- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 16, 2009

One hundred years ago, a Washington woman listened to a Mother’s Day sermon and reflected on how her courageous, selfless father deserved a day of recognition, too.

The first Father’s Day celebration occurred June 19, 1910, in Spokane, Wash., in honor of Sonora Smart Dodd’s Civil War-veteran father, William Smart, who raised six children after the tragic death of his wife.

This weekend, a rally for responsible fatherhood will be held at the Lincoln Memorial in honor of the 100th anniversary of Mrs. Dodd’s “birth of a concept.”

The rally is about “lifting up the whole issue of responsible fatherhood,” said Jeffery M. Johnson, president and chief executive of National Partnership for Community Leadership, one of dozens of groups backing the event.

President Obama - who has been invited to address the rally - has made responsible fatherhood a key issue in his administration, Mr. Johnson said.

The problem is clear - 24 million children, or 34 percent, live absent their biological father, he said, citing Census Bureau data.

Boys and girls who grow up without an involved, loving father are at higher risk for being poor, getting into trouble with drugs and crime, being abused or having behavioral problems, he said. Conversely, children who grow up with an involved, loving father do better at school, develop empathy, have more “pro-social” behavior and are more likely to avoid risky behaviors.

As a longtime advocate for responsible fatherhood, and a father himself for 28 years, Mr. Johnson said he knows it’s not always possible for a father to be active in the life of his child.

However, fathers all over America are being asked, as part of the Lincoln Memorial and state ceremonies - such as one in Spokane to honor Mrs. Dodd - to take a pledge to redouble their efforts to be the best father they can be, which includes respecting the mothers of their children.

“When you are a father, you are a father for life,” Mr. Johnson said.

I have been writing about responsible fatherhood issues for 15 years; back in 1994, hot button issues were “disposable” parents and anti-father welfare policies.

But despite pro-father activities by the Clinton administration - Vice President Al Gore was an especially strong champion for responsible fatherhood - and the Bush administration, which placed National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI) co-founder Wade F. Horn in a pivotal post on welfare, child support and family issues, things have not improved enough.

A key yardstick is America’s unwed birthrate, as it signals a birth where, at best, a father is loosely attached to his child. The unwed birthrate has been growing by about a percentage point a year since 2002 and is now at 39.7 percent. At this rate, half of American babies will be born to fatherless homes in a decade.

Let me reach back and repeat what Mr. Horn, a child psychologist, told me in 1995, when he was NFI director.

“Once we reach a point where 51 percent of the children are reared in single-parent families, it will be impossible to reverse that trend,” Mr. Horn said. “We’ll have lost the war.”

Mr. Obama chose responsible fatherhood as a priority for his faith-based advisory council, and members of Congress are said to have new legislation on responsible fatherhood to unwrap this weekend.

There are lots of good ideas out there to address father absence, but I think it’s self-evident that revaluing happy, lifelong marriage - and resisting divorce - should be part of the mix.

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at [email protected]

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