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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

I'm Melissa Block. And we begin this hour with an important debate about fathers and broken families. All too often, mothers find themselves raising young kids on their own after fathers had left, been arrested, or told to get out. In recent years, child welfare advocates who work with low income families have been trying to bring these fathers back into the picture.

Here's where the debate comes in. Should fathers be involved if they've had a troubled past or if mothers don't want them around? NPR's Claudio Sanchez takes us to New Haven, Connecticut where leaders of the city's head start program say the answer is yes.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: It's a typical day at this Head Start center near downtown New Haven.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You ready? Three little monkeys jumping on the bed.

SANCHEZ: Restless 3- and 4-year-olds squirm and bounce on a colorful shaggy rug vying for their teacher's attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

SANCHEZ: Down the hallway, several women make their way to a parenting class, stopping to marvel at a 4-month-old baby.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Oh, my goodness.

SANCHEZ: What you don't see, says Keith Young, is men, fathers.

KEITH YOUNG: Head Start is not just about the child going to school, not just about the child. It's about the whole family and that male is a part of that, so let's put them back in the picture and see what happens.

SANCHEZ: Young is the Head Start's male involvement coordinator and community outreach worker in New Haven, a complicated title for a man with a simple message about fathers.

YOUNG: We want to be nurturers.

SANCHEZ: Young works tirelessly to find absent fathers and bring them to parenting classes at centers like this one.

YOUNG: We're meeting men on all different levels. We're meeting men that don't have jobs, we're meeting men who might have been kicked out of the house or might have caused some kind of crime, domestic or whatever. So we're meeting at different angles. The thing is, when they come in, are we asking them, how can we get you involved?

SANCHEZ: But why would anyone want these men involved, especially if they've been kicked out of their home or been abusive?

SUSAN CHORLEY: Well, I think it's an excellent question and I think that many folks are really struggling around this.

SANCHEZ: Susan Chorley has worked with batted women and was once a victim herself, so she's ambivalent about men with a history of abuse reconnecting with their children.

CHORLEY: It's very hard to know how and when to allow that individual who's really ripped your heart and soul apart into the lives of your children.

SANCHEZ: And yet, Chorley concedes the research shows kids lose out when they have no contact with their fathers.

CHORLEY: We see it a lot with the boys in our shelter that really are just yearning for a male role model, male relationship, and if their father is not there for whatever reason and can't be there, you can see the heartbreak.

SANCHEZ: In New Haven, Keith Young believes deeply that even men with troubled lives can find redemption by connecting with their kids. That's what his weekly meetings with fathers in his program are all about.

YOUNG: All right, fellas, thanks for coming here today, appreciate it.

SANCHEZ: A tall, soft-spoken man in his mid-30s raises his hand. Caleb Davis says Head Start staff members are friendlier now that they know he's raising his 4-year-old daughter on his own.

CALEB DAVIS: It's hard being a single father, raising a daughter and not given that much credit. And I have to fight for my rights. Coming here and talking to Keith helped me deal with that.

SANCHEZ: But for some men, says Young, fatherhood is one big question mark.

YOUNG: I had one guy say to me, I don't know what it is to be a father. He never had a father in his life. He spent a good portion of his life in prison, and he came out and now he's ready for this child and he didn't know how to be a father.

SANCHEZ: Across the table, a stocky older man with a black beanie and gold crucifix dangling from his neck nods in agreement. Rickie Knox comes to Head Start almost every day to be with his two grandchildren. He says it's helped him make up for his mistakes as a father.

RICKIE KNOX: My son is 31. He's a grown man. We were never really close, but this program has allowed me to become closer to my son.

SANCHEZ: Knox's only son is in prison for drugs and weapons possession. Knox takes his grandchildren to visit their dad at least once a month. Knox says his son now realizes just how much he needs his children and how much they need him. Experts say reconnecting absent fathers with their kids is a good thing as long as mothers have a say, too.

FERNANDO MEDEROS: And we need to be sensitive and aware of that. It doesn't mean that because we want to work with fathers, we roll out a red carpet for all fathers.

SANCHEZ: Fernando Mederos has studied domestic violence and the role of fathers for the past 30 years.

MEDEROS: I think what we owe these women is to say to them, what are your concerns about him and is there any way having him involved with your kids in a safe way, and even perhaps in a helpful way to you?

SANCHEZ: Keith Young says that's the whole point, to reconcile fathers with their families for the sake of the children.

YOUNG: Dads do care. We just have to look deep enough.

SANCHEZ: Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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