Boy Talk, Too

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While the girls' groups have been busy caucusing, sewing on merit badges and powering around the Internet, the boys in the fatherhood field (along with their women allies) have been hard at work trying to connect the money to the practitioners. Just a dozen years ago the poor young men at the vortex of national social policy efforts were dealt with as either Happy Pappy's leaning on a shovel in a federal make-work program, or potentially dangerous dead-beat dads whose past sperm donor role only entitled them to pay child support or draw ample face time with a judge and jail, not with their child.

Minnesota claims the paternal rights to contemporary services for low-income young, never-married noncustodial fathers. Tene' Jones Heidelberg and Neil Tift, soon to emerge as leaders of the National Practitioners Network for Fathers and Families (NPNFF), helped launch the Fathers' Resource Center in 1991.

Since then, Jones Heidelberg (known until her recent marriage as Ten Jones), NPNFF's first chair, and those working in similar groups (estimated by optimists at up to 1,200 nationwide) have found powerful allies in government and philanthropy. In this, the poverty sector of a much larger fatherhood field, early leadership and media attention centered largely on the then Cleveland-based Charles Ballard.

His staff-intensive and comparatively expensive program grew, with Ford Foundation support, into the national Institute for Responsible Fatherhood and Family Revitalization (IRFFR). But Ballard's union with Ford's Senior Program Officer Ron Mincy, and architect of its Strengthening Fragile Families Initiative, was set asunder by marriage itself. Ballard, a devout Seventh Day Adventist and ex-con, is as keen on marriage as are those Ballard allies who could be characterized as the more conservative wing of the fatherhood movement.

This wing, whose prominent leaders include former Bush administration child welfare official Wade Horn (now president of the National Fatherhood Initiative) and Ken Canfield (president of the Shawnee Mission, Kans.-based National Center for Fathering) are less interested in absentee child support and more focused on strengthening dads' positive role in child-rearing, preferably within an authentic marriage.

Mincy (trained as an economist), along with those in fatherhood's progressive wing, takes a more pragmatic and ambivalent approach toward the marriage contract - and is happy to settle for regular child support, along with establishing and strengthening emotional ties between a father and his children. That orientation is more palatable with the skittish national womens' advocacy groups, who view all policy talk about noncustodial fathers beyond checkbook diplomacy with a jaundiced eye. Fears explicitly center on domestic violence and visitation issues and implicitly are seen as a challenge to the mothers-know-best policy positions of liberal national womens' groups.

By 1997, with the marriage of convenience to Ballard on the rocks, Mincy (representing Ford) and others among the four philanthropic members of the ad hoc Funders Collaborative on Fathers and Families (now enfolded into the Exploratory Learning Circle of the D.C.-based Grantmakers for Children, Youth & Families) were casting about for a better and more flexible philosophical match. Ready to accommodate was Jeff Johnson, a respected - but to many, self-important - veteran of several youth development and employment and training organizations who set up a nonprofit in D.C. in 1996. True to his reputation for verbosity, he dubbed it the National Center for Strategic Nonprofit Planning and Community Leadership (NCSNPCL).

Soon Mincy's Fragile Families Initiative was male-bonding with Johnson's NCSNPCL to the tune, to date (according to Mincy) of $13 million, while Ballard's outfit seemed headed for the ranks of dead-broke dads.

The National Practitioners Network for Father and Families (NPNFF) traces its patrimony back to a 1994 Father Re-engagement Roundtable meeting in Nashville hosted by Vice President Gore. There, 30 participants (including the Twin Cities' Jones Heidelberg) formed an informal support network. That task was made oh-so-painless by two gentlemen in attendance: Ford's Mincy and Ralph Smith, a senior official of the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation. By June 1995 those two funders of low-income fatherhood programs - plus the Mott and Danforth foundations - had helped the Nashville practitioners found the NPNFF. Staffing the new operation was Ed Pitt, senior research associate and co-director of the Fatherhood Project at New York's Families and Work Institute, headed by Ellen Galinsky. In June 1997, with Ballard's star setting and Johnson's rising, the NRNFF staff responsibilities - and the foundation funds - moved to Johnson's D.C. shop. In June 1998, NPNFF's first elected membership board, again led by Jones Heidelberg, took office. Slated in the minds of many to lead the largely African-American national operation was NPNFF board member Joe Jones, president of Baltimore's top-notch Center for Fathers, Families and Workforce Development. But Jones had second thoughts, while NPNFF had Preston Garrison waiting in the wings. In November 1998, Garrison, who is white, became NPNFF's executive director, and soon the group severed financial ties to Johnson's high-overhead NCSNPCL.

