Monday, September 14, 2009

Dads get help in this family program

Peel: Program received grant for support into 2010

Article Last Updated; Monday, September 14, 2009
Camaraderie mixes with angst as five men sit around a rectangular table, discussing their subject of mutual distress.

One of the men has rambled on for several minutes, first telling his good news about recent job advances, then launching into a somewhat troubling review of his recent dealings with his estranged wife. Abruptly he realizes he's hogging the spotlight. He stops his tirade and smiles.

Audio by John Peel

Interview with Kate Jones

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For more on the Promoting Responsible Fatherhood initiative, call Advocacy for La Plata at 375-1433.

For information about fatherhood, visit the Colorado Dads Web site

"Thank you," Richard Dilworth tells the group. "I feel better. ... This place has been a godsend."

This is the weekly meeting of the Promoting Responsible Fatherhood initiative, a unique program with a goal of keeping fathers involved in their kids' lives, no matter what their relationship with the mother becomes.

Social workers often witness a vicious cycle in custody cases: The father can't make a child-support payment and believes, or is told - erroneously - that he no longer can see his child. Once he loses touch with the child, he loses incentive to make payments.

"So many guys don't even know they have rights," says Kate Jones, who coordinates the program. "They assume since the mom gave birth to the child, she has all the rights."

The initiative is run by Advocacy for La Plata, a Women's Resource Center program headquartered above United Blood Services in Bodo Industrial Park. If sometimes these men feel like the blood is being squeezed out of them, at this meeting they know they're not alone. Not all estranged fathers, after all, are deadbeat dads.

"That's the big myth," Jones says. "There are (deadbeat dads). Just like there's deadbeat moms."

Almost all the fathers are voluntary participants, says Eve Presler, program director for Advocacy for La Plata. That's important because of the dads' buy-in. They're more likely to trust program workers and remain committed than if a court has ordered them to show up, she says.

It's a chance to get together with like-minded guys, Jones says, and they're also lured by the free pizza and pop.

Along with group facilitator Jason Spoo, a graduate of the program, the four men share their victories and frustrations and advice. The subjects vary, but one theme is consistent: None of the four is getting the desired access to their children.

Morgan Abbey, for example, last saw his son 33 days ago. The boy now is in Nebraska, and Abbey is in the process of trying to get visitation rights.

Jim Drumstas' two children spent part of the summer in Southwest Colorado, but they've gone back to Maine with their mother. Lawyers are involved, but from Drumstas' perspective, progress is slow and uncertain.

The 16-week-long sessions include instruction in various aspects of fatherhood. They learn about child behaviors, nutrition and relationship skills.

The Promoting Responsible Fatherhood initiative is not just the group meetings. Caseworkers deal individually with the fathers, helping them find jobs, going to court with them as advocates. Since its inception 2½ years ago, the initiative has served 150 fathers, about 96 percent of whom do not have custody.

Presler is excited that a recent $50,000 state grant will fund the program through at least September 2010. She's a big believer in fathers' rights. She's worked to decorate the walls with pictures of fathers and their kids; doctors' offices, she says, are notorious for having pictures only of mothers with kids.

In the meeting room, there's a poster on the wall titled, "Every Girl Every Boy." It's a list of myth-busters concerning men and women. One of the lines says:"For every girl who is tired of acting weak when she is strong, there is a boy tired of appearing strong when he feels vulnerable."

There's some macho-ness in the room, for sure, and they manage to joke about their serious issues, but the feelings are real. These men are sad, mad and stressed out. They need help, and they know it.

"They're very proud of what they've overcome," Kate Jones says. "These are the guys who want to be the best dads. And they typically end up being the best dads."

johnp@durangoherald.comJohn Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

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