The Hard Knock That Won't Stop

Determined to make a better life for themselves and their children, students at the Fathers' Support Center make a go of parenthood in the 'hood

It takes a lot of folks to make this program work, but employers are the linchpins. Job training and job placement are a big part of the program, and most of the men are placed in decent jobs during the classroom phase, because as far as Halbert Sullivan is concerned, a good job -- "better than minimum wage, with benefits" -- is the key to removing the stigma of the so-called deadbeat dad, a father who often has little or no participation in the lives of his children. "We don't have deadbeat dads," Sullivan, 48, is fond of saying. "Some of them are dead broke," he explains, "and therefore unable, not unwilling, to lend financial support to their children."

Coming to class on time is good practice for getting to work each day on time. Despite working second shift and the formidable distance between their apartment in Baden and FSC, the Ransom brothers had perfect attendance records for the six-week classroom sessions, which begin at 8 a.m. "We encouraged each other to be here," says Ronald, a big man with a fullback's build. "We worked second shift, didn't get home until midnight, and after we'd eat and shower, it'd be 1:30 before we turned in -- and then to get up at 6 to catch a bus downtown and be on time."

The promise of work is a potent incentive to join the program -- that and the $75-per-week stipend the class members receive for showing up and participating. Most of these guys have bounced from job to job and are weary of that. They see FSC as a way to break out. "This program," says Ronald, "not only helps you get a job but teaches you discipline and responsibility that you need to keep that job, not just get paid a few times and leave."

Of course, all the discipline and responsibility in the world isn't going to help a man keep his job if the company decides to lay off personnel. A call to the brothers some three weeks after graduation revealed that both he and Craig had been laid off at Universal Printing.

More hard knocks, but the Ransom brothers view adversity as something like a brick on the sidewalk: It's in your way; you simply kick it aside. "It won't be long before I find something, through a temp service or whatever," says Ronald, upbeat. "We been pushed down so many times, ain't nowhere else to go but up."

Additional income would help Ronald achieve a goal that at present is out of reach. Unlike the others in the program who seem content with or resigned to the role of noncustodial parent, Ronald hopes to gain full custody of his children -- Tamara, 6, and Ron Jr., 8 -- with whom, along with their mother, he lived for three years. For that, he'll have to get an attorney and go to court. "I'm getting around to that," he says, "but it's kind of expensive." Meanwhile, the arrangement he has with his common-law ex is out-of-court and unofficial: He gets visitation "most weekends" and contributes financially when he is able. He picks the kids up at her house in a sort of hit-and-miss fashion because, says Ronald, "her phone is off right now."

On a recent Sunday, Craig and Ronald's three children were gathered at the brothers' small, modest apartment on Gustav Street, off North Broadway. They all made a day of it, taking in a movie, followed by a wild rumpus at the local playground and a visit to the bountiful steam tables of Old Country Buffet. "Being together, that's the highlight of our week," says Craig. "The event."

This sweet and simple family outing flies in the face of all too common perceptions that pigeonhole noncustodial fathers as deadbeats and users of young women who get them pregnant and then abandon them. It is a stereotype that Halbert Sullivan has been fighting since the center's inception.

"It is not unusual for society to believe that when a breakup occurs that involves children, the man just walks away from his obligation or he doesn't feel an obligation," says Sullivan, a confessed former deadbeat dad. "And I'm not saying this doesn't happen, but there could be reasons why the fellow doesn't follow through on his obligation. Now, these reasons don't necessarily make him right, but there are reasons. And one of the main reasons is that people break up so hard these days, with such negative feelings on both sides, that problems crop up."

Such as?

"The female has the power -- well, she has the children, and she'll use the children against the man: 'You can't see them this week, you can't see them that week,' and things like that. The fella, in turn, will try to use the fact that he has the money to leverage that power: 'Well, if I can't see the children, then I ain't gonna pay this week.' And you can see how it escalates. That goes across the line, whether you're African-American, Hispanic, Caucasian, whatever -- those types of games are played."

Charles Thompson knows the situation all too well. He says he had to jump through various legal hoops just to see his newborn son, also named Charles. "At first his mom was rebellious because we weren't together -- the first three months of his life I didn't see him," recalls Thompson, 25. "I had to get a lawyer and get the noncustodial visitation." The legal process for unmarried couples, called a paternity judgment, is virtually the same as what married couples go through. After paternity is established -- a signed affidavit by the mother will do -- the father and mother go to court, where child support and a visitation schedule are worked out and made binding.

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