Breaking the absentee fatherhood cycle: Initiative in Virginia aims to strengthen families

Locked behind steel bars painted baby blue, men dressed in government-issued jumpsuits and sandals sit together and explore their deep feelings on fatherhood – the relationships they have had with their own fathers and those they have with their own children.

The Richmond City Jail may seem like an unusual setting for men to voluntarily divulge their vulnerabilities, but the group sessions seem to be working. Travis Johnson, 29, incarcerated for breaking and entering, has come to realize that he headed down the same destructive path as his father and as a result became less of a dad to his 4-year-old and 4-month-old girls.

“My girls see me as a superhero, and look at me – here I am in jail,” Johnson said. “Not being able to be a good father to my daughters has been very stressful on me – and on them. I want to be there for them. I want to spend time with them, encourage them and motivate them. My biggest fear right now is them walking in my footsteps like I did in my father’s. Our children, you know, they imitate us.”

The jail program is one of many offered through the Richmond Family & Fatherhood Initiative, a community collaboration designed to encourage greater responsibility among fathers and reduce unmarried births. By addressing the bonds between father and child, the initiative aims to strengthen Richmond families so that they can raise their children safely and successfully, thereby reducing the need for foster care. In addition to working with fathers, the initiative focuses on teenage boys – including many who grew up without the loving guidance of strong fathers – in hopes of breaking the cycle of father absence.

Evidence is overwhelming that children have a better chance of growing up safe, healthy and successful if their fathers are present and actively involved in their lives. In Virginia, seven of every 10 children brought into foster care in 2010 came from homes where the biological father was not present.

Travis Johnson
Working with families prevents the need for children to enter foster care in the first place.

The fatherhood initiative grew out of a partnership between Virginia’s child welfare agency and Richmond’s public health district. Its spirit, however, rises through a partnership with the city’s faith-based community. Pastors throughout Richmond have answered local government’s call to lead a community dialogue on the delicate issue of father responsibility and the social ramifications of father absence. Faith-based organizations are facilitating the group sessions at the jail, and a local pastor is leading a mentorship program for freshman boys at a public high school.

The partnership between government and faith leaders is helping build a community of hope in Richmond. Casey Family Programs supports efforts in Virginia and Richmond to strengthen families by focusing on the all-important relationship between father and child – and we applaud them in recognizing that community partnerships are needed to make it happen.

As a result of Richmond’s success, Virginia is replicating the fatherhood initiative model statewide.

“People need hope, faith and a support system – and the faith community provides all three,” said Martin Brown, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Social Services. “Hope gives us courage to endure. Faith is trust in a source beyond yourself. A support system is a community of healthy and reliable relationships. When hope, faith and a support system are present, we are empowered to make the tough decisions regardless of the hardships, moving beyond the present obstacles into a better future.”

A faithful partnership

Richmond, the capital of Virginia with a population of about 200,000, is beset with deep pockets of poverty. Much of its middle class has migrated to surrounding communities over the years. The city’s main employers – state government and three major universities – bring an intellectual vibrancy but are exempt from contributing to the property-tax base, creating revenue scarcities. Richmond’s economy also has suffered as the popularity of tobacco – a staple of the industrial base – has faded.

One in every four Richmond families lives in poverty, breeding a sense of hopelessness that manifests at the city jail, where the daily population is nearly 1,500, almost twice the aging facility’s capacity. When Dr. Donald Stern took over as director of the Richmond City Health District in December 2006, he assumed responsibility for a city that was worse than the state average in every key public health indicator, including the rates for teen pregnancies, infant mortality and unmarried births. In Richmond, 64 percent of all births are babies born to single women, compared to about 36 percent statewide. The non-marital birth rate in Richmond is even higher among African Americans, at 84 percent.

Strengthening families safely reduces the need for foster care.

Observing that each of those public health indicators track back to a breakdown in relationships between men and women, Stern helped craft the Richmond Family & Fatherhood Initiative in partnership with the Department of Social Services. The initiative commissioned an economic impact study that determined Richmond taxpayers spend an additional $205 million a year on human service, criminal justice and education programs due to family fragmentation and absent fathers.

Citing the study as evidence of a city emergency, government leaders sought to elevate the issue by turning to those who arguably are the community’s most influential individuals – church pastors. For all of Richmond’s social challenges, the city always has found comfort within its deep-rooted tradition of Christian faith. Richmond’s stereotype of having a church on every corner is not far from reality.

