- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2003

CHARLESTON, S.C. Each week in this picturesque Southern city, around 50 fathers are rounded up and hauled into a crowded jail for the crime of not paying their court-ordered child support.
Most are quickly bailed out.
But when the bailouts stop, the men step onto a well-worn path: Survive the tedium and frustration of months in jail. Upon release, find a job any job. Keep paying enough child support to avoid the court's attention. Sooner or later, get re-arrested and re-incarcerated. This pattern is repeated often.
Some men, such as Corey Wright, are now taking a path that is even more personally demanding, but it holds the promise of escaping the child-support merry-go-round.
Mr. Wright, 34, graduated on Feb. 14 as a member of Class No. 7 of Project Restore, a program of Agape Ministries of Charleston. He has since been released from custody.
For 16 weeks, he studied about life, parenthood and manhood. He also worked on construction sites, took college classes in carpentry and built houses with Habitat for Humanity.
About $2,000 of the money he earned during the program went to pay down his child-support debt of $4,696.
Today, Mr. Wright has a full-time restaurant-cleaning job that pays $8 an hour. He's easily staying current with his $149-a-month child-support bill and he's planning a return to hospital nursing work, which he prefers over carpentry.
The program "has given me a good outlook on everything it showed me how I was going about things the wrong way," he said. "Now I've got some plans."
On the family side, Mr. Wright is reconnecting with the 6-year-old daughter he owes support for and strengthening ties to another son. He's also investing more in sons Corey Jr., 4, and KayMonte, 1.
Project Restore has "changed Corey a lot," says the boys' mother, Katashia Campbell. "He's been coming to visit them a lot and calling to see what [the baby] needs. I think he'll be a good role model for them."
'Pay or be incarcerated'
The federal government estimates that $112 billion was owed in child support in 2001. A record $19 billion in child support was collected, but it barely dented the overall debt owed from previous years.
Throughout America, state officials chase down and penalize deadbeat parents garnishing paychecks, intercepting tax refunds and yanking driver's licenses. Jail is an option, but it's usually reserved as a last resort.
Not so in South Carolina. "Here, it's pay or be incarcerated," says Family Court Judge Paul W. Garfinkel, whose docket is always filled with child-support cases.
J. Corbitt Hinson III, a child-support official in the South Carolina Department of Social Services, agrees. "This is the wrong place to get a child-support tab. We go to court over $27," he says.
This no-nonsense attitude, backed up by a dedicated law-enforcement staff and a computer system that keeps close track of child-support debts, means there's a steady stream of fathers jamming into the Charleston County Detention Center.
The facility was built for around 700 people, but it often holds closer to 1,400.
Most inmates are in for felonies such as carjacking or child molesting. But a "small but important part of the population" typically 100 of the men and 10 of the 25 female inmates are in the facility for not paying their child support, says Keith Novak, chief deputy of the Charleston County Sheriff's Office and administrator of the center.
The child-support inmates are notorious for recidivism. "It's a revolving door," Mr. Novak says.
Which is why prison officials, judges, child-support enforcers and the mayor perked up a few years ago when the Rev. Dallas D. Wilson Jr., known as "Brother Dallas," proposed Project Restore.
It's a combination of work-release, life-skills and relationship programs "but with a faith-based and ownership component," Mr. Wilson says. The unique aspect of the program is its construction company, in which the men can become part owners, he says.
Restoring hearts of men
Project Restore begins in the detention center, such as what happened on a rainy November night.
Several dozen inmates cram into a room with team leaders Kenneth Green and Timothy Grant.
Project Restore has a buzz inmates have heard that program graduates get out of jail early so they are wary but interested.
Mr. Green and Mr. Grant scan the packed room. They are looking for 18 men for Class No. 8 currently under way. Eligible candidates must be nonviolent, have jail sentences of at least one year, owe child support to the state and have a desire to change their lives.
"We're not lawyers, judges, legal professionals or attorneys. We're trying to restore the hearts of men back to their children," says Mr. Green, a compact man who sports a neat ponytail, crisp shirt and tailored pants.
For much of the next 90 minutes, he and Mr. Grant listen patiently to the complaints of inmates: "I owed $9,000. Judge gave me a $100 fine and 90 days to pay," one inmate says indignantly. "I owe $1,200, and got a $400 fine and no time to pay," another says. "We're on a one-way railroad [the debts are] growing while we sit in here," another growls.
"You were there before all this started," Mr. Green interjects.
