Boot camp makes men of deadbeat dads

"I don't care if it's 3:59 p.m. on the last day, I'll still drop you," he warns. Barnes, a large man with a salt-and-pepper beard, is sitting as he normally does: hands folded across his belly, a Buddha of responsible behavior. But his eyes are flickering like flames. "This half-assed mentality is not acceptable. That piece of paper you're supposed to get don't mean jack if you still have the same behavior as before. Is this what you're going to do with your kids? Make it all the way through then drop the ball?"

Barnes — a graduate of Class No. 3 who has facilitated for twelve years despite no formal degree in the field — later acknowledges that he's not always the most loved FSC employee.

"Oh, I've been called every name in the book," he says. "It's like that line from A Few Good Men: 'You can't handle the truth!' You're gonna get the truth from me. I don't want to give them the fantasy that life is easy. You may not like it. That's not my problem. It's not always pretty. But it's real."

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.

To use his phrase, some participants have already "dropped the ball." Class No. 89 began with 32 students — about half of whom were referred by a probation officer, the other came on their own volition. Only thirteen have survived. Of these, nine have a criminal record, Barnes says.

One of them is 38-year-old Marvus T. Barnes (no relation to the facilitator). At six-foot-four and 216 pounds, he's a big presence in the classroom this session, and known to some as "Tic-Toc" for the pair of retail clothing shops he had by that name in north St. Louis. Those stores closed down when he got locked up for being more than $5,000 behind in child support, a felony in Missouri.

After leaving prison he joined the program by choice to tighten up his fathering skills and for the business resources it offers (the FSC says that it has graduated 1,689 men through the end of 2011, and its alumni actively network with each other).

But halfway through the six-week boot camp, Barnes became fed up. A job prospect collapsed, and he was living in Dismas House, a halfway facility. He planned to quit until Charles Barnes coaxed him into staying.

On this last day of class he's all smiles and sitting up straight in his tie and blue leather shoes. His eleven-year-old daughter has come up with a nickname for him: Mr. Getback, the guy who gets knocked down but always gets back up.

"I just got a text from my daughter," he brags to the group during the "What's New" rap session. "I'd texted her, 'I love you, study hard.' And she texted me back, 'Love you too, Daddy, a.k.a. Mr. Getback."

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce says sometimes she recognizes a young defendant because her prosecutors have locked up his father.

"It's very sad," she says. "I'm looking at a lot of cases where fatherhood has failed. A lot of the defendants that come across our desk have had no father influence in their life or a negative father influence in their life. We see that on a daily basis."

Joyce says that most of the time her attorneys try not to charge fathers who've fallen behind $5,000 or more on their child support with a felony because such charges just perpetuate the cycle. A felony makes it hard to land a job, and without a job the dad will continue to miss payments. Instead, city prosecutors hold the fathers in contempt of court, a lesser charge. She adds that a special "Fathering Court" is now in the works within the St. Louis Circuit. Judge Beth Hogan is planning to team up with the FSC to steer those dads away from booze and drugs and toward a GED and, hopefully, a job.

Joyce says she recently spent a day observing how her child-support enforcement unit handles cash-strapped dads trying to tread water in a gloomy economy.

"I was really impressed with some men coming and wanting to make arrangements. Some really do want to be good dads, but I get the sense that sometimes they don't know how to go about it. I can't help but think that if we had more programs like FSC, my workload would decrease."

U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay of Missouri's 1st Congressional District is also a big fan of the Fathers' Support Center and alternative methods for dealing with so-called "deadbeat dads." Clay says he's working with Congressman Danny Davis of Chicago on a new fatherhood bill that would, in part, present creative ways for dads to pay child support, such as getting credit by paying for their kids' doctor visits. The bill is still in the formative stages, Clay says, but he's consulted with the FSC staff on how to write it.

Clay, a Democrat, acknowledges that the Fathers' Support Center espouses a somewhat conservative philosophy, but that doesn't bother him.

"In the case of fatherhood in the African American community, we need to look at all our options on how we can better that situation," Clay says. "If it takes a conservative philosophy to strengthen families, then I'm willing to entertain it and be of help."

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