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Fathers working their way back home

Local, national groups are helping dads stay in their children’s lives

Cynthia E. Griffin | 6/13/2013, midnight
In 2012, Darwin Gray found himself feeling like a deer caught in the headlights. And it wasn’t a bad feeling ...

In 2012, Darwin Gray found himself feeling like a deer caught in the headlights. And it wasn’t a bad feeling at all. In fact, the 44-year-old father of two daughters gets a little nostalgic when he thinks about what happened.

His then 7- and 12-year-old daughters and their mom had nominated him for an Honor Thy Father Award, and the action surprised him.

“I thought I was doing what every father does—sacrifice, work hard, facilitate their dreams and whatever they try to do. This is what fathers do,” said the Los Angeles native, who grew up around Normandie and Washington boulevards.

What is particularly noteworthy about the honor is that Gray himself did not have a father in his life. His parents divorced when he was an infant, and because the relationship was abusive, his mother protected her eight children from their father’s violence.

So how did Gray learn to be the kind of dad that would prompt his young daughters to publicly honor him?

“I took bits and pieces of positive men, role models. I had older brothers who have been married 28 and 25 years. I listened to the older guys,” Gray said. He also wanted to be there for his own kids because his father was not.

Gray exemplifies what the Honor Thy Father awards are all about, said founder Denise Estelle, who produces the event under the umbrella of her Estelle for Humanity nonprofit.

“Honor Thy Father started because I wanted to recognize men in the community that were good fathers, role models and male mentors,” said Estelle about the 11-year-old event. “As young women, oftentimes you see men with their children or coaching teens, and you want to hug them and thank them for being there. It’s so very important (for children) to have men in their lives to look to for roles models and to draw on for strength.”

Estelle speaks from the personal experience of growing up without her own father in her life, and sharing the love and caring that her sister’s father lavished on his daughter, her sister, and eventually on her.

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Jerry Milling believes his four children had every reason to hate his guts. The Hartford, Conn., transplant dragged them through his more-than-four-year battle with alcohol and drug addiction. He put them in situations that endangered their lives; for example, when he got his car shot up in Compton with his 5-year-old son in it. He missed his daughter’s basketball games, was not there for his oldest son when a family crisis engulfed his life during his junior year in high school, and he left them with a string of broken and unfulfilled promises throughout their childhoods.

But rather than let his substance abuse embitter them, they just loved him, and it was that unconditional love that helped save him, said Milling.

“My youngest son would lay across me (at night) and wouldn’t go to sleep until I went to sleep,” remembers the Los Angeles resident, adding that his kids were literally afraid for his life.

“I would tell them you deserve a better dad, but they never gave up hope. They kept my hope alive,” said Milling, adding that his children never called him names. And even his oldest son, whom he abandoned at age 12 to chase alcohol and drugs, was not bitter at him when they reconnected 17 years later.

“… he wanted to be angry. He wanted to hate me, but when he heard my voice on the telephone, he couldn’t,” said Milling humbly. Prior to getting addicted, Milling said he would send for his son each year to come West, but once the drugs took hold that went by the wayside.

Milling attributes his turnaround and now 13 years of sobriety to God and Alcoholics Anonymous. He also describes his children as very special for their ability to extend unconditional love to him.

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Al Bevans has had the experience of being “Daddy” to another man’s child. He spent 14 years with the mother of his 5-year-old daughter, including four as a married couple. She also had another daughter the Belizean native and longtime Los Angeles resident took care of since age 3.

“I used to take her to father-daughter events, and other activities …. She is now 18 or 19 and she still calls me ‘daddy’ to this day,” added Bevans, who said he treated his wife’s first daughter as his own child, and even today continues to talk with her, check on her and share her life.

Now divorced from his wife, Bevans is battling to regain full custody of his 5-year-old. While he had custody of his daughter, and still today, the Los Angeles resident has been involved in Project Fatherhood, an initiative of the Children’s Institute created by the late Herschel Swinger, Ph.D., in 1996 to re-engage low-income fathers in the care and upbringing of their children.