Today the NPNFF is a well established $350,000-per-year operation with a D.C. office of three staff. In Garrison, the NPNFF has found a sure-footed manager with a national perspective. He spent 14 years with the National Mental Health Association (NMHA) in Atlanta and Florida before becoming the national executive director of NMHA for seven years, ending in 1992. The NPNFF claims 200 dues-paying members and has a 21-member board chaired by Jerry Hamilton, the Racine, Wis.-based manager of children, youth and family services of Goodwill Industries of Southeastern Wisconsin and Metropolitan Chicago. Garrison succeeded Jones Heidelberg, now the director of Women Venture in St. Paul. Her former colleague Tift, also a NPNFF board member, now works as director of the National Resource Center at Horn's Gaithersburg, Md., NFI headquarters.

While life as an unmarried young father can be a lonely and impoverishing experience, such has not been the case for NPNFF. Just two decades ago a practitioner group like NPNFF would have struggled for years for its place in the social welfare sun. Most national affinity groups withered (many deservedly so) or were quickly captured directly by a federal agency bearing a major grant, or indirectly by a contractor beefing up the corporate capability statement, while not coincidentally hampering access to practitioners by its business rivals. That to date has been the fate of the National Girls' Caucus (see above). But in today's world, ever more corpulent foundations (who in 1998 donated $22.8 billion to nonprofits) can, either individually or through cooperative ventures, quickly grow a national organization without the pain, low and missed paychecks or career sacrifice that once was the unenviable lot of practitioner pioneers. But that was then. Now, NPNFF's immediate past president Jones Heidelberg can say of foundations, "They treated us very well."

So NPNFF's fortunate founding fathers and mothers find themselves in a pampered niche with new funders such as General Mills and Freddie Mac joining the Father's Day parade on behalf of impoverished fathers. In January NPNFF began publishing The Practitioner four times a year for its members. In late April the group collaborated with the Family Resource Coalition of America (FRCA general counsel Kirk Harris serves on the NPNFF board) at FRCA's annual conference in Chicago. Its next major training event, the mid-September North American Conference in Durham, N.C., on Fathers Behind Bars and on the Streets is jointly sponsored with the Palmyra, Va.-based Family and Corrections Network directed by James Mustin.

Is this as good as it going to get for the NPNFF, Johnson's NCSNPCL, Ballard's IRFFR and the thousand-plus projects already operating at the local level? Maybe.

Despite the largess of foundations toward the national nonprofits, the "fathering movement," as these groups like to call themselves, had nearly stalled out until rescued by the 1996 Welfare Reform Bill. Some of the funds appropriated by Congress to make Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) palatable to political centrists of both parties went into the Welfare to Work (WtW) program. Huge grants from the Department of Labor rescued many groups, among them Ballard's, which received $5.7 million to essentially carry on the same six local projects Ford had once funded.

To survive "the next stage of development," says Garrison, the field must successfully address sustainability. For evidence look no further than Minneapolis' Fathers' Resource Center, which declared bankruptcy in December. To that end, fatherhood groups across the ideological spectrum have gotten behind the $140 million-per-year Fathers Count Act, which passed the House in 1999 and has since languished for lack of real interest in the Senate Finance Committee. Targeted for $5 million apiece in the legislation are Ballard, Horn and Garrison's national operations. But even a symbolic "Sense of the Senate" resolution, co-sponsored by Sens. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), failed to win approval in late March. Says Garrison of its prospects of Senate passage, "It needs a champion." Horn, obviously a major supporter of the Fathers Count Act, underscores his group's legislative support for benefits to fathers of any socioeconomic status when he says, "We don't have a father to spare in this country." That's not the legislative view of men's programs that is embraced by many national women's groups, led by the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. The showdown may come at a Senate hearing scheduled for May.

In an effort the elevate the debate above the your-mother-wears-combat-boots level, the reportedly exacerbated Mincy and his Ford colleague, Helen Neuborne, made the two factions huddle together in a meeting dubbed, "Reaching Common Ground: A Day of Continued Dialog." Thus far the common ground remains elusive, but the two genders are in there trying. The meetings were promoted as a way to break down perceptions of what is a "women's issue" and what is a "men's issue."

Taking the lead on a possible compromise position are David Pate, director of the Center for Fathers, Families and Public Policy in Madison, Wis., and Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women's Law Center in D.C. Pate termed the meetings "very helpful for everyone."

Notes Duff Campbell, the Common Ground search "is much broader than any one piece of legislation."

With Mincy scheduled to leave Ford for Princeton University, the fathers' groups need for a champion will become acute.

Might we suggest Juan Miguel Gonzalez, who (unless you blame him for Fulgencio Batista's overthrow in 1958 or for being Cuban, male and poor) is a model fatherhood figure guaranteed to get massive attention on Capitol Hill as the Fathers' Count star witness. Then Senate opponents could counter with a Great Uncle's Count-trumping amendment, or even a Great Aunts Count Act, sure to win over opponents of the now in-limbo Fathers Count Act.