“The health district provides training and materials to churches, but we are not the program,” Stern said. “The churches are the program. We are just facilitating the process.”

Brian Gullins, a local pastor hired by the health district and the Department of Social Services to coordinate the fatherhood initiative, organized a lunch among pastors to gauge their interest in becoming involved. They hoped 120 would attend. Instead, more than 200 showed up and 160 signed up to help on the spot.

“The intersection between government and faith is critical,” Gullins said. “If it is navigated carefully, respectfully, thoughtfully and with humility, it can be a beautiful thing.”

The importance of a mentor

Sean Powell
Empowered communities create the change that is needed.

Just a few weeks after starting a new phase in their young lives, 37 freshmen boys at Richmond’s Armstrong High School boarded a bus to visit the new Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C. The idea was to expose the boys to the work of a hero.

The freshmen are part of a Richmond Family & Fatherhood Initiative mentorship program, funded through a Department of Social Services grant. The program is led by the Rev. Owen Cardwell, Jr., a local pastor who is an inspiring male role model all his own, having been one of the first two African American students to integrate a high school in Lynchburg, Va. Cardwell’s fondest memory is as a 14-year-old boy, sitting on the floor of a home singing freedom songs with King, who was in town to support the desegregation efforts.

“Kids drop out of school when they don’t have hope for the future,” Cardwell said. “From my perspective, dropout rates aren’t an educational issue. I think of them as a spiritual issue. The educational system can prepare kids to take tests. But if anyone can address the issue of loss of hope and give people a sense of direction, it’s the faith community.”

Just getting off the ground now, the mentorship program is working on building trust between the freshmen boys and their male mentors. While the mentors have lectured about the importance of being responsible young men, they haven’t yet pushed the boys to explore their own feelings about their fathers.

“These kids want to see a consistent male face,” said Shawn Peebles, a social worker at Armstrong who is one of the mentors. “If they have something going on at home, they may want to divulge that to us. Or they may just be looking for us to smile back at them when they see us in the hallway. That may be enough to help them get through the day or through the weekend.”

Esha Ore, 17, a senior taking part in the program as a peer leader, says that when his father died three years ago, he lost a lot of focus in school. So he can appreciate the importance of having a father present in a young man’s life.

“I don’t talk about my father’s death because I don’t like to,” he said. “But I know I can go to Mr. Peebles to talk about anything and he’ll always ask how I’m doing. There aren’t a lot of people who really care about you enough to ask that. To know that he cares makes me feel good. When I was failing, I had no one to talk to.”

Sean Powell, 22, a recent graduate in business at Virginia Commonwealth University, is organizing a group of college buddies to mentor at Armstrong. Raised in a two-parent family, Powell fathered a baby as a freshman in college. Powell’s 3-year-old son recently moved to Georgia with his mom, and the separation is tearing Powell up inside. He said helping with the mentorship program is easing some of his pain because he knows the importance of a father being present in a child’s life.

“I could easily have dropped out of school when my son was born,” Powell said. “But his mother and I discussed it rationally, and we decided that I should stay in school and take care of the present so I could better dedicate myself to our child’s future.”

Healing the wounds

The fatherhood initiative has hosted community trainings featuring Bishop Steven Banks, senior pastor and chief executive officer of the Living Waters Christian Fellowship in Newport News, Va. Banks has authored a book, “Healing the Father-Wound,” which describes “the injury inflicted on a child who does not sense or receive the affirmation of a father.”

In his trainings, Banks details the negative societal effects of children growing up with an absent father, and lays out a path toward healing so that men don’t inflict the same wounds on their own children. He emphasizes that fatherhood absence also can have profound impacts on daughters.

Back at the Richmond jail, a small group of female inmates are discussing their own absent fathers as part of a group session offered through the fatherhood initiative.

Andrea Collins described how her father was put in prison when she was only 7 months old. “I’ve always been looking for a man – an older man – for all the wrong reasons ever since. It’s led me to prostitution because I crave a man’s attention so much.”

Collins said she sees signs of her own daughter, who is only 14, seeking affirmation from older men. “My daughter is going through the same thing I did because her father hasn’t been there. I still haven’t healed myself, so I don’t know what to do. It’s creating a hole in my heart.”

Fortunately, the heart of Richmond is beating with a benevolent spirit and rousing strength, offering hope to suffering families so that all of the community’s children can grow up healthy, safe and successful.

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