Boot camp makes men of deadbeat dads

Boot camp makes men of deadbeat dads
Anthony Tremmaglia

Halbert Sullivan is not about to let his audience off the hook.

Inside a packed theater in Midtown last month, he has taken command of center stage, alone. Sixty years old and thickly built, Sullivan used to be a "crackhead" and a criminal. Today he is the director of a nonprofit based in north St. Louis called the Fathers' Support Center, or, as it's known to some, "the deadbeat dad center."

About 150 people have gathered to celebrate on this spring evening, but Sullivan is stone-faced, sizing up the first several rows. Looking back at him are 42 male graduates of his latest "boot camp," an intensive six-week, 180-hour program designed to help mostly low-income, non-custodial fathers get their act together and reconnect with their kids.

Fathers’ Support Center staff: Founder Halbert Sullivan, managing director Cheri Tillis, and facilitators Sister Carol Schumer and Charles Barnes Jr.
Jennifer Silverberg
Fathers’ Support Center staff: Founder Halbert Sullivan, managing director Cheri Tillis, and facilitators Sister Carol Schumer and Charles Barnes Jr.
Nathaniel Lewis of class No. 89 addresses his fellow FSC graduates on May 31.
Alexis Hitt
Nathaniel Lewis of class No. 89 addresses his fellow FSC graduates on May 31.

Failure rate is about 20 percent, but the guys here showed up by 8 a.m., day after day, to practice job interviews, humble themselves, sharpen their communication and get an earful (if need be). Friends and family surround them in support.

Sullivan quizzes the latest batch of grads — a.k.a., "Class No. 89" — in his husky baritone: "What does 8 a.m. mean, guys?"

"Seven forty-five!" they call out in unison. They've heard it over and over: If you arrive on time, you're already late.

Sullivan first lauds those graduates who showed perfect attendance. He knows what good can result, he says, when a man rises early every day.

He himself sobered up in 1993. He then went to college and later earned a master's degree from Washington University. Now he owns a child-care center, an auto salvage yard, a flea market and runs the FSC. He and his wife, Jean, live in a subdivision in St. Peters.

Sullivan built himself up from nothing, and he demands his students do likewise — but not just for their own sake.

"Our children are in turmoil," he informs the crowd, which, like the graduating class, is almost entirely black. "In America, 24 million kids are growing up without their fathers. And 62 percent of that 24 million" — almost two-thirds — "are African American children."

The audience, fidgety after sitting for two hours, falls quiet. Sullivan is not finished.

Children in that situation, he continues, are more likely to commit suicide and land behind bars. As his voice climbs, he punctuates each painful stat like it's a poke in the ribs. "Seventy-two percent of them drop out of high school! Seventy-three percent of them use drugs! Eighty-two percent are involved in teen pregnancy!"

He erupts at last: "How about we break the cycle by having dads be dads in the home?" Wild applause lifts the room.

Sullivan's message is not new, though few people can drive home the point like he can.

The "responsible fatherhood movement" arose decades ago after the loosening of social mores in the 1960s caused a huge spike in the number of fatherless households. By the early '90s, study after study was sounding the alarm: Kids without dads suffered in all kinds of ways.

President Bill Clinton funneled federal dollars into a fatherhood initiative in the mid-1990s. George W. Bush carried the torch, and so has Barack Obama, who recently set aside $75 million for father services. In 2011 the Fathers' Support Center beat out dozens of applicants to snag $1.5 million of the pot.

"Trust me, a lot of people were mad and upset they didn't get funding," says Wallace McLaughlin of Indianapolis. His own fatherhood center, plus Sullivan's and a third in Baltimore are widely recognized as the only ones of their kind in the United States. "For a program that young to be able to garner so much local, state and federal support is unheard of. Halbert is a crafty negotiator and skilled leader."

Indeed, the FSC's budget now stands at $2.8 million and has grown by more than $100,000 every year since 2006, thanks to benefactors such as the Deaconess Foundation and the United Way. On June 14 a swank fundraising dinner at Windows on Washington netted the organization $40,000 in a single night.

Most importantly, the center's methods seem to be working: FSC staff boasts that 62 percent of graduates find a job, and 75 percent end up supporting their children financially.

But another number that administrators cite reveals the enormity of the challenge: In the city of St. Louis, more than half of all children and 70 percent of African American children live in female households with no husband present.

Sullivan knows firsthand how poverty can cripple a young black father. He knows firsthand how a felony can damage job prospects. He also agrees with black social conservatives such as comedian-activist Bill Cosby that institutional racism still exists. But like Cosby, he refuses to accept those realities as excuses for failure.

"If you want to change a man's attitude and behavior, you have to put some work into changing his perception," Sullivan tells Riverfront Times. "You're not a victim. Why do you want to be a victim? Why is it somebody's else's fault? We don't play that. It's you. What can you do about your situation?"

Halbert Sullivan grew up estranged from his own dad. His stepfather and mother, however, ran a no-nonsense home in Memphis, Tennessee. Polite manners, homework and chores were not negotiable. The family briefly moved to New York then decided to return to the South. A fourteen-year-old Halbert stayed behind in Rochester with his aunt. He says he "didn't want to keep up with the rules," so struck out on his own and started "hanging out where the thugs hang out."

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