- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 23, 2013

For two decades, the “responsible fatherhood” movement has focused on jobs, child support and men playing a positive, active role in the lives of their children.

Now it may be time to focus on some “softer” skills — how to pick a good mate, how to keep a relationship going, how to stand as a good dad in the community’s eyes, professionals said during a Wednesday webinar held by the National Fatherhood Leaders Group.

Despite myriad efforts by fatherhood programs, too many men are ending up in multiple relationships, with multiple children from multiple mothers.

In these “complex families,” a father will often be able to focus time and attention on one of his biological children, but have little or no contact with the others, said Kathryn Edin, professor of public policy at Harvard University and author of “Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City.”

Heartache, family disruption and financial distress often abound. What can be done about this — is there “a failure of imagination” in public policy? she asked.

Ronald Mincy, professor of social policy and social work practice at Columbia University, noted that this population of low-income, nonresident fathers is “really large” — about 10 million men.

However, having children with multiple partners is occurring throughout the U.S. population, so solutions should address barriers to children for men, regardless of race, income or marital status, he said.

In her research, Ms. Edin found that inner-city fathers were often intensely loving with their children and desired to be committed, attentive fathers.

But they also revealed that their passion was for the child, not necessarily the mother. Pregnancies occurred in whirlwind relationships, rebound relationships or with women who were “passed along” by a friend. “I got stuck with her for awhile,” one father said of his child’s mother.

In light of these dynamics, maybe there’s a need for an organization for men like the successful National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, said Ms. Edin. Men would surely benefit from campaigns that advised them to “slow down,” “prepare for fatherhood,” realize that a mother and child are “a package” and “take time” to select a loving partner and future mother.

Ron Haskins, senior fellow at Brookings Institution, said that at least one site in the Building Strong Families program worked wonders with fragile families and those lessons should be used in new programs. Research shows “there’s at least a spark” in most unwed couples when they have a baby, “and I think that is what we should really focus on.”

University of Pennsylvania child-development professor Vivian Gadsden urged community groups, churches and other institutions to do more to help men strengthen their relationship skills and become “visible” role models in neighborhoods. Ms. Edin’s book shows that “these fathers have an image of what they want to become,” she said.

The webinar was led by Joe Jones, president and chief executive of the Center for Urban Families in Baltimore, and Kirk Harris, co-designer of the Fathers, Families and Health Communities Demonstration in Chicago.

The federal government currently spends about $75 million a year on responsible-fatherhood programs, according to the Congressional Research Service.