Milwaukee Tries to Help Keep Low-Income Fathers in the Lives of their Children

October 20, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

In Milwaukee, they’re taking on one of the most intractable problems Americans face anywhere in the country – keeping low/no-income fathers in the lives of their children. Here’s an excellent article on the subject (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 10/11/14).

Among African-Americans generally, some 70% of children are born to unmarried mothers. Many have pointed out that that’s a prescription for disaster. Daniel Patrick Moynihan did so almost 50 years ago and it’s hard to claim he was wrong. The many personal and social deficits children raised without fathers tend to exhibit burden the African-American community to a degree matched only by that out-of-wedlock childbearing figure. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the country is following that lead. Over 40% of births are now to unmarried women. The all-too-predictable results are increases in a variety of anti-social and self-destructive behaviors.

But apparently in Milwaukee, things are especially bad. The article focusses on Milwaukee’s infant mortality crisis, but that’s just the tip of a very large iceberg comprised of violence, crime, drugs, unemployment, incarceration, lack of education and the like. Too many people there are stuck in poverty with no way out. Single-mother childbearing essentially ensures they and their kids will stay stuck.

In Milwaukee, babies die during their first year of life at rates associated with the Third World. Last year, 117 babies died in the city. Black babies in the city are nearly three times more likely to die than white babies. The three-year rolling average for black infant deaths climbed for the fourth year in a row, from 14.6 deaths for every 1,000 live births in 2010-’12 to 15.6 in 2011-’13. That’s worse than Libya and Cuba and the Ukraine.

The new numbers were discouraging for public health experts, who consider the infant mortality rate to be an essential indicator of a community’s well-being.

"It’s the canary in the coal mine," says Geoffrey Swain, chief medical officer for the Milwaukee Health Department and a professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

In Milwaukee, infant deaths are concentrated in a handful of ZIP codes where poverty, unemployment and crime are high. In the ZIP code where Simon and Tyler lived while Simon was pregnant, 53212, the infant mortality rate among minorities for 2009-’11 was 18.5 deaths per 1,000 births, meaning nearly two of every hundred babies died before their first birthday.

Previous efforts to rein in Milwaukee’s infant mortality rate have focused on services for mothers: increasing access to prenatal care, treating underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, and reducing behaviors such as smoking and unsafe sleeping arrangements.

But four new programs target a less conventional group: African-American men.

Of course, efforts concentrating on mothers were a good idea, but by themselves proved insufficient to combat the problem. The simple truth is that connecting fathers with their children is a necessary part of any program that aims to improve not just infant mortality rates, but all aspects of children’s lives.

Since 2009, the Wisconsin Partnership Program at the UW medical school has invested $10 million in the Lifecourse Initiative for Healthy Families. The targets of the money: Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha and Beloit, which account for roughly 90% of African-American births in the state.

In 2013, after years of planning, each community launched a handful of programs to address infant mortality, each with an academic partner to evaluate its effects. Of the 12 programs now funded in Milwaukee, the four father-focused programs are receiving $1.25 million, more than half the total grant money coming to the city. The rationale behind that commitment is a growing body of research that identifies chronic stress as a primary factor in preterm birth, which is the leading cause of infant mortality. And that high degree of stress is associated with a web of biological and environmental factors, including violence, poverty, discrimination — and father involvement.

"Until now, we’ve been sadly and inappropriately dismissive of the role of the father in birth outcomes," said Nicole Angresano, vice president of community impact for United Way of Greater Milwaukee. The agency is responsible for implementing the Milwaukee Lifecourse programs…

"Public health efforts, especially those employing new or innovative strategies, sometimes require a leap of faith," said Angresano, of the United Way. "But what’s the alternative? Previous efforts to reduce infant mortality haven’t worked. We cannot continue to focus only on the health care of the expectant mother."

That’s an understanding that it’s taken policymakers far too long to come to. It should have been obvious all along, but for reasons I can only guess at, fathers in this situation have had the same status as they’ve had everywhere else – at best second fiddle, more often unwanted interloper. From birth hospitals to divorce courts to child protective services to adoption laws and on and on, fathers count themselves lucky if they’re afterthoughts.

Sadly, that often includes the mothers of their children, and that’s where the otherwise fine article fails. It’s also where the various programs in Milwaukee may be failing as well. It’s necessary to give attention to underemployed mothers and fathers. But if that attention doesn’t include the many ways in which mothers govern fathers’ involvement, or lack thereof, in their children’s lives, then we’ll be just spinning our wheels.

The response single mothers, particularly those at or near poverty, give to encouragement to keep fathers in their children’s lives is that the fathers aren’t worth having. It’s an argument that, in many cases isn’t easy to dismiss. After all, if a father doesn’t have a job, is involved in crime, uses illicit drugs, drinks too much and knows and cares little about caring for his child, what exactly is his allure? Not much.

But of course if we connect him to his child, if we teach him sound parenting techniques, he can at least provide free childcare. That would assist Mom in finding and keeping work. Her care of the child would do the same for him. With any luck, both would find gainful employment and both could care for the child. But even if only one had a job, the other could be there for their little one and, after all, that’s how millions of families approach caring for their children – one person works while the other stays home with the kids.

But that’s not how people tend to do things. As Harvard researcher Kathryn Edin learned from her analysis of data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being study, both mothers and fathers in those fragile families tend to view parenting as a “package deal.” The “package” is mother and child and Edin’s key finding is that, whatever else may be true, mother and child remain together.

So if Mommy wants another man in her life, the child doesn’t go along with Daddy, it stays with Mommy and Mommy’s new partner. The problem with that is that boyfriends aren’t nearly as connected to little Andy or Jenny as is Daddy. They may be interested in Mommy for a time, but the children are generally unimportant to them. And of course child abuse by boyfriends is far more common that child abuse by fathers.

Edin learned that even the poorest and youngest of fathers is strongly interested in the role of father and finds great personal satisfaction in it. She interviewed young men who felt that their ability to guide, nurture and mentor their children gave them a value, a calling that nothing else does or can. But if Mommy doesn’t want them around because they don’t have a job, then their child doesn’t have a father.

That type of maternal gatekeeping exists irrespective of how many pro-father programs are available. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for those programs because they can make better fathers and some of those dads will end up playing real parts in their children’s lives. But by themselves, they’ll never solve the problem of fatherlessness. To do that, we need to educate both men and women about the importance of fathers – not just father figures — to children. We need to explain to both that the child isn’t the mother’s, it’s both of theirs. Men and women both need to understand that fathers aren’t optional. And if that means Mom doesn’t get to move from man to man, then so be it. And if it means that Dad doesn’t get to behave like an overgrown teenager all his adult life, then that too is the way it is.

We’d do well to start inculcating those values in people very early in life. Yes, sometimes divorce is necessary and yes, sometimes an adult simply isn’t fit care for a child. But the rule should be that if adults have a child, those adults should care for it, support it and be responsible for it. Divorce should be a last resort and, if it comes to that, shared parenting afterward should be the rule, not the exception.


National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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