Support Structure

Financial woes can separate fathers from their children. One innovative program helps get the situation under control.

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Over in a corner of the Fathers' Support Center (FSC) classroom, at a desk behind a partition, Eleanie Campbell sits with a sheaf of forms and a legal pad, talking in low tones with Leo Taylor-Bey. Campbell is a case manager with the Missouri Department of Social Services' Division of Child Support Enforcement (CSE). Part of being in the FSC program is attempting to get caught up on child-support payments, a goal that CSE hopes to facilitate with its Parents Fair Share, a program that works with noncustodial parents having trouble making their payments. "We encourage our guys to sign up," says the center's Halbert Sullivan, "to sit down and negotiate a compromise between what you're supposed to pay and what you can reasonably afford to pay."

And that is exactly what Campbell and Taylor-Bey are doing. "Our program with their program works very well," says Campbell. "Fathers' Support Center gives them self-esteem and parenting skills and places them in the job market, while Parents' Fair Share gives help in shoring up the financial obligations."

Donnell Whitfield, director of Prince Hall Family Services, was instrumental in getting the Family Support Act enacted, from which Parents Fair Share grew. A pilot program of the Family Support Act was set up in 1988. "Before that," says Whitfield, "very little attention was paid to the plight of young fathers, black or white. If he wasn't in the home, no longer in the child's life, he was seen as nothing more than a walking pocketbook by child-support enforcement. And if he failed to pay child support, he was arrested and locked up -- it didn't matter whether he was employed or not. It was a punitive system, if you will."

And it was a system that was beating fathers down, contends Whitfield, citing the following scenario: "If the dads weren't able to pay support, the mothers went on welfare. This may go on for three, four years, but when Dad gets a job, goes to work, the state expects him to pay the money back that they have given his children. Now he must pay current and past child support. So at some point, unless he's making an awful lot of money, he's going to say, 'It's not worth it.' So what he does is go underground. He works for cash and doles out the money to his kids as he sees fit. That's the only way he can beat the system. So there were, and still are a lot of men who are involved in their children's lives but they're underground."

The Family Support Act was the first step in giving these disadvantaged fathers some help. Since then, says Whitfield, Parents Fair Share has taken over in "trying to assist fathers in securing education and training -- life skills -- in order to be able to get meaningful jobs so as to contribute to the support of their children. You try to create a mindset where the individual accepts responsibility. You see, we allow in our community an individual to not accept responsibility. It's time that stopped. These men must understand that child is their responsibility. They can do the right thing, work toward their GED, try to find decent employment, negotiate with child-support enforcement. But in the meantime, the meter keeps ticking on their arrearage."

Whitfield would like to see amnesty for dads in serious arrears, much like what was offered to Vietnam-era draft-dodgers. "If we don't cut the meter off or at least slow it down, they will never catch up," he says. "Why can't we give a break to our young men who, through no fault of own, have not been able to support children and have built up considerable arrearage? Once they find work, we could say, 'Let's wipe your slate clean, and let's start from here.'"

Contact the Fathers' Support Center at [email protected].

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