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Program for `Welfare Dads' Aims to Get Them Working To Support Their Children

CHARLES ROY STRICKLAND JR. has something he hasn't had for a while: a steady job and a better relationship with his son. "We think we know how," he says of parenting. But he's learned some lessons in recent months.

Harrison Sampson is working in the same public-housing complex in Dayton, Ohio. "I have been learning a lot of things that I never knew before," he says.

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These two men are graduates of an antipoverty project with a twist. It's aimed at "welfare dads." The goal is to get them working again so they can contribute to their children's support.

"The whole history of welfare reform is focused on the mother of the children," says Gordon Berlin, senior vice president of the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC). "And we have spent so little time focusing on the father. It takes two incomes. ... That means taking a step back and asking: What can we do for the father?"

"These really are sort of pioneer programs," adds Nancy Ebb, a senior staff attorney with the nonprofit Children's Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. "It is certainly worth testing out."

The MDRC is trying out the concept in demonstration projects in nine states. Nationally, the program is called Parents' Fair Share. Here in Dayton, it's called Options for Parental Training and Support. So little is known about noncustodial fathers of poor children that the MDRC plans a more rigorous follow-up test next year. Child-support enforcement

The Dayton program has also worked to beef up enforcement of child-support laws. The county social-services division works closely with local courts to find fathers of children whose mothers are on welfare. Eight months into the program, the courts have located more than 500 dads who were not paying child support.

Nonpayment is a national embarrassment. Even when a court orders a father to pay support, only half pay the full amount. A quarter of the men pay nothing at all, Ms. Ebb says. In the case of welfare recipients and other families for whom the state is involved in seeking child support, the nonpayment rate rises to 80 percent, she adds.

So it's some measure of success that 125 of the 500 nonpaying fathers in Dayton have admitted they're earning income and have started paying support. Another 220 of them have gone through at least some phase of the family-training and job-readiness programs. They're encouraged to do so by the courts, which delay orders to pay child support while fathers are in the program.

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Finding jobs for the unemployed men is proving to be the biggest challenge. Only 36 have found jobs so far in the Dayton program. Dannetta Graves, administrator of Montgomery County's social-services division, thinks the program should have at least 56 participants working. "If we can put a quarter of them into jobs and then have another half of them in activities that will lead to jobs, that's how we would like to see our program progress," she says.

The biggest surprise of Parents' Fair Share is how quickly the fathers take to the program's peer-support meetings. "It has become the most powerful component of the program," MDRC's Mr. Berlin says. Dads' support groups

In Dayton, the men gather three times a week in a conference room for 90 minutes of give-and-take. On this particular Wednesday, peer-support coordinator Larry Jackson has 13 dads in a lively discussion about communicating with their wives.

He shows a videotape of a wife complaining that her husband stays out late with his friends. Mr. Jackson shows a segment where the husband justifies his tardiness. "How would you have handled that?" A few men support the wife's position. At least as many say that if their wives nagged them about staying out with friends, they'd walk out the door and stay out till morning.

Another scene from the tape: The parents aren't talking and their two sons begin to fight. Jackson has three of the fathers reenact the scene. It is playful, but he makes his point. If the parents don't communicate and solve the problem, it's their children who get hurt.

It's a startling pitch for dads who don't pay child support: Shape up for the sake of your children. It seems to be a powerful incentive, Graves says. "We get them involved with the children - not the ex[-spouse], but the children."

Many fathers care about their children but don't pay support because they can't, Berlin says. "It's important to realize how weak the men actually are. The women have AFDC [Aid to Families with Dependent Children] for a steady source of income."

Women can turn to the courts to try to get child support. If that doesn't work, they can try legal aid. Those resources are often not available to men, who may be tangled in difficult relationships with multiple families and with little income to contribute.

Irv Garfinkel, a visiting social-work professor at Princeton University in New Jersey, thinks that fathers aren't all that weak compared with their spouses. But "if the father can't find work," he says, "this [program] in effect offers an alternative."

The original programs were expected to spend $4,000 per person but are spending closer to $2,000. "In the realm of worker training, that's relatively cheap," Mr. Garfinkel says.

How effective are such programs? "I think what's happening is that most people aren't getting anything out of it and some people are getting a lot out of it," Garfinkel adds. "If it's true ... it doesn't mean that the program isn't successful. Maybe it's a good investment even if you're helping fewer than 36 [fathers]."

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