- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 15, 2001

BALTIMORE — Women are probably right — a lot of men dont stand by them. That is what Antonio "Amani" Phelon crooned at a conference last week on responsible fatherhood for poor people.
"Weve got to make it right and find a way to apologize …. We got to do whats right, because the next generation is waiting in line," he sang to the mostly male audience, urging them to join in the chorus:
"Im here for the long haul.
"Daddys going to take care of yaall.
"I wont do what theyre telling me.
"I wont be what they say Ill be.
"I said Im here for the long haul."
The two-day conference, sponsored by the Center for Fathers, Families and Workforce Development (CFWD), delved into fatherlessness and its connections to crime, low education, joblessness, substance abuse, welfare and child support.
It also bared the deep scars caused by father absence. In a particularly searing video, excerpted from a "60 Minutes" interview, convicted Los Angeles gang member "Monster" Kody Scott talked nonchalantly about his life of killing, stabbing, stomping and "creating funerals" for rival gangs.
But when the "60 Minutes" interviewer asked Scott about his father, a football star who had nothing to do with him, the gangbangers hard-as-nails eyes filled with pain.
"I hate him — because I think about what I couldve been," Scott said as tears slipped down his cheeks. Having a father "would have made a difference because I wouldnt have had to go to the street," he said as he turned from the camera.
For years, father absence has been accepted as a fact of life for poor couples, speakers said at the CFWD event.
They said:
Government has applied social policies as if poor parents had no relationship with each other: Mothers and children have been funneled into the welfare system, which showered them with benefits as long as the mother didnt earn too much money or marry a man with a job.
Fathers were funneled into child-support offices and job-training programs to help them earn money so there would be an income for the state to collect.
Men who couldnt or wouldnt pay child support became social outlaws, dodging authorities, ex-girlfriends and their children.
Poor parents emotional bonds were ignored because they supposedly didnt exist, said Dianna Durham-McLoud, a former child-support director.
"The working assumption" about welfare families was that most of these children "came from one-night stands," not a real relationship, she candidly told the CFWD audience.
A concerted effort has been made in recent years to demonstrate the importance of fathers to their families, emotionally and financially, said CFWD President and founder Joe Jones. He cited the work of Ralph Smith, an official with the Annie E. Casey Foundation; Wade F. Horn, head of the National Fatherhood Initiative; and Jeffery M. Johnson of the National Center for Strategic Nonprofit Planning and Community Leadership.
In addition, the 1996 welfare-reform law for the first time underscored the need for marriage and two parents in poor families.
This, in turn, has led to research that is uncovering remarkable new insights about poor families, said Sara S. McLanahan, a sociology professor at Princeton University and lead researcher in the five-year, $17 million "Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study."
The fragile families study is being conducted in hospitals in 20 cities, including Baltimore. It involves 4,700 new parents with 3,600 unwed couples among them, Ms. McLanahan said at the CFWD event.
Researchers are reinterviewing the parents when their children are 12 months old, 30 months old and 48 months old to find out the familys status and assess their financial, physical and emotional health.
According to data from two cities released a few weeks ago, 82 percent of poor unwed parents are romantically involved at the time of their childs birth, Ms. McLanahan told the CFWD event.
More than 90 percent of these couples want the father to be involved in raising the child, and 70 percent of these couples have "high hopes" they will marry, she said.
These data show a strongly positive view of marriage among low-income couples, Ms. McLanahan reported. If they arent marrying, she added, "its not because they dont want to … its because other things are interfering."
Ronald Mincy Sr., a Columbia University professor and another researcher with the fragile families study, said low education, low employment and wages for fathers, plus welfare and child-support policies, all work against couples.
Typical welfare families — couples who are romantically involved at the time of the childs birth but live apart from one another — are especially vulnerable, he said.
The fragile families study shows that by the time the baby reaches his first birthday, more than half of the "visiting-father relationships" have ended, which almost guarantees that the child will grow up without his father, he said. The breakups werent nearly so frequent among married or cohabiting couples.
Mr. Mincy called on state and federal policy-makers to change their programs to offer employment, substance-abuse and personal counseling services to poor couples during the "magic moment" of their childs birth. "Why wait?" he asked repeatedly.
John Williams, a father with Mr. Jones CFWD program, concurs with Mr. Mincy.
If there had been a program for cohabiting couples "seven years ago when my daughter was born, I would have had a relationship with my daughter," said Mr. Williams, 39, who has spent almost a decade in the military and now does security work.
Instead, he said, his relationship with his ex-girlfriend has been estranged for many years and he is fighting for visitation rights.
Russell James, another CFWD father who is divorced, was less sanguine about programs to help struggling couples.
"Me and my wife, we went to marriage counseling," he said with a shrug. Programs are nice, but "they dont affect personal feelings how you feel about the other person."
Still, Mr. James is determined to do right by his 4-year-old son, and isnt opposed to trying marriage again if it comes his way.
"The reason I was fed to the streets and raised by the streets was because my dad wasnt there," said Mr. James, who at age 23 already has done several years of prison time.
Thats not going to happen to my son, he said, adding that if he remarries, "my son will be a part of that family too."

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