Correction to This Article
A Dec. 17 article about absentee fathers, which was part of the Being a Black Man series, incorrectly said that the D.C. Department of Health oversees fatherhood programs in the city. The D.C. Department of Human Services performs that function.

Dad, Redefined

Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 17, 2006

When 19-year-old Donné McDaniel became pregnant last year, Tim Wagoner didn't consider marrying her.

"Nah, man, it wasn't really discussed. We're just friends."

They'd dated a year. The pregnancy wasn't planned.

Now their son, Zyhir, is 4 months old. Zyhir stays here, stays there.

It's 11 a.m., a cold fall morning. A darkened rowhouse in Northwest Washington, just off Georgia Avenue. "Cold Case Files," the television cop show, is the only electric illumination in the room. Cries come from the crib by the couch.

"You fussin', shorty? You don't want to be in there?"

A tattooed hand reaches down, pulls little Zyhir up to his lap. "The bottle? This it?"

Wagoner is 27, handsome, neat moustache and goatee, the oldest of five kids. Lean, muscular, not too tall. Maria, his mom's name, is tattooed on his hand. He lives with her and his sisters, making $7.50 an hour working at a teen recreation center in Brookland two days a week. He's studying for his GED.

Wagoner is with his child part of the time, and part of the time he's not. He and McDaniel share child-raising duties but there's no formal agreement, and Wagoner pays no child support.

In many ways, this is a new norm. Single black mothers almost outnumber black two-parent families, and absentee black fathers have become a staple of conversations, sermons and stand-up comics. Some 48 percent of all black children live without their fathers in the home, nearly double the rate of any other ethnic group in the United States. On his block, Tim Wagoner knows more guys his age who have been shot than who are married with kids.

Many single women make it work. But according to the census, children in mother-only families, regardless of race, are more likely to live in poverty, be arrested as juveniles or have children in their teenage years -- all things that lead to a lifetime of difficulty.

But what defines "absentee"? If you see your child once a month, does that make you a nonexistent father? Once a week?

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