Group helps reconnect fathers with their children – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It looked like an everyday picnic, but it was actually a step toward reversing a national epidemic.

Gathered at the Camp David Lawrence pavilion at Schenley Park, the Fathers Involved Now network was hosting a raucous cookout Saturday. The organization is dedicated to reuniting fathers with children who have experienced emotional or behavioral problems, and nearly all the fathers and children at the picnic were African-American, reflecting a troubling trend.

In America today, more than half of all children live in single-parent families, according to the Kidscount Data Center, and for African-Americans, that rises to more than two-thirds.

In most cases, the custodial parents of the children at the picnic are the mothers — but that is beginning to change, said Ruth Fox, executive director of the Allegheny Family Network, the agency that sponsors the fathers’ group. “In situations where the moms and dads aren’t together, the dads are starting to get custody more and more,” she said. U.S. census figures show that currently, men make up about 18 percent of custodial parents.

Even when fathers get primary custody of their children, though, they often face obstacles, said Ms. Fox. “So Dad gets the kids ready to go to day care, and he’s asked, ‘Do you have a custody order?’ Or he’ll take his kids to the doctor, and right away, someone’s asking the kids, ‘Are you being sexually abused?’ and so we think we need to say we’ve got some good dads out there who really want to connect with their children and build a relationship with them. The goal is to raise up healthier, well-balanced children.”

One of the fathers who is active in the group is Damien McGraw, 38, who currently lives with his mother in Swissvale. He dotes on his son Damir, 9, who has autism. Mr. McGraw said he had lived with Damir’s mother for nearly 10 years, but after he lost his job at a dry cleaner and moved in with her, tensions between them escalated until he moved out last year.

Mr. McGraw officially gets custody of Damir every weekend, but right now, he has his son with him for the entire month. The Fathers Involved Now group, he said, has helped him learn how to show more patience and less anger toward his son’s mother, and it has sponsored events where Damir can be with him and play with other children.

The court and child welfare systems sometimes create unusual dilemmas for the men.

Antoine Hornbuckle, 39, of McKeesport wants to get full custody of his oldest daughter, Imane, 14, and the fathers’ group is helping him prepare for those court hearings. But he also has two younger children with his current wife. In order to strengthen his court case, he said, he has had to move out of their home and get his own apartment, because “they’ll want to see my name on the lease if I’m going to ask for custody.”

Imane, who was at the picnic, said she is willing to live with her dad if the court approves. “He is my dad. He has his rights, so I feel like I should give him a chance. It’s tough because my mom and dad don’t get along that much.

“For me to have to choose one person or the other is difficult, but it is what it is. Right now, I’m trying to earn trust and build a relationship with him the way my brother and sister have.”

The problem of absentee fathers is made all the worse when men are imprisoned. That story was reflected Saturday by two friends, Fathers Involved Now staffer Mark Copeland, 55, who spent eight years in the state penitentiary system for robbery, and the Rev. Eric Johnson, 56, who was Mr. Copeland’s prison guard at the State Correctional Institution Greene.

Rev. Johnson, who retired from the state prison system this year and pastors Jerusalem Baptist Church in Duquesne, said he was one of a handful of black guards at SCI-Greene, even though the prison population was 70 percent African-American.

He became friends with Copeland because he knew the prisoner’s mother from church activities, and they have been close since Copeland got out of prison in 2002.

Both men said that an absence of fathers in low-income families is a major ingredient in why young men end up in prison.

“When children are left to grow up in these ’hoods,” Rev. Johnson said, “they’re forced to deal with things that an adult would have a difficult time dealing with. These guys don’t become killers because that was their career choice. If you don’t have guidance from a father and you’re fearful for your own life, then you’re either going to protect yourself or become a victim, and most guys choose to protect themselves.”

That behavior also is driven by gangs, which become surrogate parents for young men, he said. “I’ve had guys come up to me and say ‘Man, if I’d had a father like you, I wouldn’t be in here.’ And that hurts.”

Copeland said one reason he works with fathers is because his own eight children grew up without him in their lives. “It tears the family apart” when fathers aren’t around, he said, and many of his own children are still bitter toward him. “When I worked before at Holy Family Institute, I would ask the boys there to write letters to their fathers, and they would say, ‘I don’t know my father. I don’t care about my father. My father left us.’ And that’s why they do the things they do.”

“What we’ve seen is that fathers are oftentimes not engaged with their families,” Ms. Fox said. “Children are growing up without knowing dad and not having that influence. I hear women say, ‘I’m the mother and the father,’ and I say, ‘No, you’re not — you’re never going to be the father.’ And when we looked at all the statistics, we realized that children really need their fathers. No matter what the relationship is between the mother and father, sometimes we have to learn to overcome that so the children can at least have some relationship with the dad.”

It’s what has become the driving force in Mr. McGraw’s life.

“Having Damir with me has been like a joyous occasion every day. I can’t get enough of him.”