Children Services helps fathers play active rolesWritten by Joel Sensenig | | firstname.lastname@example.org
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the second in a series of stories about Lucas County Children Services running prior to the Nov. 8 election.
All children have two biological parents. Through its Fatherhood Initiative, Lucas County Children Services (LCCS) aims to ensure those with the Y chromosome play a significant role in their children’s lives.
Through increased programs, services and a major shift in perspective, the organization now looks at fathers as an integral part of the parenting equation, rather than merely an afterthought.
Six years ago, LCCS decided to focus on making fathers more of an emphasis in its parenting plan.
“We felt that, as an agency, we weren’t getting the fathers in to help support their children as much as we needed or could,” said Robert Franklin, manager of the LCCS community development department. “We started to really reach out to dads and through making some changes, we started to find out what dads needed. From there, we’ve really evolved and reached out to get them involved in what we offer at children services.”
Getting fathers more involved with their children’s lives first required a change in LCCS’s attitude toward dads.
“We recognized there were some limitations within our organization in how we viewed fathers in the past,” said Keith Robinson, supervisor of the LCCS community-resource liaison unit. “We needed to have a shift here as far as the workers, in being a little more aggressive to reach out to fathers.”
In the past, Robinson said, it was only when mothers had been given ample opportunities to provide for their children and failed that fathers would be seriously considered for parenting roles.
“With this shift in policies and procedures, we are now making a strong effort to engage fathers to recognize the strong role that they play. We’re not waiting for default — we’re asking fathers to be part of the family.”
Antuan Johnson, an LCCS parent education caseworker, said, “It brings more awareness to our caseworkers to seek out fathers instead of waiting to see how mom’s going to do. Now you have a lot more caseworkers go out there and try to find those dads, to get them more engaged with services as soon as possible.”
Johnson is on the front lines of helping fathers play larger roles in the lives of their children. Along with fellow caseworker Harold Stevens, Johnson organizes and runs three 12-week, men-only “fatherhood group” sessions each year. The sessions allow up to 14 fathers to share and express themselves in a comfortable setting, Johnson said.
“We noticed in mixed-gender groups that a lot of males held back a lot of things that they didn’t want to disclose,” Johnson said. “In the men’s group, men feel more comfortable, they have that camaraderie amongst each other of sharing their experiences, which you don’t see in the mixed-gender groups. I do know that fathers are just as loving and caring as mothers. Although us fathers don’t get a lot of credit for that, in that fatherhood group, they get that feeling from one another.”
The groups give fathers a chance to express emotions they otherwise would have no outlet for, Franklin said.
“They laugh together, they cry together, they have shared different frustrations and fears that they would normally never do,” he said. “Many of them didn’t have fathers when they were growing up and don’t even know how to be a dad.
Robinson said the fatherhood initiative has been a positive force for the youth as well, many of whom are on the fringes of society due to their criminal backgrounds.
“Some of these are hard-core gangster (types) and are very aggressive in nature. But when you talk to them individually, they will open themselves up and express the need and the desire to have structure in their lives. They will express that they wish they had a father, and that they’re jealous of individuals who have that in their life. They want someone to provide guidance and direction in their lives —even when they’re out doing criminal activities, they acknowledge that it is wrong, that it is a path that is going to lead to self-destruction for them, and want someone to provide some sort of intervention. They recognize the need to have a father figure in their lives.”
Julie Malkin, public information officer for LCCS, credited the work of those involved with the Fatherhood Initiative with expanding care options for children under the agency’s custody.
“(In) a situation where the kids were removed from the household for abuse and neglect, maybe mom just couldn’t get it together or dad — thanks to the help from these guys — is turning out to be the fit parent and the kids are moving in with dad or being connected to dad’s relatives. If you think about it, that’s a whole other family that we would have never worked with six or seven years ago.”
Recent numbers show that LCCS’ Fatherhood Initiative is working to reach disengaged fathers. In September, the organization initiated 26 parent-child reunifications, according to Stevens. Fourteen of them were fathers being reunited with their children.
“We just jumped for joy because we have a passion for this and to be that successful, it’s just beautiful to have fathers stepping up,” Stevens said.
“We have fathers who are being reunified with babies, which was unheard of. Usually mothers are the ones who are the nurturers, but we now have fathers stepping up to the plate and taking care of their kids.”
Before the Fatherhood Initiative took hold six years ago, about one out of every eight children in LCCS custody would be reunified with his or her father, according to Malkin. Now, that figure stands at one out of every three.
“This is a movement that is taking place, and we’re trying to cultivate that,” said Robinson.
A couple of years ago, LCCS started a fatherhood summit, which started the idea to have regular “town hall” meetings for fathers to gather and discuss the issues they experience in trying to be a part of their children’s lives.
In churches throughout Toledo, the meetings are a men-only venue for fathers to openly discuss their experiences with fatherhood. Seven of the meetings have been hosted in the past couple of years. Although mostly hosted in central Toledo, plans are in motion to expand to other churches in the metropolitan area as soon as next year.
“We recognize the role that the faith community plays in child welfare in general,” Malkin said. “It’s a very important role — so many people need the support of their church family to be successful as parents.”
The town hall meetings average about 50 attendees, with the largest one attracting about 150. While the earliest meetings have been largely attended by African-American fathers, the vast majority of those in attendance at the largest event were Caucasian, Robinson noted.
Not all of the caseworker-father interactions take place in classroom-like settings.
Stevens and Johnson will also accompany fathers to free or inexpensive locations, such as the library, to provide some “on the job” training to dads.
“When a kid might start to cry or act up or try to push the limits, Harold and Antuan are there to help the dad and say, ‘Now wait a minute, what are you going to do, Dad?’” Robinson said.
As with many new efforts, the Fatherhood Initiative experiences its share of difficulties, as well.
“There are some situations where when we reunify children, there has been times when they have come back into care. Maybe the father used some inappropriate discipline or something like that. We still have our work cut out for us with that kind of thing, but it’s not a disproportionate number.”
LCCS hopes to expand its services beyond men who have open cases with the organization. For now, resources and funding dictate it stay at current levels.
“This whole fatherhood (thing) is growing and growing,” said Stevens. “We take great pride in what we do when we help dads.”