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When boys become fathers

What we don’t know about teenage fathers hurts them --- and their children


When Kenneth Howard's girlfriend told him she was pregnant and that he was the baby's father, he didn't believe it. He was only 15 at the time.

"It was so difficult," he says. "Me and her, all we did was fight. We fought a lot, and I just had a hard time with it at first."

For a while, he didn't talk to anyone about the pregnancy. He didn't want to tell his friends. Finally, he told his grandmother, with whom he lives. "She didn't believe it, either," he says. "We always joke around, you know. She thought I was joking, but then I said, No, this is for real. I'm going to be a dad."

For most parents of teen daughters, few words conjure up more raw emotion than "Mom, I'm having a baby." But it's just as hard when a son or grandson comes home after school and says, "Lisa is having a baby, and I'm the dad." In the last decade, much has been learned about teen pregnancy and "baby moms." But what is known about boys who become fathers is often sketchy and sometimes misunderstood.

For starters, teen pregnancy is a fact of American life. Despite a decline in recent years, the US still has the highest rate of teen pregnancy of any industrialized nation. More than 500,000 teenage girls in the US became pregnant in 2004. According to the Monroe County Health Department, in 2002 there were 838 births to local girls ages 10 to 19.

But getting an accurate figure for the number of teen fathers is harder. The county's records list only 245 teen dads during that same period. That number --- which comes from information on the babies' birth certificates --- is obviously too low, according to the health department, but by exactly how much is hard to say.

There are several reasons why information about the teen fathers may not be on the birth certificates. The mother may not be sure who the father is. Or she may not want the father in her life or her child's. But in a subtle way, the lack of accurate data reflects society's general attitude toward teen fathers: that they are not legitimate parents and decision makers.

From the beginning, most attention is directed to the mother.

Rick Bartell has two framed prints hanging on his office wall. One is of chili peppers, and the other is of the history of birth control. The latter shows some familiar options, like the pill and condoms. Less familiar and more than a little intimidating are a metal object with a hook at one end and something that looks like thin wire. Bartell is Planned Parenthood's regional director of outreach and education. He says health-care workers have been concerned with the sexual health of teenage girls for years, but have recently turned their attention to boys.

"Once girls begin menstruation or become sexually active, they see a doctor and have regularly scheduled visits," says Bartell. "The assumption has always been that girls need education and prevention counseling. But boys have sort of been forgotten."

"Boys have no such schedule of doctor visits, and there is no one who talks to them about their sexual health," says Bartell. "We can't leave this for them to find out from friends or a coach. Even parents are not always current on the range of STIs [sexually transmitted infections] out there today, some of which have no cure. And one of the things we [Planned Parenthood] do exceptionally well is preventive education. Young males need this information as much as young girls."

Bartell has been talking to teens about sexual reproduction and pregnancy and disease prevention for most of his 20-year career, and he says getting the message out can be difficult. "There are these two poles," he says. "One is the hyper-sexual marketing to youth. You see it on MTV: teens with their bellybuttons showing, lots of makeup, lots of sexual suggestion, the Brittney Spears thing."

"On the opposite end is the din of 'just say no': 'Abstinence is the only thing they need to know.' But most of us exist in this silent middle. The extremes are difficult messages for kids to absorb," he says.

If society takes a dim view of unintended teen pregnancy, it takes an even more conservative position on what to say about prevention and where to say it. More than in any other Western society, politics and religion play a driving role in sex education, sometimes a larger one than science: how it is taught in school, and what message young people will hear. For example, messages about "safe sex" appear on TV and radio, but the ads aren't very creative, and there's little content. Usually another step or two is involved: "Call this number to get the facts."

If you don't know how to use a condom properly, it may not help prevent pregnancy orinfection. "Medically factual and developmentally appropriate information is key," says Bartell. "Kids get a lot of information without any context. If you give kids the facts, they are remarkably good at understanding the message. If we're serious about this, we must give them the information that can protect them. The teen pregnancy rate in the US is like those found in third-world countries."

Bartell flips through a stack of 3x5 cards from presentations to 5th-grade classes, where students could write questions on the cards anonymously. Some of the questions are predictable, but most illustrate that the children's level of curiosity is matched only by their level of misinformation.

