An institute making fatherhood better

WASHINGTON—”I’ve got to see you,” Charles Ballard insists over the telephone, his excitement almost palpable. “I’ve got to show you.”

What has him agog is the report of a panel the Cleveland Foundation commissioned to look at his National Institute of Responsible Fatherhood and Family Development, Inc. The name is too long and, at least for now, misleading. The “national” institute exists almost entirely in Cleveland’s Hough section.

But the findings are, in fact, worth crowing about. In-depth interviews with 151 former clients of NIRFFD found that:

Ninety percent of the young men formerly enrolled in the program are providing financial support for their children. Seventy percent have not had additional out-of-wedlock children. A mere 8 percent had jobs when they entered the program; now 60 percent have full-time jobs, and another 11 percent are working part-time.

And of course—because it’s one of the requirements for participation—virtually 100 percent have signed papers officially acknowledging their paternity.

“It’s just amazing,” says Ballard, who was in Washington last week. “These young men, virtually all of them high school dropouts when they joined the program, are staying in school, getting their GEDs, or working. They’re staying off drugs. They’re supporting their families. Eleven percent are enrolled in college, and that’s not even something that was on our agenda.

“It just goes to show you what can happen when a father forms a wholesome relationship with his children.”

It’s almost as simple—though not nearly as easy—as it sounds. The whole point of the program Ballard started 11 years ago was to help other unwed fathers experience what Ballard himself had experienced years earlier: the transforming power of a man becoming a father to his children.

“Becoming responsible for your children makes it that much easier to behave responsibly in other ways.” says Ballard, 56. “It changes everything.”

If there is a secret to Ballard’s success, it is his ability to identify with the young men, mostly between 18 and 30, in his program. He was what they are when they come to him: disaffected, angry, with minimal self-esteem. They have sired children, but official belief is that the children are not objects of their affection but only so many notches on a gun.

“The programs mostly are for the young mothers,” says Ballard. “The message to the fathers is: ‘Get out of the way and don’t interfere. You are the problem.'”

The first thing Ballard teaches is that these young fathers can be vital to their children’s future, even if they, at present, are unable to make any financial contribution.

As frequently happens, the ability to be of financial support follows the desire to be of financial support. The assumption of responsibility for their children, Ballard finds, leads these young men to stop making excuses for not working and to take on even terrible, low-paid jobs. That, of corse, makes it easier for them to find better jobs.

But it’s not quite as mechanical as all that. “What’s missing a lot of times are the positive, intensive role models—not just good influences but the people who are around day after day, setting worthwhile patterns, reinforcing positive behavior,” Ballard says.

“A significant part of what we do is just to establish an atmosphere in which women are honored and respected. If your wife walked into our place today, or if an elderly person did, all my guys would stand up.”

If that sounds a little dated, many of Ballard’s notions are similarly old-fashioned, including his belief that spirituality—religion—is a necessary ingredient for transforming lives.

But more than most social-service practitioners, Ballard understands that the most his agency can do is provide opportunities for people to develop the potential that is already there.

“We don’t try to set their goals for them,” he explains. “We had one guy who had two daughters and several girlfriends when he came into the program. When we talked to him about setting goals, he said he wanted to own a chain of beauty shops. My thought was this guy, a dropout who wasn’t even working at the time, might have been a little overambitious. Maybe he was, but he is now the custodial parent of his children, he has gotten his GED, has only one girlfriend, and is now about to finish cosmetology school. It’s his dream now ours.”

Ballard’s critical discovery is that the dreams—and the wherewithal for fulfilling them—are there, even when least suspected. Or as he puts it:

“Everything you need is inside you already. All we can do is massage it and try to bring it out.”