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May 3rd, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Gradually, people are getting the message.  The message is that fathers matter to children.  The message is that fathers aren’t bad guys, unconcerned about their kids, incompetent at childcare or a threat.  The message is that, overwhelmingly, fathers love their children and want to be part of their lives.  The message is that, with a dad children almost always do better than without one.  The message is that the causes of fatherlessness have far more to do with anti-father attitudes and institutions than with irresponsible fathers.  Gradually comes the dawn.

This article’s subject is a good example (The Daily Item, 5/1/12).  It’s nothing but a report on a few speeches at a luncheon given every year to increase awareness of child abuse.  No big deal, right?  In most cases, probably so, but in this one a director of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families showed every indication that he “gets it.”

Fathers need and deserve to play a key role in rebuilding families fractured by relationship breaks, substance abuse and mental illness, a state Children and Families Department director told local social service workers Monday.

“Fathers, even if they’re not in the home, can make a difference and that difference is measurable,” state Director of Fatherhood Engagement Fernando Mederos said Monday.

If you’re like me, when you read those words you just knew what the next ones would be.  We’d read the same empty exhortations to fathers to “man up” and take responsibility.  We’d be told that the problem of fatherlessness is nothing more than the problem of feckless, uncaring fathers.  End of story.  Indeed, had it been President Obama delivering the speech, that’s probably exactly what he would have said.  After all, that’s the message straight from his own website.

But Mederos knows better and wasn’t afraid to say it.

Mederos acknowledged “a legacy of shunning fathers” by the state Department of Children and Families and other state agencies during Monday’s breakfast in the Housing Authority community room.

Mederos said spousal differences, unemployment and other problems separate men from their children and their children’s mothers, but he said “99 percent of men have a real strong and deep vision of wanting to be a great father.”

“We have to accept that a lot of fathers not living at home are not bad guys,” he said.

He’s right of course.  As the Urban Institute has told us in its 2006 study, state child welfare agencies routinely ignore fathers as a placement possibility for children when they’re taken from their mothers due to abuse or neglect.  Kudos to Mederos for admitting that the Bay State has done exactly that.  And kudos as well for admitting that it’s not usually fathers who are to blame for fatherless children.

Now, of course he sketches too quickly.  Nowhere does he mention family laws or family courts in his list of forces keeping fathers and children apart.  Custody orders favoring mothers, visitation orders that go unenforced, adoption statutes that bend heaven and earth to cut fathers out of children’s lives, child support laws that make criminals out of indigent fathers, etc., etc. all get a pass.  But in fairness, Mederos wasn’t talking about that part of the fatherlessness problem; he was talking about child welfare agencies and he did so honestly and in a way that can lead to improved practices.

Others agreed.

Jack Doyle, office director for the Lynn office of DCF, said the agency and others responsible for aiding children have focused in the past, in many instances, on helping mothers and children.

Doyle said Children and Families is responsible for assisting families referred to the agency by police officers or school officials. Doyle said agency workers initially take steps to ensure the safety of the children in a family. The next step is to connect the family to support services and relatives who can help the family.

“We haven’t thought to bring fathers in until the last several years,” Doyle said.

I won’t dwell on the amazing strangeness of that last remark.  They didn’t think “to bring fathers in?”  Maybe someone would like to explain why not.  Maybe someone would like to acquaint the State of Massachusetts with the fact that fathers have parental rights that are constitutionally protected against infringement by states.

But for now, I’ll confine myself to being glad they’re now including fathers in the process of child placement and the fact that they admit the error of their past ways.  Good for them.

I count it as no small thing when a director of a state child welfare agency says the things that Mederos said and when a county-level official agrees.  That’s progress.  It’s another marker on the road to recognition of fathers and their value to their children.

I’ve been doing this since 1998, and I tell you, back then, the words spoken by Mederos and Doyle would never, never have been uttered.  The cause of fathers’ rights to children and children’s rights to fathers is not a revolution but an evolution.  It’s gradual.  It requires the changing, not merely of laws, but of deeply-ingrained attitudes about men, women, children, fathers, mothers and their appropriate roles in society.  Those things don’t change overnight, nor should they.  They require the understanding and acceptance – not merely the acquiescence – of everyday people.  The good news is that, when change is gradual and it comes, not simply as laws issued by political elites, but with the broad approval of people from all walks of life, it lasts.

I’ll say that’s what we’re witnessing in the cultural shift toward fathers and their value to children.  One small luncheon in Massachusetts showed that as well as anything.

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