"What is oral sex?" asks one student. "What is cum?" asks another. And one that really surprised Bartell: "Can Winterfresh gum prevent pregnancy if inserted vaginally?"

"A lot of people think the conversation about sex for both boys and girls begins at birth and ends at death," says Bartell. "Others say it is just plumbing and nothing more. No, it definitely is more."

"We don't really prepare boys to become fathers," says Lamar Powell, managing director of In Control, one of more than a dozen local non-profits that provide health education and medical care for teenagers. "Society has a tendency to raise girls with the idea that someday they will become mothers," says Powell, "but we just assume that boys will know what it means to be a father when the time comes. But what if this boy has no role models in his life? What then?"

In Control has a modest space for counseling and discussion groups. The length of one wall is painted in a bold graphic of red and black with the words "In Control" at one end. The organization got its start 10 years ago, when Planned Parenthood and the Urban League received a state grant to tackle teen pregnancy in the 14619, 14608, and 14611 zip codes. At the time, the teen pregnancy rates in those neighborhoods were the highest in the state.

In Control is also one of the few local agencies with a program for teenage boys. It offers help with housing, job training, and guidance for teen fathers.

"The prevention messages are very important," says Powell, "and we always provide them with the facts. We teach them how to make a decision. Believe it or not, a lot of these kids don't know how to think for themselves, and every decision you make has a consequence: 'Are you ready for that?'"

"But," adds Powell, "I think one of the biggest reasons these kids become fathers so early is that they have not had positive male guidance in their lives on a consistentbasis. The men that have come into their lives have been in and out or not there at all. They could be living with their mother, and there is a big age difference with the kid and his mother. Or it is just the opposite. He and his mother are very close in age, more like brother and sister --- she had him when she was still a child."

Some of the boys Powell sees walk in off the street. But most are referrals from the Rochester school district, other agencies, Family Court, and probation officers.

The biggest misconception about teen fathers is that they don't want to be involved in their child's life, says Powell. Often, he says, they don't want to run away from responsibility; they just want help stepping up to the plate. "But there are so many hurdles for them," he says. "And they're just kids --- they get discouraged so easily."

Creating a support system and staying in school are the two biggest and most immediate needs, says Powell. Young fathers have serious limitations. They may not be able to drive or own a car. If they have a job, chances are it pays minimum wage. They usually have no parenting skills, so they can't tell if a baby is hungry or is sick and needs immediate medical attention. If they are living with the baby's mother, their ability to pay for expenses and create stability for their young family is next to impossible without outside help. The pressures to provide become overwhelming; to the point that their first impulse is to quit school and find a job.

Says In Control's coordinator and case manager, Darren Evans: "We try to get them through the hardest part --- that beginning realization: 'It's not the end of the world. It's already happened. We can't change that, so now here's what were going to do.' And they hear from other young men in the group how they have dealt with it."

In Evans' current caseload, he sees about 20 teen males that are either at risk or are already fathers. He coaches them through about 18 months of programs. "We want them to get that GED. Stay in school, stay on track," he says. "Because once they get a taste of work and get the feel of earning a paycheck, they may quit and just keep working. But it won't be enough, not without some kind of education."

There's nothing new about teenagers becoming parents, says Powell: "It has been going on for years. It happens in every socio-economic group. It doesn't matter; black, white, rich neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods. It happens in Pittsford and it happens in Albion."

"The difference is that in the '50s and '60s, a young man could go to Kodak or Xerox and get a decent paying job right out of high school," says Powell. "That paycheck would be enough to start a small family. That's not an option today."

Powell says it concerns him that young people begin having sex so much earlier than his generation did, because it initiates a cycle of poverty. His comment mirrors a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which said that the government's cost of unintended teen pregnancy, for public assistance and child health care, is about $7 billion annually. Foster care adds another billion. Nearly 80 percent of all teen mothers go on welfare. And more than 40 percent of teen mothers who give birth before graduating from high school are unlikely to get a GED, making poverty for them and their children almost inevitable.

The report also indicated that teen parents face very different circumstances than they did 30 or 40 years ago. At that time, marriage was viewed as the single most important goal for creating financial and emotional stability, essentials for raising children. By the mid-'80s, the norm had changed. Even TV's Murphy Brown was a single mom.

