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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Crushing as the game was for Brazil and its fans, it was a game. We turn next to a basic reality of daily life. It's a reality in the United States, where about a quarter of families are now headed by a single mother. Many fathers do not live with their children and in some cases, do not have much contact with them. Research shows many possible problems for kids whose fathers are not involved in the kids' lives - from poor performance in school to substance abuse and poverty. Richland County, Ohio, wants to get fathers more involved. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Every week, fathers meet in a small basement conference room here in the county seat of Mansfield. Many, like Eric Viall, didn't have much of a relationship with their own dads.

ERIC VIALL: My biological father, you know, he just sent my mom the child-support check.

LUDDEN: They're here to learn parenting skills, sometimes a court has ordered them to show up. But they also come to commiserate and lend moral support. Viall hopes the class helps him win custody of his eight-month-old daughter. He's feeling frustrated.

VIALL: If you don't, like, marry the woman, they think that you're no good - that you're a bum.

LUDDEN: In Ohio, custody automatically goes to the mother when parents are not married, even though, Viall says, his baby's mom is a drug addict. He saved up five months to hire an attorney, but feels like the systems rigged against him.

VIALL: They'll get you for child support in a second, even though you're unmarried - oh, yeah, so we have to pay for children that nobody cares if we see or not. Nobody cares if we're a father to them as long as we give them a check.

JENNIFER JENNETTE: I think they're just the forgotten ones in some ways.

LUDDEN: Jennifer Jennette heads the group that puts on these fatherhood classes - the Community Action Commission of Erie, Huron, and Richland Counties. In courts and several service agencies, she says, the culture is moms and children. Even when kids are taken away from their mother, she says they're often given to another female relative instead of the dad. And too often, she says, men are reluctant to ask for help. For several years, she's made it a mission to answer this question.

JENNETTE: How can we cultivate a father friendly system to help navigate, the goal being the child? The relationship with him and his child.

LUDDEN: But her group only serves those in poverty. The problem of absent fathers, she says, is bigger than that. The fastest growing cohort of single mothers is among the working class. She's helped get a small pot of state money so Richland County can expand on her work. One of its first moves - a community meeting at the local high school.

UNIDENTIFIED MODERATOR: OK, welcome. Thank you very much for being here this afternoon.

LUDDEN: Several dozen show up - elected officials, businessmen, dads, including two let out of rehab to be here. Moderators guide them in brainstorming sessions. What does a community with responsible fathers look like? What do you need to make that happen? At each table, groups of five or six hash out ideas and write them down.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Maybe like a football Little League program or, you know, something like that. And they know coach when they're real little and they still have respect for coach when they get older into high school.

LUDDEN: There's lots of dads involved and are visible at the games and coaching and...

Over at another the table, the question is how to make neighborhoods safe.

So do we need community policing - do we need an afterschool program? We want specifics here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: All of those - afterschool programs, definitely.

LUDDEN: The Ohio Commission on Fatherhood has led meetings like this in 17 counties. One used its seed money to start a father-child reading program in schools. Another hired its own fatherhood director. Richland County will hold more meetings in coming months, but the people here nailed down priorities to focus on - better communication between estranged moms and dads, showcasing men as leaders, improving employment.

UNIDENTIFIED MODERATOR 2: Give yourself a round of applause. What a great conversation.

(APPLAUSE)

LUDDEN: And why should a County involve itself in families like this?

RENEE THOMPSON: You cannot think about fatherhood in a vacuum.

LUDDEN: Renee Thompson's with Ohio State University in Mansfield and is helping lead this effort. She says you can link the lack of fathers at home to a whole host of problems that cost taxpayers money - mass incarceration, poor job skills, unemployment.

THOMPSON: By seeing men more engaged in the lives of their children, we're hoping that we'll see a decrease in delinquency. We're hoping that some character things will start to be instilled - responsibility, accountability - just helping young people understand. This is what it means to grow up.

LUDDEN: Jennifer Jennette of Community Action is hopeful too. Her group's been offering its own fatherhood classes for three years now and she sees the difference it can make.

JENNETTE: When you meet with someone in a prison, and they've got out and you're driving down the road and they're waving in their car, and their pointing because they have their kids with them? That's a success. Their proud to say I'm with my kids and I'm spending time with them.

LUDDEN: Every dad wants to be a good parent, she says - some just need a little help. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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