But the sob stories continue: "A lot of us were paying support to the women, not to the court, then the court said the money was a gift," says one man with dreadlocks. "Garfinkel gave me 21 months. No leniency from him," another jeers.
When Mr. Green has heard enough, he levels with the men. "I have a wife and six kids. I did three years in the state pen. I got out and did a mistake again and got 18 more months. People wrote me off, too, but I got a second chance.
"Nothing was given to me," Mr. Green adds, as the men sit silently. "It took six years to get back on my feet. I started as a driver, 5 to midnight, 200 miles a night. It's hard. But I know if you apply yourself, you can help others."
Mr. Grant, a burly teddy bear of a man with a goatee, steps to the front of the room.
"I pay child support now," he says. "I've been incarcerated and in the courts. She got welfare and I've got to pay for it. But don't be negative and you can overcome."
Mr. Green and Mr. Grant collect 40 applications that night. They agree that a few of the men look promising.
A new beginning
Class No. 7, which began Nov. 4, has 16 men. In the morning, they are driven from the detention center to the Agape Ministries building, located in a federal enterprise community. At night, they are returned to jail.
Most of the men are in their 20s or 30s, and owe anywhere from $3,000 to $15,000 in child support. Malcolm, the one white father in the class, owes almost $50,000.
One middle-age man named Thurmond, who like Malcolm asked that his last name not be used, seems especially grateful to be in the group. He is an Army veteran and a solid worker, and was once happily married to a woman with whom they now have three adult children. Then he found a girlfriend and got her pregnant. His wife divorced him, and his children stepped back from him. The girlfriend dumped him as well and sued him for child support. He now owes between $7,000 and $8,000. Jail was the final disgrace.
"I tried hard to get into this program," Thurmond explains quietly. "I want this to be a new beginning," he says, tears swelling in his eyes. "I lost a lot in the divorce."
Mr. Wilson's wife, Janie, organizes and oversees the program. She teaches the men professional etiquette and the value of positive attitudes and adaptability. She insists on being addressed as "Mrs. Wilson."
"It helps the men to rebuild respect for women," she says.
The Rev. Jimmy S. Gallant III, a high-energy city council member who seems to know everyone in town, gives the class a pep talk about how they can "transform" themselves and "become a brand-new person in front of the people who know you."
He also warns them: "In the beginning, you'll feel good, but then it's going to get intense. You're not going to be the same person a few weeks from now."
Mr. Wilson, a well-spoken, large man, steps forward to lay out the 16-week program: During the week, it's life-skills classes and training on construction sites; on Tuesday and Thursday nights, it's college classes; on Saturdays, it's work with Habitat for Humanity.
Project Restore pays the men $7 an hour or $224 a week. About three-quarters of these earnings go to their child-support debts. The men keep $8.50 a week, which isn't much, but it beats the $1-a-day they could earn working in jail. The rest of the men's earnings go toward paying for meals and other program costs.
Participants must abide by the rules. Stealing, substance abuse and unauthorized visitors are cause for dismissal. "No one will send you back [to jail] but yourself," Mr. Wilson says.
Upon graduation, most men take jobs with contractors or work for Peithos Construction Co., which is owned and operated by Project Restore graduates. If they stay with Peithos, "they can become part-owners and share in the profits," Mr. Wilson says.
"As a result of their labor, they should own something," he explains. Also, as owners and allies, they can beat the "last hired, first fired" syndrome that felons typically face in the work force.
But work and child support are only the external goals for the men, says Mr. Wilson, who is candid about growing up in a fatherless home and being "a thug and a hoodlum" before turning his life around and earning a doctorate in theology.
The deeper goals are to "restore, reclaim and reintegrate" the men with their children, family and society, he says.
Each class likes to hear these goals, Mr. Wilson says, but they usually have no idea how hard it will be to do it.
"No one likes change but a wet baby," he says with a chuckle.
A 'hands-on' program
Project Restore was started in 1997 and won a federal welfare-to-work grant for 1999. Today, its major funders are the South Carolina Center for Fathers and Families, South Carolina Department of Social Services and the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina.
Mr. Wilson's living expenses are underwritten by Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, the Arlington-based philanthropy that supports extraordinary "social entrepreneurship."
Project Restore ran into funding snags over its payments to the men which are now resolved, Mr. Wilson says. It also had to maintain its allies in law enforcement, child support, family court and the local business community.
"There was a time when this program was nearly dead," he says. "If any [of the major players] had said, 'It's over,' it would have been over."