Malcom Gordy Kargi has spent some of this summer with his sister in Penfield. For the last three years, he had one goal: keeping his grade point average at 3.9. He was hoping to go to Johns Hopkins or TempleUniversity, where he could study pre-med and later specialize in sports medicine. But Kargi's dream may need to wait a little longer. Last year, at age 17, he became a father.

"I had to take a job at a small hardware store near where I live," he says. "I took an incomplete in chemistry, because I didn't want a C or D. But I had to help out, and I started falling asleep in some of my classes."

Kargi lives in Philadelphia with his mother and younger brother. His girlfriend lives in a suburb about 20 minutes outside of the city. They had been seeing each other for about a year. He says they used protection every time they had sex except once.

"I thought we should get married," he says, "but Alicia's mom was not okay with that. She's still not okay with any of this, and it makes it harder. Last month was my son Jacob's first birthday. I asked if we could move it to the following day, because I had to work that day and I wouldn't be able to get there. She said, No, we can't move his first birthday. So I missed it. I wasn't there."

He and Alicia have not been getting along well, either. About three months ago, she told him she was dating someone else. He says her family is well off, and he is relieved that his son has all that he needs. "I would come in the door with some formula and some diapers," he says, "and her mother would walk in with a $350 stroller. I mean, I'm glad she can do it for him and all, but it bothers me. She acts like she's his mother and I am some kind of thug. I told her, I am his father, and I am going to be there for him."

Kargi was nervous about what he might find upon returning home to Philadelphia. He said he needed some time alone to think about his future. "I'm going to finish school, and I'm going to go to college," he says. "If I can get through school, I can afford to take care of my son." He pauses and rubs his forehead. He has light skin and a bushy auburn afro. He looks like a model out of an Abercrombie & Finch ad.

"My sister says I would be a fool to marry her," he says. "I don't know.... I even thought of joining the Navy."

Teen father Kenneth Howard just got his GED and is going to MCC in the fall. And he has a plan: the MCC 2+2 Program, where he will complete half of his degree and then finish at Alfred in business. He's at that age when boys first start to resemble men. He has a trace of facial hair, and his shoulders have begun to broaden. He is polite and soft spoken. His baby daughter, Zhaanyshia, just turned 3. He's 18.

And he credits In Control's Darren Evans for his progress. "My grandmother helped me a lot," he says. "She taught me how to take care of the baby. But Darren here, he kept me focused. I might not have finished my GED if it weren't for him. It has gotten a lot better. I see things differently. I care about stuff now. I want good things for her, and I realize for that to happen I have to be a good person, too."

Asked if he would change things if he could, his answer was immediate and firm: "Never. Watching her and seeing her smile is the best thing in the world to me. I wouldn't change that for anything."

Howard doesn't have custody of his child; Zhaanyshia lives with her mother. He says the only advice he has for someone who finds himself in his situation is to stay the course. "Darren is always saying that to me," he says. "See things through to the end. How something starts out doesn't mean that's the way it has to be, so see it through. Don't quit."

Seeing Howard and his counselor work together demonstrates how important support is to these new fathers. Some, like Howard, are just kids faced with making some serious adult decisions, such as seeking custody.

"One of the first things we talk about is, What kind of a relationship do you want to have with this girl?" says Evans. "This is the mother of your child. That is never going to change. You have to respect that and respect her for the sake of that child. If you want to be in that child's life, you better establish a positive relationship with her. That takes time and trust. You got to realize she is dealing with this, too."

The relationship that teen fathers create with the mother of their child is critical for many reasons, but the most important is visitation rights. Many of the young parents start out as couples, but the odds of staying together are against them.

"I have one young couple that I see," says Evans, "and they've been together for a little while now. But most decide that they can't be together as a couple, and that's very hard on both of them. Reality can be rough, man. But I impress upon them that they got to be together as friends for the sake of that child."

Among many things teen fathers need is court advocacy, says Todd Williams, executive director of the Rochester Fatherhood Resource Initiative. "They are going to need to know their rights," he says. "This is all new to them, and they don't know what they're in for when they go to Family Court."

