a tough one to get through to,” Gomez says. “I’ll stop him in the hall and say, ‘What’s up?’ They just need to realize they need help.”

Likewise, when trolling the halls of the cavernous, 1,000-student Brighton High School across town, case manager Jones says he scouts out “the guys that are always in some girl’s face.” The ones that openly make out with their girlfriends in the halls between classes are usually “good candidates” for his help, he says.

Despite good intentions and successes with individual students, however, a 1997 evaluation of the Crittenton program revealed only mixed results.

Twenty percent of the program’s 53 young fathers and at-risk boys who worked with case managers in the 1996-97 school year had dropped out of school by June--a relatively positive outcome considering that past studies have pegged the national dropout rate for young fathers at a much higher rate, says Terry Saunders Lane, an associate dean at Boston University’s school of social work, who evaluated the program at Crittenton’s request. In a recent paper on the topic, Ms. Lane cites a 1987 study that estimated the drop-out rate for teenage fathers at 40 percent.

But, more alarmingly, more than a third of the Crittenton program’s participants became expectant fathers during the 1996-97 school year--even while they were working with case managers who, presumably, urged them to practice safe sex.

“The bottom line is, don’t expect miracles,” Lane says. “But don’t give up, either, because once these young men become involved with case managers, they clearly want help.”

Since the evaluation, Crittenton has started training its case managers on how to recognize when they’re in over their heads with a certain student. Part of the problem in past years, Freeman says, was that the case managers’ time was too consumed by a few teenagers whose profound mental-health or drug problems went beyond what the managers were equipped to handle.

With more than 230 young women involved in Crittenton’s program for young mothers and only 65 case-managed young fathers, program officials also acknowledge that they need to reach out to more young men. To do so, the agency plans next year to seek out the fathers of children in the child-care programs they’ve set up at three different sites--an on-site center at the Crittenton Hastings House serving children of families of varying incomes, and two others that serve children of teenage parents.

“Young men don’t ask for help, and there aren’t many services for them,” says Freeman. “That creates the challenges. ... We need to be more creative about outreach and trust-building.”

Even as they hone their recruitment techniques, the case managers say they know there are likely dozens of young fathers in each high school that they’ve not yet reached. Too many, they concede, may have no interest in cleaning up their own lives or becoming involved with their babies.

“The sperm donors,” East Boston’s nurse, Jane Simpson, calls them.

But the case managers insist that many others hope to be honest providers who actively take part in raising their children. Without jobs and often without paternal role models at home, they just don’t know where to begin.

Crittenton also recently began training its case managers to move past basic mentoring and help the young men in more concrete ways--working with them to line up part-time jobs, steering them toward job-training programs.

Having a job “lets them at least buy some diapers, and that makes them feel good,” says Freeman, the Crittenton vice president. The confidence boost also bolsters Crittenton’s other goal: keeping young fathers in school.

“Society says, when you have a baby you’re supposed to automatically be a man and take care of it,” says Jones, who knows from experience. The daughter he raised, now 25, was born when he was 16.

“But they can’t even take care of themselves yet,” he continues. “So I say OK, let’s get things together for you first. First, you’ve got to get this high school diploma, and then you’ll have some choices.”

“Society says, when you have a baby you’re supposed to automatically be a man and take care of it.”

Eugene Jones,
case manager,
Crittenton Hastings House

To get the message through, he says, he has to meet the teenagers where they are and speak to them without judgment.

Sitting in Jones’ office wearing the street uniform of baggy jeans and chunky gold jewelry, Billy Lewis, a 16-year-old junior at Brighton High School, says Jones’ message has stayed with him.

The 42-year-old counselor broke it all down for him one day--the reason to work hard and stay in school and get a job--in a way that sank in.

“He talks with me all the time about education,” says Lewis, whose 3-year-old son lives with his mother in New Jersey. “One time he just said, ‘What kind of car do you want?’ I told him Lexus. He said if you get a good education, you’ll get what you want.”

Gomez often looks no further than his own checkered past to forge a link with the young men who walk past an anti-teen-pregnancy poster and through his office door.

Raised as one of 10 children in an abusive home with an alcoholic stepfather, Gomez started drinking at age 13 and using drugs at 16. He knows what it means to grow up fatherless and fast.

After a discharge from the Navy for bad conduct and a lifetime of addiction, Gomez bottomed out seven years ago and decided to go sober. He did a stint in a halfway house, then found his niche counseling young men. He uses his own story as a lesson on redemption.

“I tell them I was a drug abuser, how I ate out of trash cans,” Gomez says. “I tell them you can’t look at me and tell me how you can’t change. You can change.”

Sometimes, his relationships with students go beyond talk of job training and education and into the deeply personal. Any issue that may interfere with the fathers’ ability to be successful and finish school is fair game for discussion, Gomez says.

Locked in conflict with his pregnant girlfriend last year, 18-year-old senior David Ortiz was “torn apart” trying to make things right again, says Gomez. The two men agreed to meet one afternoon outside of school to talk things over.

“He was crying, I was crying, but we talked it through,” Gomez says.

Now, as he holds his 5-month-old daughter, Natalie, in the tidy apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Ortiz says he had “a lot of problems in my head” after he found out about the pregnancy.

“But me and Joe, I told him everything straight out,” Ortiz says. “I trust him.”

Even as he juggles a 40-hour workweek on top of school, Ortiz says he’s learned, with Gomez’s help, to be responsible and have patience with his baby and his life. After years of perseverance, he looks forward to getting his diploma this spring and, eventually, going to college to become a teacher.

He’s already learning what it means to be a father.

Staring at the wide-eyed infant on his lap, Ortiz points to a nearby picture of a wrinkled, hours-old Natalie.

“Look at the difference,” he says, shaking his head. “I can’t believe all the changes. I’m so proud of her.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 1999 edition of Education Week as Father Figures