In Greater New Haven, fathers are coming together to overcome barriers and be involved in their children's lives.
|Recent graduates of Dads and Diamonds are Forever.|
Fathers who talk to their children, help them with homework, eat regular meals with them, and are otherwise involved in regular parenting activities help lay a healthy foundation for their children's lives. Academic success, reduced chances of substance abuse and delinquency, and a range of other positive childhood outcomes are associated with the presence of involved fathers, according to a growing body of research1-3.
Yet many fathers who would be more involved with their children face personal and systemic barriers that keep them away.
In Greater New Haven, fathers are coming together to overcome these barriers. They are creating spaces where fathers identify their strengths and share what works in building good relationships with their children. They are calling attention to institutions and systems that are not welcoming to fathers. And in building networks of support for men who grew up without fathers themselves, they are strengthening the bonds between fathers and their children.
A Focus on Fathers
New Haven Healthy Start (NHHS), long known for its work to help expecting mothers have healthy babies, is now into its second decade of engaging fathers as an essential part of its mission to reduce infant mortality and eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in birth outcomes. In 1997, together with New Haven Family Alliance, it helped launch the Male Involvement Network, a coalition that helps primarily young fathers who don't have custody improve relationships with their children.
In 2014, NHHS piloted a fatherhood training and support group, Diamonds and Dads are Forever4.
"We want to meet men where they are and help them figure out who they are," says New Haven Healthy Start Director Kenn Harris. "The course takes them back through what shaped them, the positives and the negatives. Then, we look for opportunities to create new constellations of positive people. We cast off the rocks in life to find the diamond underneath."
The fathers Harris works with often face a web of complex issues that hurt their ability to build ongoing positive relationships with their children. They might have grown up without adequate fathering themselves and lack confidence. Harris says that feelings of inadequacy can overwhelm the best intentions and cause men to avoid engaging with their children.
Reconnecting with children after spending time in prison is major challenge facing several of the fathers in the program. Having been physically separated from their children, they have limited practical experience in parenting. And the emotional connections between parent and child that suffered during their time away are difficult to fully repair.
"They have a lot to get off their chests," says Andre Davis, a group leader for Dads and Diamonds who has worked with fathers for more than a decade as a case manager. "You have to hear them."
Curtis Gore, a recent Diamonds and Dads Forever graduate, says feeling of inexperience as a father brought him to the program. Raised by a single mother who was addicted to heroin, Gore has a long history of homelessness, substance abuse, and being in and out of prison. Though his son is now grown, Gore is committed to rebuilding their relationship and being a positive influence on his grandchildren. He also wants to support other fathers and help end a cycle of fathers not being around.
"It (Dads and Diamonds) gave me a table to present my issues and my perspective," Gore says. "I've done a lot of short-term thinking in my life. I'm doing this for the long-term."
Working on how to be a good father when dealing with challenges such as poverty and a history of incarceration involves more than any simple tip or piece of fathering advice. What is most helpful, says Gore, is being connected to a network of supportive people who can bounce ideas off each other and relate to common experiences.
"It's not easy to pick up a solution and run with it on your own," he says.
A Fatherhood Crisis?
Across the political spectrum, a crisis in fatherhood is frequently called out as a root cause of poverty, crime, and other social ills. The argument, according to organizations such as The National Fatherhood Initiative, typically points to census data showing that one-in three children, and more than half of all Black children, live in homes without their biological fathers5.
When the research goes beyond residency status and measures how often fathers actually participate in common parenting activities, it dispels the myth that Black fathers in particular have a problem being responsible parents. The 2013 Center for Disease Control and Prevention study, "Fathers' Involvement With Their Children: United States 2006-20136," found that Black fathers are just as involved as White fathers. And on several measures - including how often they talk to their children, eat meals together, change a diaper, and drive children to an activity – Black fathers were actually more involved.
Yet the report also shows that fathers who live with their children are statistically more involved than those who do not, regardless of their racial identity. And the fact is, a higher percentage of Black fathers do not live with their children, which hurts their involvement rates overall. The barriers faced by non-resident fathers, which disproportionately affect Black fathers, are therefore worth paying attention to.
