"We must accept the responsibility that God has put upon us . . . to be good husbands and fathers and builders of our community." -- From the Million Man March,
Oct. 16, 1995.
That historic day on the Mall was filled with warm embraces, unabashed displays of brotherhood and repeated public pledges to "take more responsibility for our families and community." But last Monday, with the city returned to the normal pace of daily life, it was the government of the District of Columbia that stepped up to the plate in behalf of children.
The action came in the form of a new program called Safe Passages, sponsored by Mayor Anthony Williams and D.C. Council members Kevin Chavous (D-Ward 7) and Sandy Allen (D-Ward 8). The sponsors claim their agenda contains more than 70 results-oriented actions.
That many District children need help is not at issue. Ours is a city with a booming real estate market, a spiffed-up downtown business district -- and a host of grown-ups who are failing their children.
About 40 percent of the children and teenagers concentrated mostly east of Rock Creek Park live in poverty. In a city blessed with treasure troves of knowledge and literature, where the written word is king, the writing skills of eighth-graders are tied with those of children in Mississippi and rank lowest of any jurisdiction except the Virgin Islands.
One speaker at the Million Man March declared to the massive crowd, "To rob you is a sin. To use you and abuse you is a sin. To make mockery of your love and your trust is a sin, and we repent of all sins. And we refuse to sin anymore."
Following that 1995 exhortation, child abuse cases in the District went up by 20 percent from 1997 to 1998. Since the march, more than 1,100 men, women and children have been murdered in the District. And after the pledge to reconnect with families, close to 60 percent of D.C. children still live in homes without fathers.
Somewhere along the way, something apparently happened to that new sense of purpose that we were supposed to take home with us from the Mall.
Today, when the term "accountability" is used in the city, it applies to government, not fathers. Consider the stated action goals of Safe Passages: "All departments and agencies whose missions directly impact children and youth will be held accountable for . . . achieving results in the following areas:
Children are ready to learn upon entering school.
Children and youth are succeeding in school.
Youth are developed into successful young adults.
Children, youth and families are healthy."
Once upon a time, those activities were considered a parent's bounden duties. But instead of holding a father or mother accountable for getting children to adulthood, the job is now placed in the hands of something called the Intra-Governmental Children and Youth Investment Collaborative, led by a department director and staffed by the mayor's office.
The Intra-Governmental whatchamacallit will serve as the "coordinating agent" for "improving outcomes" for children, youth and their families. To make sure all city agencies can keep track of their charges as they're shuttled from one bureaucracy to the next, the city will install a $2.5 million computer -- or "comprehensive data management system," as it will be called -- to follow their movements.
And all that is being done, in part, and I stress, in part, because some dudes in this city have left it to others to do what they should be doing.
For a shining example of how some women end up holding the bag, look no further than the former street hustler and now much-ballyhooed public housing manager, 25-year-old Thomas Derrick Ross.
His latest appearance in The Post occurred earlier this week, when he was sentenced to four weekends in jail and 18 months of probation for beating his son with a belt to the point where the child was left bleeding.
Readers were first introduced to Ross in July through a Sunday front-page story about his supposed transformation from thug life. But Thomas Ross's personal rehabilitation, future progress in anger-management classes or ability to balance school with a new job -- captured so well by The Post -- are not the focus of my concern.
Here's what sticks out in my mind: Ross has fathered six children with five women. He pays child support for only one. And the other kids? He calls them "beef babies" because "they were conceived when he needed a safe place while his crew [gang] was beefing [fighting]," according to Post reporter Marcia Slacum Greene, who wrote the feature.
"I don't believe in marriage," he declared. So because he doesn't, who is supposed to steer his children through their major passages of life? Who will see to it that his "beef babies" get enough to eat, have clothing, learn to read and master elementary arithmetic? Who will be held accountable for making sure his children -- who didn't ask to come into this world -- have the skills to make it in a 21st century economy? Well, left to him, it probably won't be Thomas Derrick Ross -- just as responsibility didn't make much of a mark on his father, Clarence Thomas Ross, who departed this world in 1985 reportedly leaving 16 children by seven women.
This column isn't a knock against the mayor, Chavous and Allen, who are trying to do something about a desperate problem. Neither is it a criticism of city workers who are trying to help children navigate through a life "marked with obstacles and sometimes cruel realities," as the Safe Passages plan puts it. The District government is full of people who take care of their own families and the kids of others who have taken a walk.
District leaders deserve nothing but credit for trying to make this city a good place to raise kids. But as mentioned before in this space, I learned from my father -- and I tried to teach my sons so they will in turn teach my grandsons -- that a real man doesn't leave it to others to take care of his children. The District government can't teach that.
Since the Million Man March, we've managed to bring rhetoric about responsibility to perfection. Now it's time -- long past time -- for the next step: to stop making excuses or blaming others and start paying some dues. That means each of us should start doing what ought to be done by our own children. And we don't need another all-male march to get that message across.