Summit County Children Services never had the greatest reputation among fathers.
In the eyes of many dads, the child welfare system is designed to provide support only to mothers. Fathers are just an afterthought or, worse, viewed as the problem.
But two female Children Services workers — yes, two women — started questioning the veracity of that opinion a couple of years ago.
They concluded that the agency was indeed far from father friendly, this despite research that shows children are better off when there is a father in their lives. In many cases, the agency didn’t even try to identify the dad when kids came into their custody.
“We weren’t really inclusive of fathers,” said Ann Ream, agency director of protective services. “I don’t think we meant to cut them out, but we certainly didn’t cut them in.”
So Ream and manager of staff development Jeanne Bennett led an institutional revolution at Children Services, launching the Fatherhood Initiative in late 2010 to reach out and involve more dads in cases. It was a massive culture shift for the agency and its clients who had grown accustomed to a maternal focus.
Since the initiative’s start, the number of fathers participating — and even being awarded custody of kids — has increased. And the effort, considered the first of its kind in Ohio and perhaps the United States, is garnering acclaim across the state and nation.
“What you’ve got going on there is a pioneering and innovative program and, as far as I know, it’s the first in the country,” said Gary Dick, an associate professor of social work at the University of Cincinnati who developed the “Fatherhood Scale,” which helps social workers and is writing a book on fatherhood. “It’s just phenomenal what they are trying to do … It’s going to be a model for the rest of the state and certainly for the rest of the country in getting dads involved.”
Already, Cuyahoga, Erie, Montgomery, Portage and Stark counties have either started or plan to launch their own programs based on the Summit effort, officials said. They expect that number to grow. Children Services will present its findings at a Public Children Services Association of Ohio conference in October.
It might seem odd that child welfare agencies haven’t also included or supported fathers. But dads were sometimes identified as deadbeats or ne’er-do-wells, and were cut out of case plans. If a man was in prison, the argument was that there wasn’t a need to contact him.
Some social workers had to overcome their own bias against fathers, Ream and Bennett said.
Many mothers also didn’t want dads involved. Some have been offended and balked when Children Services informed them that fathers would be brought into the decision-making process.
“ ‘What? He’s irrelevant. You didn’t ask him before,’ ” Ream said about the mothers’ reactions. “ ‘Why are you asking these questions? I want him off the case plan. What does he have to do with this case?’ That has been a shift for some of our seasoned clients — people who have been through the system before — because we didn’t ask these questions before.”
But kids — moms, too — are better off with an active father in their lives, even if the dad doesn’t live with his children, according to a new study that will be published this year in the Journal of Social Service Research.
“The research has shown that these mothers are less depressed and the children socially and emotionally do much better,” Dick said.
Connecting with fathers
Children Services launched its Fatherhood Initiative internally with the slogan: “It’s time to connect with fathers.”
The agency now seeks out fathers when children enter the system. Dads are encouraged to participate in family meetings — as long as there are no safety concerns. Case workers attempt to build relationships with the fathers, or at least the paternal side of the family. And the agency partners with groups such as FameFathers in Akron to provide dad-specific programming.
Children Services also publishes a Father Facts pamphlet for employees every two months to keep the staff aware of the initiative and it created a Father Resource Guide that details father-related programs and services offered in the area.
The result is that the agency has identified 60 percent of fathers in case plans, up from 20 percent before the Fatherhood Initiative.
More dads are participating in family meetings, too. The agency hadn’t kept track of the number of fathers attending meetings before but now is keeping those statistics. The number climbed from 58 in the first quarter of last year to 73 in the first three months of this year.
More fathers or the paternal families also are visiting with their children in supervised settings and being given custody of their kids, officials said, although the agency couldn’t provide specific statistics.
The Fatherhood Initiative meets the agency’s larger goal of keeping families together instead of placing kids in foster homes, said John Saros, executive director of Children Services. Too many children are growing up without fathers, he said.
“Fatherhood is a critical piece of business for us,” Saros said. “We want to break this cycle that goes on for generation and generation and generation.”
Lessons in parenting
One of the key elements of the Fatherhood Initiative involves a FameFathers program that teaches men how to be dads. Men gather once a week for six weeks on the Children Services campus to learn that parenting goes well beyond providing food, shelter and clothing for their children.
At the end of the program, the men graduate during a special ceremony and receive certificates and cake. The program has been life-altering for many of the fathers.
Several stood up at a recent graduation to praise the program and instructor Lorenzo Lewis, saying they let go of anger and resentment against the system and, in some cases, their kids’ mothers. They now focus on being better fathers.
“Our goal here is to have Dad equipped enough to be part of a functioning family, not a dysfunctional family,” Lewis said.
Kimberly Dent, interim director of the Ohio Fatherhood Commission in Columbus, which provides funding for FameFathers, praised the relationship. She now is urging fatherhood programs to become more involved with children’s service agencies and child support agencies.
In addition to helping children, the focus on fathers has a financial benefit, Dent said, because children can be placed with fathers or paternal families instead of in foster care.
Learning from mistakes
Jeff Schafer, 28, who graduated from the FameFathers program, admitted that he considered Children Services anti-father when social workers first became involved in his life.
The agency had ordered him to leave his Akron home and two young sons because of a drug problem, and later he watched as the boys were taken from their mother and placed in foster care.
His attitude toward Children Services changed, he said, as he both accepted responsibility for his actions and learned that the agency was encouraging him and not fighting against him as he battled to gain custody of his sons.
He has since become sober, works washing windows and doing property maintenance, rented a small apartment in Kent and earned custody of 4-year-old Tommy and 2-year-old Timmy. One wall in his apartment is filled with pictures drawn by the boys.
“What I do affects the lives of my children,” he said. “If I don’t want to be a good father, I could continue on destroying my life. I had to prove myself. I had to make my wrongs right and take responsibility for what I did.”
Schafer said he’s thought a lot recently about how he had no father in his life growing up. He said his mother and father divorced, and he never saw his dad much. He doesn’t want that for his kids.
“I don’t focus so much on what’s gone wrong in my life,” he added. “It’s how I can learn from it to better myself. That’s a sign of intelligence, I think.”
His long-term plan is to become a registered nurse one day and work at a children’s hospital. Meanwhile, his immediate goal is to provide some stability for his kids and show them that they can overcome adversity by working hard.
“These guys are my little angels,” he said as he gathered them in his arms for a hug.
There are three kinds of fathers in the system, said Ed Singleton, 36, of Canton, who sought out the FameFathers program in Akron last year because there wasn’t one offered in Stark County. Some dads want to be part of their children’s lives. Others don’t feel like they should have any financial responsibility. Then, there are those who don’t want anything to do with their kids.
Singleton, who has four children, said it was a relief to sit in a room with other fathers like himself who cared about their kids and their responsibilities. He had spent time in state prison for aggravated burglary and felonious assault.
“I enjoy being a father,” he said during an interview at Culler’s Barber Shop & Supply Store in Canton where he works as a barber. “When I got married, my intention was to give my children something that I never had. I didn’t have a mother and father in my household. I was raised by my mother and grandmother.”
He added that he wants to debunk the misconception that black men don’t care about their kids.
“I don’t want to fit in that stereotype,” Singleton said. “I’m not a deadbeat dad. I’m not a sperm donor. I’m not a negligent father. That’s not what I am.”
Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or email@example.com.