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June 19, 1999
Column #929


     "We set our sights high.  We want to mobilize the entire country. We want to affect every sector in America that can increase the number of kids raised by committed fathers," said Don Eberly, Chairman of the National Fatherhood Initiative at its Urban Summit this week.

     The need is an aching one. For 25 million American kids, Father's Day will hurt, because their dad does not live in their home.  Four of   ten of them haven't seen their fathers in at least a year.  Fifty percent have never been in their father's home.

     There are two jet engines propelling fatherless in America.   One is divorce, "an oddly neglected topic in a nation that has the worst record of broken marriages in the entire world," as George Gallup puts it.  A million kids a year see their parents divorce, and half of them will see a second divorce by the time they are 18.

     Two-thirds of divorces are filed by women, and fathers are often devastated by it.

     "Mothers fare better after than divorce than men," said Kent Earnhardt, a divorced attendee at the Summit. "Suicide rates for divorced men are five times higher than for married men and the rate is higher for divorced men than divorced women. We don't hear about depressed dads who've been left feeling powerless. It leads to depression. That's how you feel when someone divorces you and you have no say-so.

     "We lose the emotional support of being around our kids." (Earnhardt moved into a small apartment across from the school his kids attend so that he could see them daily.)

     The larger engine driving fatherlessness is out-of-wedlock births that totaled 1.2 million in 1997, a third of all births, and 69 percent of all black children.  This is by far, the tougher issue and was the focal point of the Summit.  There is one bit of good news.  After soaring relentlessly year after year, rising 10-fold from only 125,000 in 1946, the number of illegitimate births stopped rising in 1995, and remained level in 1996 and 1997.

     Few Summit speakers had any idea about how to reverse the trend or increase the marriage rate of parents of inner city kids.  One remarkable exception was Charles Ballard, who fathered a son out-of-wedlock four decades ago, and went to prison for an assault where he made a commitment to Christ. That prompted him to adopt his son after he left prison, though he did not even have a high school diploma.

     But having that son motivated him to get his GED, then to go to college while pressing pants at a dry cleaners, and even to get a Master's Degree.   At a Cleveland city hospital where he saw many unwed mothers, he asked them if he could speak with the fathers.  He persuaded hundreds of them to take responsibility for their children, as he had done. 

     That was the genesis of what is now the National Institute for Responsible Fatherhood and Family Revitalization. He told the Summit, "We hire married couples to run our program, train them and put them into high-risk communities where they buy homes. That is commitment to the community."

     As a result, more than 3,000 men who had abandoned their children, reconnected with them, motivating most of them, as it did Ballard, to get more education and better jobs, to support them. With that experience, Ballard had a few more things to tell the Summit:

     "God wants men to get married. We must support them, or be anti-God. I was amazed when a barber said, `I have two daughters.  In three months I've worked full-time, 14 hours a day and give half my income to my children.' 

     "We have to change a man's heart, first.  Our families model love and compassion. We take our married couples and seed the community with them. We are turning the hearts of the fathers to their children." (Malachi 4:6)

     My question to black, inner city churches is this, "Why can't you become a similar constructive force for marriage? Why can't the married couples of your churches make a case for chastity outside of marriage, and teach children, men and women the value of marriage?"

     In 1950, only 15 percent of black children were born out-of-wedlock.

     Charles Ballard quoted Deuteronomy to his secular audience:

     "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up."

     If African-American churches taught that message, they could push illegitimacy and divorce rates back down, as they move men and women to marry.

Copyright 1999 Michael J. McManus.

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