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March 7th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
In New Zealand, law and public policy are designed to keep young fathers apart from their children.  That’s the explicit message of this article (Stuff.co, 3/4/12).

The 15-year-old Liam Brady was into drugs, gangs and petty crime. But a year later when he became a father he left all that behind.

“I didn’t want that influence around my son,” he said.

He lost a few friends and his own parents along the journey but never expected to be hampered in his ability to start his own family.

Even with a huge shakeup of social welfare announced last week, strict rules around government support for teenage parents means Liam and his partner Sheridan are better off financially if they live apart and raise their young son separately. If they lived together as a family Sheridan would not be eligible for the Domestic Purposes Benefit.

Amazingly, that’s exactly what the United States did with its welfare system back in the 1960s and 70s.  In order to qualify for Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a mother couldn’t have a man in the house with her and the kids.  In other words, the government paid the mother to keep the dad away.  That explicitly encouraged the marginalization of poor fathers in the lives of their children.  Many still regard the AFDC rules as greatly responsible for the wholesale breakdown of African-American families that still plagues us today.

But that was then and this is now.  We know a lot more about young and poor fathers than we did in the 1960s, and what we know is that they have a passionate devotion to their children and often see the kids as their “higher calling.”  So Harvard sociologist Kathryn Edin’s studies show that young, poor, single fathers often see their role in their children’s lives as protecting them from the dangerous world they themselves have inhabited.

One look at what Liam Brady said about his past reflects the same thing.  He left drugs and gangs behind specifically because of his child.  That’s healthy for both Liam and his son, but apparently the New Zealand government wants no part of it.  It’s designed certain benefits for single mothers only and that carrot means that fathers are shoved out of their children’s lives.

Predictably, those in the know, those who understand the value of fathers to children bemoan the regulations.

Allan Johnson of the Child Poverty Action group said the policies amounted to a sort of reverse social engineering. “The reality is there is an incentive to live separately which seems rather ludicrous really.”

Brady is one of thousands of teenage parents who want a part in their children’s lives, and could turn around their own lives in the process, but are hampered by inadequate support and ongoing marginalisation, according to agencies.

A recent Families Commission report into teenage pregnancy said government policies designed to help young parents can actually make their lives more difficult.

“Many young mothers and fathers would like to live together to build a family but the financial cost of doing so is a disincentive,” the report said…

Agencies, counsellors and researchers spoken to by the Sunday Star-Times all expressed their disappointment at the marginalisation of a key part of a young family – the father.

About a third of all children born to teen mothers have a father under the age of 20. Research shows that teenagers who become fathers are more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds and are more likely to have low socio-economic status and low participation in education and/or employment.

Social Development Minister Paula Bennet has highlighted that teenage fathers were often overlooked. “We want young dads to be responsible and nurturing parents, so it’s vital they receive effective support and guidance.”

While the 2010 Budget invested $730,000 over four years in the development of parenting support to teenage fathers, change is slow to come.

That about says it, doesn’t it?  $730,000 over four years to educate teen fathers about fatherhood and support them in their efforts to be good dads, looks like an accurate estimate of the value placed on those fathers by New Zealand society.  It’s about $180,000 per year - not enough to make the slightest difference.  Meanwhile it’s paying young mothers to stay separate from the fathers of their children.  It’s a kind of evil genius at work doing exactly the opposite of what the country should do.

Families Commission principal policy analyst Nita Zodgekar said the situation had to be viewed in the sense of helping two generations of young people. “The outcomes of supporting fathers would be better child outcomes. It’s two generations of young people – the child and the teenager starting out on their adult life.”

The consequences of not helping were far reaching said Plunket clinical leader Nicky Skerman, who worked with teenage parents.

“There are a lot of angry boys out there either cut out of the life of their child or who have no parenting skills.”

She said finding funding to support that group was difficult but the alternative was more dangerous. “The violence starts, the boozing starts and the cycle starts again.”

Again, it’s what we already know – that involved fathers are good for children and involved fathering is good for dads.  And yet public policy-makers pretend that social science doesn’t exist and that they’re free to write on a blank slate.  As in the United States and elsewhere, the social science is well-known and overwhelmingly supports connecting fathers with their children wherever possible, but law and public policy doggedly oppose any change.

Gerry Walker of the Salvation Army said teen fathers were the “forgotten entity . . . They are critical to the child and the family dynamic but we have policies and legislation that kind of excludes them.” He said there were many “myths” around teen fathers – mostly that they did not care or want to be a part of their child’s life.

“Some fathers don’t stand up to their responsibilities but there is a significant group that do want to be engaged.”

Research undertaken by Victoria University’s Institute of Policy Studies showed that fatherhood could be the key to transforming antisocial young men into responsible citizens.

Dr Gareth Rouch studied a large group of young males in the Wairarapa region, and found becoming fathers had transformed their lives.

The study looked at men who had all grown up in working-class families during the 1980s and 90s whose families were most affected by the widespread unemployment during that time. Prior to having children many of the men saw no economic future for themselves, and made little effort to get job skills or integrate with mainstream society.

“One of the subjects even went as far as saying that when he was a teenager he expected to be dead by the time he was 20, so saw no point in looking ahead to the future,” Rouch said.

All the men indicated that fatherhood changed their attitudes to the world.

“It made them see the value in taking up work, acquiring job skills and improving their lifestyle. They were committed to doing the best for their children, and were open about the deep emotional bond they had with them.”

For reasons that escape me, policy-makers and opinion-makers seem to want us to view fathers, particularly young, poor ones in the harshest possible light – indeed in a false light – and the result is the classic self-fulfilling prophecy.  By denying them the very thing that could help lift them out of their often dysfunctional lifestyles, we ensure that they’ll continue them.  The result is often prison for the young men, with all the social cost that entails.

The disconnect between what we know and what we do toward fathers of all kinds has long been unjust and untenable.  When will politicians find the courage to do what so many know needs doing?

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