According to Alan-Michael Graves, Project Fatherhood program director, the intent of the effort is to help bring dads back into their kids’ lives as a way to improve them.

The Children’s Institute has 20 community-based support groups for fathers, including three recently opened on the campuses of Jordan High School in Watts as well as Union and Rosemont elementary schools.

As a result of the partnerships with the schools, some of the fathers in the project volunteer to go to the schools on their lunch hours to walk the campus and be a visible presence on the grounds.

“Principals say the men’s presence has dramatically decreased the mischievousness that had been happening at the schools,” Graves said.

As part of Project Fatherhood, Bevans and other dads learn how to engage in their children’s lives. That includes how to read report cards, auditing classrooms and providing a safe place with the proper lighting in the home to do homework.

“We tell them, ‘you sit at the table reading the newspaper while they’re at the table doing homework,’” explained Graves, adding that while the program places a special focus on working with African American dads, it is open to anyone who wants to attend, and includes support groups in East Los Angeles and at Homeboy Industries near downtown Los Angeles.

For Bevans, Project Fatherhood helped him learn to provide the structure and discipline his 5-year-old needs.

His involvement in the program has also been a positive in his fight to regain custody of his daughter from the L.A. County foster care system after his ex-wife filed false allegations against him.

“Guys (typically) don’t have a place where they feel comfortable talking about life issues,” Graves said, adding that the Project Fatherhood support groups provide these spaces without diagnosing and labeling.

Project Fatherhood and the Honor Thy Father Awards are among the many efforts working to combat the dismal reality of American fathers.

President Barack Obama and his administration created the Promoting Responsible Fatherhood program that acknowledges the vital importance of fathers being part of their children’s lives. This has included launching a Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative in 2010; new investment in improving the Child Support Enforcement programs in the 2013 budget, which includes linking non-custodial parents to employment which in turn facilitates improved payment of child support; and sustaining funding for Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood grants. There is also a pilot program to help reconnect homeless veterans with their children, as well as efforts to help ex-offenders reconnect with their young children through the Second Chance Act.

According to the National Fatherhood Initiative website, 24 million children in America (one out of three) live in biological father-absent homes (33 percent). Nearly 2 in 3 (64 percent) of African American children live in father-absent homes; one in three (34 percent) Hispanic children, and one in four (25 percent) White children live in father-absent homes.”

Most people are familiar with the consequences of absent fathers—children who live absent their biological fathers are, on average, at least two to three times more than their peers who live with their married, biological (or adoptive) parents—to be poor, use drugs, experience educational problems, experience health problems, experience emotional problems, experience behavioral problems, be victims of child abuse, and engage in criminal behavior.

Raymond Blackshire, a father of six sons, was one of those Black men who grew up without a dad, but he has taught himself how to be a father by observing and listening to other men. But the road was not easy.

“It was just trial and error and just being willing,” said Blackshire, who too, struggled on his own path to adulthood. He ran away from his Houston, Texas, home at age 14, in part because of his rebellion against a man his mother married.

He enlisted in the military but was kicked out because he constantly wanted to fight.

“I was trying to live a grown man’s life in a boy’s body,” said the L.A. resident, who admitted that he was scared at the same time.

In the process, he got involved in drug and alcohol addiction in an attempt to stop feeling inadequate, fathered six sons, the oldest of whom is now 32, and ended up living on Skid Row.

“One day I was standing in line at age 32 waiting on another man to give me a dollar,” remembers Blackshire, emotion forcing him to stop speaking for a minute. “That was an eye-opener for me. Here I was a grown man, and the best plan I had was standing in line for another man to give me a dollar.”

That experience on May 23, 1989, prompted Blackshire to change his life. He responded to a man doing street outreach, went into a treatment program and has been clean and sober for the last 24 years.

His sobriety has allowed him to work on his relationships with his sons, including learning how to talk with them instead of at them and allowing them to express opinions.

