Fathers Find More in the Way of Support

Groups focus on issues, child care, and communication

By Sarah Tomlinson,  Globe Correspondent, Boston Globe,   4/29/2001

Alberto Ortego Jr. lives in Mission Hill with his 2-year-old daughter, her mother, and his 2-year-old twin sons by another woman. He works nights at a warehouse and sleeps when he is not on parental duty.

Two months ago, jobless, the 24-year-old dad entered Family Services of Greater Boston's Roxbury office to fill out a job application. Encouraged to attend its fathers group while there, he decided it couldn't hurt.

''I was at a point in my life where I hadn't worked for nearly two years and I was looking for, and needed, a change,'' he said.

Since joining the Boston Partners for Fragile Families group, which helped find his current job, he has learned to handle health insurance, legal issues like custody and visitation, and relationships with his children's mothers. He even shared his experience at the Governor's Commission on Responsible Fatherhood.

Programs for fathers have mushroomed as cities like Boston look at strengthening the relationships between noncustodial fathers and their children.

But the types of groups springing up travel two roads. Some like Boston Partners for Fragile Families help young, often impoverished fathers find jobs so they can help pay child costs and find more ways to be involved with their youngsters.

The other type of group focuses on a father's rights - fighting what their members, mostly divorced fathers, say is a strong anti-father bias in visitation, custodial, and child support battles inside family court. The more radical among them accuse feminists of launching a crusade against fathers.

For Dr. Ned Holstein, a physician and president of Boston-based Fathers and Families, fathers have not won enough rights, and government-funded groups for low-income fathers are simply ''Trojan horses for collecting child support.''

Holstein said he continues to build the organization he started in 1998, which has 1,800 members, 40 percent of whom are women, including second wives and grandmothers.

''Children have a right to have two parents actively in their lives,'' Holstein said. ''The institutions of society, the courts and executive agencies, put up large obstacles between fathers and children.''

This type of alleged bias is tough to document since Massachusetts does not keep a statewide record of custody decisions. Some 21,645 divorce petitions were filed last year statewide, according to Bill Ryan, the state Probate and Family Court's assistant administrator.

Meanwhile, according to the Alliance for Young Families in Boston, which advocates for teenage parents and tracked 40 fathers ages 15 to 25 in 1997 and 1998, young, low-income fathers are often overwhelmed by their new parenting roles.

The mothers often receive support because they have the baby, but fathers need help too, said alliance director Susan Lovelace. ''We've said to the dad, `You'd better pay up,''' said Lovelace, ''not `it's important that you learn to be a good parent - here are some programs that can help you participate in your child's life.'''

Boston Partners for Fragile Families works with 54 noncustodial fathers and is run by Family Services of Greater Boston, in partnership with Boston Healthy Start, the 10-Point Coalition in Boston, Children's Trust Fund and the state Department of Revenue's Child Support Enforcement Division, among others. It is funded with federal money and some private foundation dollars.

The peer support group talks about health, respect, and life skills, and appears popular with its participants, ages 16 to 25, according to Randal Rucker, the executive director of Family Services of Greater Boston.

''The majority of these young men welcome the opportunity to be responsible fathers and to deal with the barriers they are facing,'' said Rucker.

Haji Shearer, who runs two fathers groups, including Nurturing Fathers in Dorchester, has also seen services for fathers improve in the past decade. Nurturing Fathers has graduated about 40 men since 1998.

According to Shearer, fathers need their own groups because their experiences are different from those of mothers.

''A lot of times, the mom is in control, or if they are noncustodial, [the fathers] defer to the mom of their child,'' Shearer said. ''They need to validate that and understand that men do parent children differently, not better or worse, so they can respect that.''

Boston Healthy Start's Father Friendly Initiative offers help with substance abuse, joblessness, and education.

While helping fathers work with the revenue department to pay child support, the initiative's program manager, Stan McLaren, said fathers learn they have much to offer besides money. Participation in the child's life is most important, he said. ''Asking, `How are you doing in school?' Or helping with day care issues, these are things we try to incorporate.''

With more than two decades of perspective on the fallout of contentious divorce, Alfred G. Bonica, founder of Waltham-based Divorced Fathers for Action and Justice, said he believes dads are getting improved treatment now in custody cases.

''When I got my divorce 29 years ago, there was nothing out there,'' Bonica said. ''I didn't dare ask [for custody of my children] because it would have been a waste of time. Now there is a change.''

To further his group's goals, Holstein hired a professional fund-raiser and lobbyist, and hopes to raise money to become a full-fledged fathers advocacy group. Its agenda will include legislation to address what his group sees as family court inequities, a fathers defense fund, parenting classes, and more public education about the importance of fathers to their children's social and academic success.

Also fighting for an equal role in raising children is the Fatherhood Coalition, founded by noncustodial fathers in 1994. The coalition has 3,000 names on its mailing list but fewer members, according to founder Mark Charalambous.

He said that his group takes a more radical stance than most other fathers rights groups, including the notion that many women's claims of domestic abuse are false or often mask women's own abuse of men.

The viewpoint was publicized when Harry Stewart,a lay Christian minister and coalition member, was charged with abuse in 1998 in Quincy District Court after a restraining order dispute with his ex-wife.

The coalition also accuses the feminist movement of trying to turn society into a matriarchy.

''The war on fatherhood is a result of the feminist movement, and I don't think most fathers rights organizations would say this,'' Charalambous said.

Andrea Lee, president of the Boston Chapter of the National Organization for Women, said that while NOW supports fathers sharing parenting duties, the agendas of fathers rights movements concern NOW.

''We see them lashing back against changes in society, the change in roles between men and women, and a reaction to loss of power in their families,'' she said.

This story ran on page W1 of the Boston Globe on 4/29/2001.

Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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