Unmarried fathers often a sustaining force in lives of kids

Agencies offer training to encourage financial, emotional involvement

June 18, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

A spate of recent research is confirming what some advocates have long suspected - that low-income, unmarried fathers are often involved with their children, contrary to popular belief, and that their involvement helps the children thrive.

As a result, unwed fathers are getting more money - and more attention - from policy-makers seeking to cure social ills. They're being seen as the missing anchors of so-called "fragile families," whose financial support might best be attracted not by cracking down on enforcement, but by encouraging the natural bond with their children.

"The image is that there's no father there" for poor children whose parents are unmarried, said Elaine Sorensen, a principal research associate with the Urban Institute in Washington who has studied such families. "In fact, that's just wrong."

As the research has surfaced, so have efforts to engage fathers. Controversy has surfaced, too, over whether the attention paid to fathers overemphasizes marriage as a goal for such families.

There are fatherhood bills in Congress, new dad-oriented magazines, "male involvement" conferences and support groups.

At a fatherhood conference last week at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, experts presented workshops on such topics as how to get into a career, how to massage an infant and how to read a story to a young child.

That's because studies show that fathers who don't live with their children are interested in such activities.

A Princeton University survey of unwed parents conducted after their babies were born in hospitals in Oakland, Calif., and Austin, Texas - and continuing in other cities - found that 81 percent of the fathers helped financially. Eighty percent of the parents were romantically involved, and half of the remaining parents considered themselves friends.

Another study of 6-year-olds from poor households, released in May by the University of Maryland School of Medicine, found that 75 percent could identify either a father or "father figure" with whom they had a relationship. Those children not only had higher self-esteem and lower rates of depression than children without fathers, but they also scored higher generally on basic learning skills tests.

"I think what the study does is it adds data ... to those of us who already believe that children can benefit a great deal from having their dads involved in their lives," said Dr. Howard Dubowitz, a professor of pediatrics at the medical school who conducted the research. "It tells us that we may need to have a more liberal definition of family or father.

"I think what it doesn't tell us is - how do you get these guys involved?"

Other studies show that question must be answered early in a child's life because the involvement of unmarried fathers often wanes a few years after a baby is born. The key, practitioners say, is to strengthen the connection before that happens.

Fathers are talking about such issues in places like St. Bernardine's Head Start in West Baltimore, where a small group gathers on Wednesday nights.

David Miller, the group's moderator, brings his 8-week-old son, Jihad, to one session. He walks with the infant as he speaks. At one point, he pulls a baby-sized pad from a bag festooned with pictures of animals, and changes his son's diaper as the men look on.

The men talk about the strange looks they get when they show up at a Head Start or a birthing class, or when they take a son or daughter to the zoo.

"Younger brothers [black men] are definitely stepping up in terms of their children," said Paul Fuseyamore, a Catonsville database administrator whose 10-year-old daughter lives in North Carolina during the school year and with him during the summer. "Sisters? They are getting tired."

That's exactly the point some women's groups are raising about the new interest in fathers, but with a different spin.

Two bills in Congress - one passed by the House last year, and a similar measure pending in the Senate - would pour $150 million into programs for fathers of poor children over the next four years.

But not everyone agrees it's a good idea. The National Organization for Women has been fighting the legislation, arguing that it would reward fathers who have shirked their responsibilities while punishing the women who have their babies.

Kim Gandy, executive vice president at NOW, bristles at what she says is the legislation's promotion of marriage for such families, saying it would force poor women to return to spouses they might have fled because of abuse. And she says it doesn't make sense to help fathers when welfare reform has mothers struggling to find day care, transportation and health coverage as they move off the assistance rolls.

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