Removing Barriers and Making Systems Father Friendly
Incarceration is an obvious barrier that looms over any discussion of absent fathers. Black and Hispanic children in the United States are 7.5 and 2.7 times more likely, respectively, than white children to have a parent in prison7. When poor, these fathers frequently remain trapped in a system that continues to separate them from their children long after their release.
Job opportunities for someone with a criminal record are limited. Feelings of inadequacy for not being a provider can overwhelm a father, pushing him further away from his children and deeper into trouble, Davis says.
Formerly incarcerated men are also caught up in a cycle of owing a debt they can't pay. Fines, court fees, and accrued child-support payments may be waiting for them upon their release. Davis, who has accompanied fathers to court hearings to help negotiate modifications, says that when fathers are served with warrants, many don't understand that they can appeal. Instead, they fail to appear in court, compounding their legal problems.
Other barriers in the community are set up by institutions that are ostensibly about promoting healthy families. Family social service programs, schools systems, family court, and doctors offices are set up to engage with mothers but not fathers, says Harris. To support the fathers who feel discriminated by these systems, and hold the systems accountable, New Haven Healthy Start formed the Men's Consortium.
In one example given by Harris, a father who went to pick up his child at school was held up at the front desk because his last name was different from his child's. Instead of figuring out a way to verify the man's identity, the school called the police.
"The military and prisons are designed for men, but most systems are not," Harris says.
Particularly in the field of health, Black men are poorly served, according to Dr. Stephen A. Martin, MD, Family Medicine physician and researcher with the Boston Medical Center, who along Harris and Dr. Brian Jack co-authored "The Health of Young African American Men" for the Journal of the American Medical Association.
"African American men are not seeing the benefit of trillions of dollars spent in the medical system," says Martin, who notes that preconception health and the federal program Women Infant and Children assume the absence of men. "The system is not built for them and we need to rethink our approach."
Martin advocates taking health care out of the medical office and bringing it into community – to grocery stores, barbershops, and online screening tools that can be accessed from homes and libraries.
Such efforts, says Harris, support men to be more engaged fathers.
"We can get them to see, "I can show up differently for my child. And when I show up, I show up healthy."
What the Community Foundation is Doing
- The Men's Consortium is a New Haven Healthy Start Program meant to be a gathering place for resources, networking and support for men and fathers in Greater New Haven.
- Dads and Diamonds are Forever is a fatherhood training class run by New Haven Healthy Start.
- 'R Kids Family Center, a licensed child placing agency, receives general operating support from The Community Foundation for services to children and families in transition. R Kids Fathers' Group members were contracted by the DCF to help train their new social workers in working with Fathers.
- The Male Involvement Network, a New Haven Family Alliance program, received grant funding from The Community Foundation to help prepare fathers to meet the emotional, social and financial responsibilities for their children, connect fathers with children and provide support to their families.
- The Healthy Start/Male Involvement Endowment at The Community Foundation distributes grants to support: New Haven Healthy Start, New Haven Family Alliance's Male Involvement Network and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity for its local fatherhood initiative.
Other Fatherhood Work in Greater New Haven
- United Way of Greater New Haven has brought Circle of Security, a researched-based curriculum for parenting to more than a dozen local human service providers.
- The Family Resource Center in the New Haven Public Schools provides parenting resources to families in the school district.
1. Lamb ME (ed.) The role of the father in child development, 4th edition. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2004.
2. Cooksey EC, Fondell MM. "Spending time with his kids: Effects of family structure on fathers' and children's lives." Journal of Marriage and Family 58 (3) (1996): 693–707.
3. Carlson MJ. "Family structure, father involvement, and adolescent behavioral outcomes." Journal of Marriage and Family 68(1) (2006):137–54.
4. DAD Curriculum was created by Jason Perry, OakTree Leadership, Inc, Chicago, Il.
5. U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, "Living Arrangements of Children under 18 Years/1 and Marital Status of Parents by Age, Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin/2 and Selected Characteristics of the Child for all Children 2011." Table C3.
6. Jones, Jo; Mosher, William. Fathers' Involvement With Their Children: United States 2006-2013. National Health Statistics Reports No 71. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2013.
7. Glaze, Lauren E. and Maruschak, Laura M. Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children. Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs, 2008.