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Government Explores New Ways to Hook Dads

ASSOCIATED PRESS

For years, states snatched driver’s licenses and put up “Most Wanted” posters, trying to get absent fathers to pay child support. Now they’re trying to hook the heart as well as the wallet.

Though the government has new tools to crack down on deadbeat parents, officials increasingly are concluding they’ll get only so far with threats. They want fathers involved with their kids’ lives.

The approach is both practical and philosophical. Children with involved fathers do better in school, are less likely to become teen parents and have fewer behavior problems. At the same time, involved fathers are more likely to pay support.

Some 1,000 fatherhood programs have popped up nationwide, and they have plenty of dads to reach: Nearly one in three children is born to unmarried parents, and about half of the children who start life with married parents see them separate or divorce.

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So far, there’s little evidence the new programs work. Not much rigorous research has been done, and the programs that have been evaluated have not achieved their lofty goals.

Still, many people believe the idea eventually will pay dividends, and future evaluations are planned. Supporters point to successes such as Derrick Dunn, who joined a Baltimore program that targets the partners of pregnant women.

“I wasn’t looking forward to fatherhood,” the 20-year-old admitted.

But in the months before his 1-year-old daughter, Breauna, was born, Dunn began attending fatherhood classes that began by exploring men’s often tenuous relationships with their own fathers. By the end, they took on stages of child development and how to change diapers.

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That program led Dunn to a job preparation program. He now has a job at a hotel front desk, ready and able to pay support.

But he doesn’t talk about the money. He talks about Breauna.

“I see her every day,” he said proudly.

The new emphasis is a subtle shift for the Department of Health and Human Services, which helps finance child support collection programs. HHS is now funding fatherhood involvement projects and encouraging states to incorporate positive messages in their efforts.

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“The best child support collector in the nation is the child,” said David Gray Ross, who saw the damage of absentee fathers in 26 years as a family court judge in Prince Georges County, Md., and who now heads HHS’ child support division. “When the child looks up and says ‘Daddy, can I have a new pair of shoes?’ that’s a pretty good incentive.”

But Wade Horn, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, is wary of programs that work to get Dad involved if the real goal is financial.

“If it’s just a trick to get them to pay as much money as possible, they’ll figure it out,” Horn said.

Others have the opposite concern, arguing that child support agencies should not stray too far from their central mission.

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“I’m concerned about diverting too many resources into some untested waters,” said Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center. “The system is woefully inadequate right now for what Congress wants it to do, which is collect child support.”

HHS is hardly abandoning bill collecting. The 1996 welfare law gave the government new tools to crack down on deadbeat parents. Just last month, President Clinton signed a law making it a felony to cross state lines to evade support.

In 1997, states collected a record $13.4 billion in court-ordered support payments, up 63% in five years. Still, an estimated $7 billion remains uncollected each year, plus $40 billion owed from past years.

Other HHS efforts include planning a public service campaign that includes positive messages and giving states $10 million for mediation between parents, fatherhood classes and visitation drop-off centers where children can change hands without parental confrontation.

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HHS and the Ford Foundation also are developing a program to get child support agencies to join with community groups to establish paternity, find work for fathers and create parenting plans.

The programs look for fathers like Dorian Miller of Racine, Wis.

A court directed Miller to a fatherhood program after his child support bill topped $1,000. He has learned how to spend time with his 3-year-old son, even if it’s just watching TV cartoons together.

“I can look at him now,” he said, “and know I’m giving him the attention that he needs.”

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