Trying to reform the 'welfare fathers'

November 10, 1996|By Sara Engram

CONTRARY TO ALL the rhetoric we've heard from politicians, reforming welfare doesn't do much to tackle the real problems gnawing at our society, especially in our cities. After all, when you venture out at night, are you worried about getting mugged by a welfare mother?

Hardly. Yet count the number of programs and the amount of government money earmarked for welfare mothers and their children -- for employment training, child care, food supplements, health care and the like.

Even in a time of government cut-backs, these programs far outnumber the efforts aimed at the fathers of these children. Yet these are the people we truly fear on the streets -- under-employed, under-educated urban males, especially black males. Seeing little chance of a productive role in life, many of them find solace in drugs, while harboring dangerous resentments against society.

If males, especially black males, are feared as the ''problem'' on city streets, then where are society's solutions?

Our intuitive response is to build more prisons. That approach may help solve under- employment in the rural areas most hospitable to new prisons, but it does little to help underclass men establish positive relationships with their children and aspire to jobs that can help them support their families.

Countering that trend is a small but growing number of fatherhood programs aimed at poor inner-city males who are prime candidates for prison. Most of these men have fathered children, but few of them think of themselves as fathers. After all, few of them knew their own fathers.

These programs hope to establish a connection that can help give a man an alternative to life on the streets, while also giving children something they all need -- two parents involved in their lives and interested in their welfare.

It's an uphill struggle, and success is never assured. Five months ago, at Father's Day, I wrote about Myron Turner, a 20-year-old Sandtown-Winchester man who was trying to turn his life around. He had made significant progress -- enough to be named ''father of the year'' by the Men's Services program of Baltimore's Healthy Start program.

What needs to happen

He was hardly the typical poster-dad, but his story shows what needs to happen if we really are going to give these young men an alternative to crime.

Since age 9, Myron Turner had been involved with West Baltimore's lucrative drug trade. He sold mostly heroin and crack cocaine, but his own drug of choice was paint thinner and, occasionally, marijuana. As the paint thinner took its toll on his health, he expected to die early or spend his life in prison.

Then his girlfriend, pregnant with his fourth child, urged him to get involved with Men's Services, especially its support group. He did, but announced he would stay only if they got him a job. They did -- a minimum-wage dish-washing job, a big come-down from the days when he could clear $250 in one day on the streets.

But that job was followed by an offer of work on a lead-abatement project at $8 an hour. Since then, Myron has had his ups and downs, including one recent brush with the law, but he is still working.

This ''father of the year'' has come a long way, but he clearly has a tough road ahead of him. His relationship with his girlfriend, the mother of two of his five daughters, still encounters rough waters, as many young couples do.

But his daughters already have something he never had, a father who holds a job and takes an interest in them. He has conquered his addiction and, not insignificantly, he is not on the streets recruiting 9-year-olds into the drug trade.

Is this a success story? For the most part, yes. But Joe Jones, director of the Men's Services program, doesn't gloss over the difficulty of his challenge. He estimates that some 200 men have participated in the three-year-old program. If one-third to one-half of them could end up off drugs, not involved in crime, connecting in positive ways to their children, and gainfully employed, he would consider that a ''huge success.''

The statistics aren't in yet but they will be, good or bad. With help from the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, the program is designing a stringent evaluation system to track its successes and failures.

These programs don't yet have a long-term track record. But they are at least tackling the tough problems, trying to show what it will take if we really want to give poor inner-city men alternatives to crime, to get them off drugs and into jobs -- in short, to give them a positive role to play in their family and community.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 11/10/96

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