But Judge Garfinkel says he supports Project Restore because it addresses his two biggest headaches: chronic nonpayment of child support and poor relationships between the men and their children.
If a noncustodial parent is connected to his children, it's less likely he "will be back in front of me," the judge says. It's also less likely that the child will end up in juvenile court and less likely that there will be neglect and abuse. "I think it's a win-win all the way around," he says.
Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley, who has helped the program get community development funds, approves of it because it's "hands-on, one human being at a time."
Child-support prosecutor Pamela Brown says she backs Project Restore because its graduates "rarely" come back through her office out of 81 graduates so far, about 15 have returned to jail on child-support charges. "I have to do my job of putting 'em away," she says, but supporting Project Restore "is my way of giving back."
There's a unique accountability in the program, Mr. Novak, the detention center's administrator, said.
With regular work-release programs, if one man walks off a job site, the other men may not say anything. But once when a Project Restore man walked off a site, "the other guys told on him. Their attitude was, 'You are not going to [mess] this up for us,' and they gave his address to Kenny [Green]," the chief recalls.
"The men police themselves. The peer pressure goes the right way," Mr. Wilson says.
The money goes the right way, too: It costs $18,000 to house a parent in jail for a year. Project Restore spends $9,021 per man, with about 38 percent of that going to child-support debt.
A big downside, however, is Project Restore's capacity: Its current configuration allows for only about three classes a year, or 60 to 75 men.
In contrast, the Department of Social Services has at least 15,600 child-support arrearage cases in Charleston County.
'A blessing to me'
Project Restore has the reputation of working with "the bottom of the barrel," as one child-support worker put it, but one wouldn't think it in meeting Darrell DeVaughn.
Mr. DeVaughn, 34, graduated from Project Restore's Class No. 3, nearly three years ago.
He and his wife, Davetta, have three children of their own and each has a child from another relationship. Mr. DeVaughn didn't pay support for his child and ran up a $3,000 debt.
He says Project Restore helped him become a carpenter's apprentice, repay his entire debt and stay current with child support. He also learned how to overcome "my arrogance" and get along with Davetta.
"The program lets the men believe in themselves," Mrs. DeVaughn says, tossing a smile at her husband, who smiles back.
Kevin Evans, 37, is another Project Restore graduate. When he came to the program in 2000, he had a $21,000 debt for children by two women and a three-year jail sentence.
Today, he works every day as a grounds keeper at a country club and part-time at nights at a restaurant. He is self-sufficient, pays $163 every two weeks to child support and has cut his debt in half.
"I'm now on good terms," Mr. Evans says about his interactions with the mothers of his children. Working long hours doesn't leave much time for anything else, "but I feel real relief now. Project Restore has been a blessing to me," he says.
Tall, muscular Kevin Gentile is both a Project Restore graduate and one of the program's employers. Being in jail "was humiliating," he says. "I used to get defensive and get into cursing and all that. I don't stress like that anymore."
Mr. Gentile, now married and with a toddler, still pays child support for two other children but estimates the debt is down to $1,500 from $10,000.
One afternoon, Mr. Gentile, who has his own flooring company, and other employers came to meet members of Class No. 7. He draws a respectful audience as he uses his calloused hands to demonstrate the most efficient way to pull lumber from a floor.
Graduating to cheers
On Valentine's Day 2003, Class No. 7 graduated to cheers and applause.
"Overall, it was an exceptional class," Mr. Wilson said. Four of the 16 men exceeded everyone's expectations. One is Thurmond, the middle-aged man who lost his family when he had an affair.
"He's in church on Sundays and keeps in touch. On one family night, he had the whole staff crying. His big son came and they had been estranged for years and they hugged and cried," Mr. Wilson said.
One graduate has already entered a long-term rehabilitation program to overcome his drug addiction. He's going to be fine, says Mr. Wilson, but he admits he is worried about two other graduates one is still grappling with his alcoholism and the other battles depression.
"We are reaching out" for extra services for these men, he says.
Corey Wright gave everyone a scare when he disappeared after graduating. It turns out that when he went home, his drug-dealing buddies showed up, calling him out. Mr. Wright promptly relocated to a sister's house.
"When Corey got out, he nearly fell back into the same trap," Mr. Wilson said. "There's a lure, a magnetism, that draws these guys back to the circumstances that defeated them."
But Mr. Wright seems to be "doing a lot better now; he's on track," Mr. Wilson said.

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