Struggling fathers must learn to trust service systems to benefit their children

     (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-31653814/stock-photo-father-and-son-playing-outdoor-park-in-summer.html'>Father and child image</a> courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

    (Father and child image courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

    Fortunately, things have improved a fair bit since my own difficult personal experience with the family courts nearly 20 years ago. Today, if a father genuinely seeks meaningful involvement in his child’s life, and he is capable of putting into place the necessary secure practices (food, shelter, medical care and schooling) to support and nurture his children, he has a reasonable shot at succeeding in family court.

    In the past seven years, in my role as a case manager and parent educator for the Focus on Families program at the Health Promotion Council, I have helped an increasing number of fathers who are the primary caregivers for their children. That means that the children primarily live with their dads, and that their moms likely have visitation rights.

    This is happening despite a generally prevailing notion, particularly among my male clients, that the family courts are biased against men. In the past there was good reason to believe that child custody decisions were unfairly skewed against fathers. On her Court TV show, personality Judge Judy Sheindlin, a NYC Family Court judge for over 25 years, frequently alludes to the unfair “gender bias” many men may encounter in Family Courts.  

    Some progress

    Fortunately, things have improved a fair bit since my own difficult personal experience with the family courts nearly 20 years ago. Today, if a father genuinely seeks meaningful involvement in his child’s life, and he is capable of putting into place the necessary secure practices (food, shelter, medical care and schooling) to support and nurture his children, he has a reasonable shot at succeeding in family court. Simply put, the best outcomes are generally those that include two parents who both have the child’s best interest at heart, and where the parents recognize the inherent value of the other parent to the child’s overall development.

    Are men reluctant to seek help?

    Among many of us who work with fathers and their children, there is the nagging sense that men are often reluctant to seek out the available social service resources that can help them and their children. Deciding whether or not this is statistically true would require more space than I have here, but speaking from my own experience working with fathers, I would have to declare that it’s true. Unfortunately, many fathers are suspicious of social service agencies — and particularly suspicious of the many well-meaning women (over 80 percent) who dominate the profession.

    In fact, I have a general rule that I apply to all fathers who are referred to me. I tell the referring agent, “Try to have the father call me, because if I call him first, there is less likelihood of engaging with him, despite the fact that I am a male.”

    When I do call them, they can be extremely wary and uncooperative. Invariably, the men will only call me when things have become desperate — when there is little that can be done effectively. It is frustrating, but I do what I can.

    Help is available

    Although funding for programs that specifically assist fathers appears to be waning, there are still resources that men can tap into if they are struggling but are determined to provide for their children. Fathers should investigate many of the same programs that are, ostensibly, in place to assist moms. Of course, there are still programs that are specifically slanted towards only fathers, or only mothers, but the predominant trend nowadays is to focus on the whole family. Early Head Start programs, Maternity Care Coalition, Focus on Families, Health Intervention Program and Health Promotion Council are just some of the programs that are available to provide support to dads and moms. There are others.

    Make your elected officials hear you

    Sadly, funding for some of these vitally important programs, like the Health Intervention Program, which relies on Title V Maternal and Child Health Services Block Grant funding, may be imperiled because too few politicians and public officials recognize the critical importance of maintaining healthy families in these uncertain and difficult times. We must demand that our elected officials support proven programs that work — programs that serve moms and dads.

    Please — we are all in this together. Our children deserve our very best efforts.

    Germantown resident L.T. Woody is a single father and recipient of a 2013 Driving Fatherhood Excellence Award from the Maternity Care Coalition. He is the author of the memoir “In Black In White” and a singer/songwriter. Health Promotion Council is an affiliate of Public Health Management Corporation.

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