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Should welfare programs pay more attention to dads?

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 25 2014 6:00 a.m. MST

He was 16 when his girlfriend told him, standing in the stairwell of their high school, that she was pregnant. He was scared — scared that he wouldn’t be able to support the baby, scared to tell his mother. Mostly, though, he recalled, “I loved my girlfriend and I thought I was going to be with her forever.”

He wanted to be the kind of father his father wasn’t: present. He quit smoking weed with friends, got a job at Toys ’R’ Us, and started stuffing his uncashed paychecks into a piggy bank.

But despite his efforts, the couple called it quits before his daughter was a month old. “We couldn’t stop fighting,” he said. They attempted to co-parent for a few months more, until, one day, Frandy came over to find his baby’s mother with a bulging bruise on her forehead. He attacked the man who was responsible, a mutual friend, and ended up behind bars for attempted murder.

He served 22 months in prison. After he got caught carrying a weapon while on parole, he served an additional three years.

Historically, funding for both government and nonprofit programs to help men has been scarce, said Joy Moses, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress. A recent survey from the Center for Family Policy and Practice shows the top two ways that nonprofit service providers connect with men is through parole and child support enforcement programs. “As a low-income man, you almost have to get in trouble to get help,” Moses said.

In prison, Frandy signed up for every program that would take him. He completed his GED and volunteered to speak to at-risk youth “to help others avoid my mistakes.”

But his baby grew up without him. For a year, his ex-girlfriend refused to bring her to visit, so Frandy’s mother petitioned for permission to do it herself.

It was a no-contact visitation. The two were separated by glass.

“How you doing, beautiful?” Frandy said, waving his hand.

The little girl just stared at him, sucking on her pacifier. By the time he was released last year, his ex-girlfriend didn’t want the child to have anything to do with him.

***

Frandy took the twins to the front room and sat on the couch, balancing one girl on each knee. As he told his story, he jiggled the babies up and down. His knees stilled, though, when he spoke about his crimes. Eyes downcast, big shoulders hunched forward like he was trying to collapse into himself, he said, “I’m ashamed of what I did and of who I was.”

Behind bars, Frandy couldn’t make money, but his child-support payments still came due every month. His mother, an immigrant who arranges flowers for neighborhood weddings and funerals, scraped up the money. Since his release, Frandy has been cleaning condos. In a good month, he can make between $1,000 and $2,000. But the work isn’t consistent. In the year he’s been free, he’s frequently gone weeks without a call. He’s applied to dozens of jobs and registered with a temp agency, but, as a felon, he has struggled.

Even without a criminal record, the job market isn’t favorable for men like him — black, with just a GED. The economy is shifting and the blue-collar manufacturing jobs that have put food on the table for uneducated workers for decades are disappearing. During the recession, men lost twice as many jobs as women, and they’re still struggling to claw their way out. Black men have the highest unemployment rate in the country, 13 percent.

A number of prominent nonprofit organizations, such as STRIVE International, specialize in helping men like Frandy acquire job skills and get on their feet. In recent years, several foundations, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, have launched initiatives targeting young minority men. Frandy hasn’t heard of any of them.

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