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D.C. court program teaches absent fathers how to be good dads

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Where are the fathers?

I get that question every time I write about women and children in peril.

I write about the broken families of homeless women, their daughters and the grandbabies sleeping in cars, on the streets and trying to get into shelters in alarming numbers throughout our region.

And the readers ask: "Where are the fathers?"

I write about women who are working hard at good jobs, then racing to their day-care centers to pick up their kids - all of them single, all of them praying that the government doesn't go through with a threat to cut the child-care subsidy that keeps it all together.

Where are the fathers?

"Your article really upset me. Where are the daddies here? When I was a young man, I worked two jobs to support the children. It was hard but I did it. As a man, you have to face your responsibilities," boomed Clarence Lowe, 69, when he left a message on my voice mail.

When I called to talk to Lowe, a Capitol Heights locksmith, he went on further.

"Men today have to step up to the plate and be a daddy. No matter how hard it is, there's a way to do it," said Lowe, who has seen the devastation of broken families firsthand as the foster parent to nearly two dozen children. "We, the citizens, shouldn't bear that burden of raising your children. But we do. Now do your part."

It's a troubling, complex and painful cycle that keeps playing itself out in America's struggling families and especially in African American communities. A Brookings Institution report on fragile families lays out the scope of the problem: 70 percent of black children in the United States are born to unwed parents; more than half of unwed mothers don't have high school degrees; and as for the fathers, black men are incarcerated at an exponentially higher rate - one in 12 - compared with their working-age white counterparts - one in 87.

Twenty-five years ago, one in 125 American children had a parent in jail. Today, it is one in 28, according to a recent report by the Pew Charitable Trust on the economics of incarceration.

Before his drug life caught up with him and he changed his ways, Christian Carter was one of those missing dads.

"I didn't really have any relationship with my son," he told me.

Carter's was a familiar scene - fast life, drug dealing, a kid he'd see when he had enough cash to drop off a flashy toy; then he was off with his friends. It all came crashing with 15 months in lockup.

That's where the same-old part of it ended.

When Carter was being sentenced by D.C. Superior Court Judge Milton C. Lee Jr. for his drug-dealing conviction, he was diverted to a special program to teach him how to be a parent.

In Fathering Court, lawyers, counselors, case workers and other mentors met with the men for a year. They helped them get jobs despite their criminal records, encouraged them, advised them and congratulated them.

The three-year-old pilot program, funded by a grant from the Department of Justice, has helped about 50 men so far. It has been so successful that it received a Bright Idea award from Harvard University last fall and will be the blueprint for a national program planned by the Justice Department. Only one graduate has been rearrested since the program's debut.

"Judge Lee saw something in me. And it's all different now," said Carter, one of eight men who graduated from the program in January.

"Now that I'm really in his life, I know it's not as simple as picking up a football and playing with him. I have to learn everything about him, and he teaches me how to deal," Carter explains to me. His 8-year-old son is autistic.

"Now, when he sees me, he lights up and hugs me. It took me a while to realize how big that is."

Carter and other fathers who may have gone back to to the streets after being turned down for job after job now know what time their kids go to school, when their games are, what days off they need for the school concert, what their kids like on their sandwiches and what it means to really take care of another human.

The judge said one dad who has sole custody of his child told him: "I can't get in trouble anymore because if I'm not at work, I'm with him. That's the only two places you'll find me."

Carter has been working at Linens of the Week, making his child-support payments and reading everything he can about autism and how it affects his son.

"I'm trying to be a better person," he told me. And he confessed it's not always easy. The ghosts from his old life? Those dudes aren't really into talking about the autistic spectrum and gluten-free diets or his son's Independent Education Plan.

"Yeah, I can see that I'm not really, you know, relating to my old friends anymore," he told me.

Where are the fathers?

At a jubilant ceremony at D.C. Superior Court, there were eight of them in graduation gowns, looking out at their families and shaking the hands of the judges who had put them in jail. And standing right there beside them were their kids.

© The Washington Post Company