Academic journal article Policy Review

Prodigal Dad; How We Bring Fathers Home to Their Children

Academic journal article Policy Review

Prodigal Dad; How We Bring Fathers Home to Their Children

Article excerpt

I see a lot of angry kids in my work, but none can match the anger of a boy I knew years ago. He was the second-youngest of six children; his mother was a housewife, his father, a coal miner. He lived in a cinder-block house about a block and a half from the mouth of the mine. As a child, no more than three years old, he used to wait for his father to come up from the mine after his shift.

Then one day, his father was gone. His long bouts of illness had grown worse, and he was taken away to a mental institution, an asylum. The shame at that sort of thing was strong in those days. The little boy was never told where his father went, and he never saw him again.

Without his father around, that boy's life got a lot harder. He used to go into the woods and throw rocks into a pond. Some days, he pretended the rocks he threw were aimed at his father.

When the boy grew up, he left school before he graduated, and fathered a child with a girl he had no intention of marrying. To run away, he joined the Army, but he got into trouble and ended up in prison. That angry young man is someone I knew well, because that man is who Charles Augustus Ballard used to be.

Today, I pass many angry young men on the street. Many of them have children, but few have families. Few share a home with their sons and daughters and their childrens' mothers. As a society, our approach toward these invisible fathers is a mix of anger and indifference: We're ready to condemn them for their flight from responsibility, and pursue them for child support. Otherwise, we look right through them.

For 12 years, I've been helping these fathers.

INVISIBLE MEN

Twelve years ago, in the heart of Cleveland's Hough neighborhood, I founded The National Institute For Responsible Fatherhood and Family Development. Today there are few other program aimed first and foremost at helping fathers find their way back into their children's lives. In a social service universe of trillions of dollars and overlapping and interlocking programs at the local, state, and federal level, I'm still astonished at how few programs aim to connect fathers and children.

The vast majority of assistance programs, public and private, ranging from social services to support payments, are aimed at young mothers. At best, fathers are irrelevant; invisible men, drifting in and out of their children's lives. At worst, fathers are a presence that can disqualify a mother for government benefits. Fathers, teen fathers especially, get the message: They are a problem--an obstacle in the path of a system built to help single mothers cope.

I sometimes wonder whether any of us appreciate the radical experiment we are conducting in the inner-cities of America. In all of history we have never seen a stable society without fathers. Yet just such a society seems to be the aim of our social policy.

SEE WHO SURVIVES

To me, the father isn't the problem. He's the solution.

Look at the social pathologies that plague us today: drug abuse, homicide, gang violence, crime. Now survey the youth who fall prey to any or all of those calamities, and ask them where their father was when their lives took a turn for the worse. Or visit our prisons and ask the men locked up what role their father played in their lives. You'll find too many say, "no role at all." Look at the survivors, the success stories who come up through the poorest neighborhoods in this nation. Often the single difference that sets them apart is the presence of a father in the home.

Even in a city's poorest neighborhoods, you can see a difference from one street to the next when the fathers are home. On the street where you see a father out playing catch with his son, another mowing his lawn, and one fixing a screen window, you'll see a safer street. That street will see less crime and fewer 911 calls. That street won't have a crack house on the corner or a stripped car at the curb. …

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