It has also allowed him to spend more time with his sons, including taking a road trip to Texas to see his mother and getting together frequently for barbecues. Blackshire says he also makes time to talk with his boys who are 32, 28, 26, 14, 13, and 9 years old. And although the process has not been easy, particularly with his oldest son, who didn’t see his father for years after Blackshire moved to Los Angeles from Texas and got caught up in the addiction haze.

But now the Texas native is so proud to find that when his sons need him, they now know they can depend on him to come through.

Because African American children ostensibly are more likely to live in father-absent homes, they are more likely to suffer from these negative consequences.

But in the introduction to their book, “The Myth of the Missing Black Fathers,” researchers Roberta L. Coles and Charles Green question the belief that Black fathers are absent despite some of the grim statistics they cite—only 16 percent of African American households were married couples with children, the lowest of all racial groups in America. On the other hand, 19 percent of Black households were female-headed with children, the highest of all racial groups.

Additionally, more than 50 percent of African American children lived in mother-only households in 2004, again the highest of all racial groups. And although African American teens experienced the largest decline in births of all racial groups in the 1990s, still in 2000, 68 percent of all births to African American women were to the unwed, suggesting the pattern of single-mother parenting may be sustained for some time into the future.

These statistics could easily lead observers to assume that Black fathers are absent.

But Coles and Green say: “While it would be remiss to argue that there are not many absent Black fathers, absence is only one slice of the fatherhood pie and a smaller slice than is normally thought. The problem with ‘absence,’ as is fairly well established now, is that it’s an ill-defined pejorative concept usually denoting non-residence with the child, and it is sometimes assumed in cases where there is no legal marriage to the mother.

“More importantly, absence connotes invisibility and non-involvement, which further investigation has proven to be exaggerated (as will be discussed below). Furthermore, statistics on children’s living arrangements also indicate that nearly 41 percent of Black children live with their fathers, either in a married or cohabiting couple household or with a single dad.”

Coles and Green go on to note that there have been a proliferation of programs aimed at responsible fatherhood and a stream of written accounts about absent Black fathers.

They also write that, “Although these anguished experiences are too common, they remain only one part, though often the more visible part, of the larger fatherhood picture. An increasing number of quantitative and qualitative studies find that of men who become unwed fathers, Black men (when compared to White and Hispanic fathers) were found to have the highest rates (estimates range from 20 to more than 50 percent) of visitation or provision of some caretaking or in-kind support (more than formal child support).

“For instance, figures from a 2002 study indicated that only 37 percent of Black unmarried fathers were cohabiting with the child (compared to 66 percent of White fathers and 59 percent of Hispanic), but of those who weren’t cohabiting, 44 percent of unmarried Black fathers were visiting the child, compared to only 17 percent of White and 26 percent of Hispanic fathers. These studies also suggested that Black nonresident fathers tend to maintain their level of involvement over time longer than do White and Hispanic nonresident fathers.”

Additionally, Coles and Green say sometimes social, fictive, or “other” fathers step in for or supplement nonresident biological fathers. They point out that little research has been conducted on “social fathers,” but it is known they come in a wide variety—relatives, such as grandfathers and uncles; friends, romantic partners and new husbands of the mother, cohabiting or not; and community figures, such as teachers, coaches, or community-center staff.

Although virtually impossible to capture clearly in census data, it is known that a high proportion of Black men act as social fathers of one sort or another, yet few studies exist on this group of dads.

Lora Bex Lempert’s 1999 study of Black grandmothers as primary parents found that many families rely on grandfathers, other male extended family members, or community members to fill the father’s shoes, but, unfortunately, her study did not explore the experience of these men.

“A lot of fatherhood programs have been established over the last decade mostly in big cities. They enable more fathers to get parenting classes; to learn how they can use the legal system to access their children better, and even if they don’t get custody to at least get visitation; work things out with the mom so they can come to some reasonable arrangement,” Coles said.

“I think more and more fathers have been asking for that. I think social services and courts are starting to recognize that fathers want to be doing more than they have been or allowed to do. They have started to open services that used to be mainly for moms and children to dads,” Coles said.

Ideally, the results of all these various efforts will be an America where real and substantive father involvement in their children’s lives is a given rather than an unexpected surprise.