Programs to Help Fathers Know Best

Times Staff Writer

Niko Hatzakis, 25, talks about the past year he's spent raising his 4-year-old son, Nikolaos: "Not only do I have to be the breadwinner, but I have to take care of him, clean the house, make sure dinner's ready, make sure he's in school on time all dressed up and make sure medical attention is given to him . . . .

"I feel he's comfortable now and I am, too. But sometimes I feel uncomfortable. . . . It's a big responsibility."

Hatzakis of Lawndale, who works part-time as an electrician while taking a six-month course in medical equipment repair, became a full-time parent last year when his former girlfriend released his son to him.

She was a high school junior living with Hatzakis when she became pregnant. Her parents had not objected to their living together, although Hatzakis now wishes they had.

She had had an abortion once before, and Hatzakis didn't want her to do it again. (According to one study of male partners in teen-age pregnancies, the fathers were 83% successful in influencing the resolution of the pregnancy.)

She wanted to marry, but Hatzakis thought he was too young. He's changed his mind since then. But so has she. Now, she is married to someone else and sees her son Mondays and Tuesdays. The rest of the week, Nikolaos attends a day care center at the Youth and Family Center in Lawndale while his father works and goes to school.

'Better Off Somewhere Else'

"She had a lot of things on her mind and thought he was better off somewhere else," Hatzakis explained. "I guess I have just as much right to him as she does."

While many fathers try to escape responsibility, or even deny paternity, more than half the partners of adolescent mothers become involved through marriage--28% are already married at conception and 26% marry as a result--according to the Guttmacher Institute. Hatzakis, though not a husband, said he did not want to miss out on being a father.

"Guys want to get involved with their children," said Amy Williams, director of San Francisco's Teen-age Pregnancy and Parenting Project (TAPP), one of two model programs in the state (eight in the nation) offering comprehensive services to teen-age fathers as well as mothers. However, Williams added, most young fathers don't know what to do.

Forty percent, said Williams, drop out of school. "These guys get real low-paying kinds of jobs, so they can begin to feel good about being a breadwinner. That's a role they understand they need to do."

In the TAPP program, fathers join groups to discuss job opportunities as well as to learn about prenatal care, childbirth and child development. Early findings of a pioneer study funded by the Ford Foundation, which sponsors eight programs for young fathers nationally, show that teen-age mothers receive better prenatal care and have fewer low-birth weight children when fathers give their support throughout the pregnancy and birthing process, said Williams.

Establish Paternity

Counselors such as Williams also urge young fathers to establish paternity--even though it costs about $400--as soon as possible. Down the road, proven paternity could mean access to the child for the father, child support for the mother or inheritance for the child, said Williams.

Until recently, most young fathers have been less impressed with their rights as a parent than with their responsibilities. Once they hear the news, many become fearful they may be arrested, sued or forced into marriage. "Rights are something (fathers) don't think through until they're adults," said Williams.

(However, more young fathers whose children were relinquished for adoption without their consent are now demanding custody rights, said Winfield Payne, a Riverside attorney representing Michael U., a 19-year-old whose quest for custody of his two-year-old son, relinquished for adoption by the mother, is being decided by the California Supreme Court.)

Hatzakis does not have custody of his son. But, he said, "I want him to be with me from here on out.

"I basically love my child a lot. A little boy definitely needs his dad. When he grows up, he's going to have a family of his own. If his dad left him, he'd do the same to his kids."

A 20-year-old father living in Santa Ana with his newborn son and 14-year-old girlfriend, the boy's mother, explains it this way: "I gotta take care of my son no matter if we eat beans one night and beans the next night and beans the next night. I come from a home with a lot of drugs. There was nothing to eat. So I had to leave at 14. I didn't have nobody to love me. . . .

"There's no way I'm going to throw my son's life away. . . . I look at him and it's like me I'm looking at."

Nurturing Parent Figure

"The saddest part is when you hear kids say there was never a nurturing parent figure in their family. So much of parenting is modeling," said Gail Nathanson, executive director of the Youth and Family Center in Lawndale, operated under the auspices of the Centinela YWCA, whose Early Parenting Program for pregnant and parenting teen-agers is the state's other model program for teen-age fathers. "When you have no model for being nurturing, it's very hard to turn around when you're 14 and be a nurturing parent to your own child."

The Early Parenting Program is also considered a prevention program for child abuse and neglect, said Nathanson. Child abuse, often associated with teen-age parents, is actually less related to age than to the parents' own family background, according to pediatrician Adele Hofmann, editor of the textbook "Adolescent Medicine." Nevertheless, according to Nathanson, "There are many factors that lead up to their vulnerability to become abusive parents. . . . So many of our adolescents experience terrible emotional deprivation and economic deprivation. They themselves come from a background of abuse and neglect. In addition, you're adding on the fact of actual immaturity in years."

Each year, Nathanson said, the male partners of about 35 of the 75 pregnant teen-agers in the program become involved and stay involved through the birth of their children. But generally, after six months, they began to fall away dramatically, she said.

Difficulty of Discipline

Hatzakis is one who has stayed around.

The hardest part of parenting, he said, has been discipline. "I've learned when I need help just to go there (the Youth and Family Center) instead of taking it out on Nikolaos," he said.

He calls single fatherhood "challenging and fun." He has taught Nikolaos to call him "Dad" instead of "Nick," and he is teaching him a few words of Greek, the language of his parents.

Before his son came to live with him, Hatzakis said he wasn't really "into" being a father. "I was just doing my own thing." Full-time fathering, he said, "made me grow up real fast. It made me think about my future, where I'll be next year and five years from now.

"Every father owes it to his child to make sure they get the best in life."

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