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Fatherhood Is ...

New movement in city hopes to bring responsibility back into relationships.

More than 40 years ago, a new federal department was initiated. It also had to do with “homeland security.” But this security was far more personal, and the emphasis was on “home.” It was designated the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Among its goals was breaking the cycle of poverty that haunted the urban ghettos of America in order to re-establish family values in those areas. Within its toolbox was a program for assisted housing. The theory was that better housing would lead to better family structure, which in turn would lead to better communities.

But assisted housing was, and is, many believe, a brick-and-mortar program. It fails to address one of the underlying causes of the cycle — the lack of a father in many of the households it sought to shelter. Forty-plus years later, the cycle persists, and the urban social problems have been exacerbated.

Now, that deficiency in the social equation is being addressed through state, regional and local efforts known as “The Fatherhood Campaign.” Alexandria is a part of that effort through its participation in the Northern Virginia Regional Fatherhood Coalition (NVRFC).

Recently named chairman of that coalition is Franklyn M. Malone. He also serves as public-housing drug-elimination coordinator for the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA) and as a commissioner on the Alexandria Commission on Employment.

"Our goal is to help fathers at all levels become responsible members of their families. Statistics show that when children have direct contact with their fathers on a regular basis, there is far less criminal behavior, and their schoolwork improves considerably," Malone said.

AS FOUNDER and force behind the Alexandria Family Learning Resource Center, also operated under the aegis of ARHA, Malone has been involved with after-school programs designed to improve both students' lives and their academic standings. The Center not only supplies food to students after school but also provides a place to do homework.

In Alexandria, the fatherhood movement has been given the name "A Man Is," according to Malone. "We have been putting this program together for the last year," he said. "We've had several organizational meetings. ARHA has now given us an office, and we are ready to step out."

Working in concert with the Alexandria Department of Health and The Virginia Fatherhood Campaign, a one-day seminar was held at the Lee Center early this summer to "identify the guiding principles of manhood." According to the Health Department announcement, the primary purpose was to "link males from the ages of 14-28 and their families with services and organizations that promote a positive way of life."

The Health Department became involved as a result of a grant directed at developing a program to discourage out-of-wedlock births without increasing abortion, according to Darhyl Jasper, nursing supervisor at the Department. "But we showed such a small percentage difference on a statewide basis, we have not reapplied for the grant this year," she explained.

JOINING WITH the Health Department, ARHA and NVRFC in the seminar program were Head Start Alexandria, Tomorrow's Black Men, the Northern Virginia Urban League, and Big Brothers, Big Sisters National Capital Association. Malone pointed out, "This was not to lessen the mother's importance but rather stress the father's contribution to the family structure."

Malone noted, "One of the most important aspects of a child's life is a positive interaction with a father figure. Dads often hold the key to their children's success. We have to put dads back where they belong as being responsible for their children.

"So many fathers are getting locked up it's working against us. We have to get them back into some form of productive status. We are going to have a referral system to get them out of the courts. Fathers will have an advocate to work with child support."

Judge Stephen Rideout, Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, is a strong supporter of the program. "This is a terrific idea because we see too many examples of not enough involvement on the part of fathers. We are trying to find ways for them to become more involved with their children," he said.

James Shank, chairman, Work Force Investment Board for Alexandria and Arlington, views the program as "crucial to the overall role the father plays within the total family structure. Job and career must be a part of that structure. If those aspects are missing, the family will remain fragmented, and child support becomes the dominant issue."

THE EFFORTS OF THE REGIONAL organization, which just welcomed Gum Springs and the Arlington Community Action Program to its ranks, are modeled after the Georgia Fatherhood Program, which allows maximum interagency cooperation incorporating business and government. Some of the initiatives necessary for success, according to Malone, include negotiating a living wage for the fathers and having them get used to making regular child-support payments, performing regular case-management analysis of those in the program, follow-up on referrals by tracking participants, and creating a "one-stop" referral counseling center designed with fathers and families in mind.

"The fatherhood initiative is an important ingredient if we are going to be serious about upward mobility. The presence of a father is a way to stop the continuing cycle of families in public housing," said ARHA executive director William M. Dearman.

"Many of our families are struggling right now. The presence of a father helps mothers to raise the family. It also makes children feel more positive about themselves," Dearman said.

Another NVRFC partner in this effort is Alexandria Head Start. "We are working in collaboration with them," said Joyce Rawlings, family-community partnership manager for the local early-learning program.

"As part of that collaboration, we invite fathers to come and read to the children enrolled in Head Start. We also give workshops and training in early-childhood development which emphasizes what can be done at home to enhance a child's learning process," Rawlings explained.

NVRFC FOCUSES on five objectives for policies and programs promoting responsible fatherhood developed by James Levine and Edward Pitts of the Families and Work Institute as their road map to success. They are as follows:

* Prevent men from fathering children before they are ready for the financial and emotional responsibilities;

* Prepare men for the legal, financial and emotional responsibilities;

* Establish paternity at childbirth so that every father and child have, at a minimum, a legal connection;

* Reach out to men who are fathers, whether married or not, to foster their emotional connection to, and financial support for, their children; and

*Actively support fathers in the variety of their roles and in their continuing connection with their children, regardless of their legal and financial status.

There is probably no Alexandrian more aware of the potential and demands of this effort than newly inaugurated Mayor William D. Euille. Raised in The Berg by a single parent, his appraisal captured the essence of NVRFC in a single sentence: "It's a wonderful mentoring program that can go a long way in helping us to meet the challenges we are facing in Alexandria."