Project Fatherhood: Dads Reconnect to Family Life
By Dianne Anderson
It’s not that Black and Brown fathers don’t want to stay involved with their families – and they often are – but just not in the typical ways that resemble the white middle-class family experience.
The nuclear family of two working parents with good paying jobs and a nanny doesn’t always work out on the other side of the tracks.
“There’s a different support system that individuals have to create when they are not able to gain the kind of wealth that would allow that kind of lifestyle,” said Dr. Devon Ivey, Director of Research and Program Evaluator Families Uniting Families Project Fatherhood Office.
Instead, the pipeline to prison often starts with low-level crimes that get wealthier young white youth a slap on the wrist, like an assault from a barroom brawl or possession of marijuana.
But over-policing in Black and Brown communities traps young dads in the system.
Those that he sees in his program have been entangled with the child welfare system, criminal justice, or someone has weaponized the system and filed a false accusation.
“Because of who they are, they are more likely to get investigated by the different systems and that’s what gets the family unit dismantled. It’s the reality,” he said.
The program social workers also work with probation officers to inform dads of how to keep their mandates and maintain parental rights to reunify with their families or prevent the kids from going into foster care. They also learn their rights and how to rise above the systems that are designed to keep them away.
Ivey specifically focuses on how Black fathers experience parenting when they are impacted by the child welfare system. Through biweekly clinical case management sessions along with a weekly parenting support group facilitated by their social workers, dads learn how to become better dads.
To reverse the pipeline to prison trajectory, he also connects them to Long Beach City College to finish up classes and units, and access fast-track certifications. Many dads come to him as gig economy workers, but he said it’s not unusual that they already have a degree, or a few credits shy of finishing up their undergraduate degree.
He gets them plugged in.
Those who complete their units get into a career pathway and steady work. He said that Virgin Atlantic and SpaceX have been excellent options, especially for the formerly incarcerated.
His program is dad-focused, but they also help significant others in close circles that impact the child’s life. At LBCC, he helped two mothers get connected to nontraditional careers in auto repair.
As many reentry programs have cropped up in recent times to support people coming out of jails and prisons, there are new opportunities, but dads are missing out on those services.
“So they fall through the cracks and when they come to us we’re able to pick up the pieces again,” said Ivey, who holds a doctorate in higher education research.
Years ago through his consulting company, he trained foster family agencies, group homes and residential programs. Their mobile science lab for youth in the carceral system was a success, and he still works on some of those early projects with local kids as a part-time chemistry teacher.
“That was my favorite thing,” he said. “Kids in these lockup facilities are not allowed to touch any materials, so we brought labs in with materials they were allowed to use, plastic items and tissues. We pulled off some impressive labs for biology, physics and chemistry.”
Through the lead program, nonprofit Families Uniting Families, the focus is also on resource training and advocacy for foster youth, ensuring they got into the right classes, that their IEPs were honored, or if they needed help to transfer to another school.
With Project Fatherhood, advocacy is a big part of the service.
He recalls one couple, a professional husband and wife, in a volatile relationship, had a screaming match that led to the neighbor calling the police, along with the Department of Children and Family Services Emergency Responder. Even though the police determined no abuse, the ER worker said the verbal argument in front of the child was abuse, and forced the mother out of the house. The father came to his program for support.
Eventually, his program advocates were able to stop the harassment in that case.
“We worked with him and we enrolled her in the program too. We worked with both of them on communication style and the way they were able to handle conflict and get all their issues resolved,” he said.
At a recent conference, he was disturbed to hear popular views from federal fatherhood programs that claim that individualized or extended services are not needed these days for success.
His free program has no termination period. The average dad receives services for six months to a year, but some have stuck around for years. Since 2011, they return to offer help with the parent support program, or get extra help if they need it.
“We have about 30 that we don’t include in our annual count because they completed the program,” he said. “We’re here, we’re absolutely a constant for them, I think that’s one reason why we have good success.”