It's around 5 o'clock in the afternoon, and several young men have gathered in the Rochester Fatherhood's main conference room. A row of worn-looking black and beige computers covers the length of one wall. The men use them for creating resumes and applying for jobs. They each have war stories to share about Family Court, and they firmly believe that "the system" favors granting custody to the mother, regardless of her qualifications as a parent.

"If we want that boy to be involved in his child's life, we have to start at the beginning," says Williams. "You go into a pediatrician's office and all you see are pictures of women, mothers, and their babies. But no fathers. The message is, 'You don't belong here. You're not included.' Well, if we want that young male to be involved in his kid's life, we have to change the message."

"Every day all we hear about are the dead-beat dads, but that's a few knuckleheads that don't want to take care of their kids," says Williams. "That's not a whole group of people. Don't judge us all that way; treat us as individuals. Treat us as fathers, not outsiders." he says.

Kamayu Robinson, one of the young fathers in Williams' group, recently received custody of his three children. He admits that his story is unusual. "My wife went to court and said that I was the better parent. That's what she told the judge. But that's a rarity," he says.

"They should put more money into mediation, and take the attorneys out of it," says Robinson. "Put less into litigation. How can you have respect for one another, and how can your children learn respect for both parents? If I had to fight for my kids, it could have taken years, and I would have had to tell every dirty little detail to that court about the mother of my children so I can get custody. How can a man respect himself after that? How can your children respect what you did to their mother?"

Teen fathers sometimes have it a little easier in Family Court than the older men, says Williams. "They come with less baggage, and they are more receptive to making changes in their lives," he says. "Sometimes the older men have other issues. They may have a new wife and a whole other family to be concerned about."

Jerome Barnes is wearing a green butcher-style apron that is part of the dress code at the bank where he works. He has stopped by Rochester Fatherhood, where he volunteers as a cook for the agency's socials when he can. He was a teen father, and he knows what many of the young men are up against.

"I wasn't planning a family," he says. "I knew about protection, but I never used any. At that time in my life, I didn't think I was going to live, because everyone around me was getting killed. I thought I was gonna die, too. And I didn't want to leave this world without leaving behind something that was a part of me."

Barnes is now married to the mother of his children, but he spent a few years playing around. He describes his mother and father as alcoholics, and he says he never saw much of his father growing up.

"I was a dog, man, I'm gonna be truthful with you. Then one day I slowed down, and I realized I am doing the same thing my father did to me. And I said, No way. That is not going to happen to my kids. I want my kids to have hope for a better future. When you don't have hope, you do some stupid things with your life. I just want to be the best father I can be for my children."

Barnes is trying to obtain custody of one of his children from another relationship. "I've been going to court to get custody of my kid for five years," he says. "Fiveyears. I even had a judge say to me once, You must like coming here for the free legal services. I just looked at him. I pay my attorney. I was angry, but you see what I mean?"

Resources for teen fathers are in short supply. Non-profit agencies like In Control and the Rochester Fatherhood Resource Initiative have managed to survive in a climate of dwindling financial support. Fatherhood programs seem to start up one year and lose funding the next. This makes it hard for other agencies to refer people to them.

"There's a serious need for this type of program," says Melissa Woods, transitional-living program manager for The Center for Youth, which works with runaway and homeless teens. "But when you go to refer someone, you find out they aren't there any more. We see far more young girls that are or are about to become mothers. They will come inside and follow through on the services. The boys will most likely stay out on the street."

"We have eight apartments that we fully finance for youth that are in crisis," says Woods. "Three are for parenting teens, and even if it happened to be a single father with his baby, we would still include that young man and his baby."

Pat Johnson, The Center's coordinator for runaway and homeless services, says she agrees with both Williams and Powell. "These young males do want to be good fathers, and they will make the life decisions they need to make to share responsibility for their child," she says. "They will choose a job that they might not otherwise want to pursue, like the military, so they can get the benefits. So they can provide food, shelter, and clothing."

The Rochester school district has also recognized the need to support fathers and help them develop parenting skills. Davis Passmore, coordinator for the district's Fatherhood Initiative and LeadershipAcademy, presents workshops throughout the year for fathers of all ages, including teens. The emphasis is on the importance of fathers being involved in their child's education.

When that happens, "that child is going to do better in school," says Passmore. "Even if the mother and father are not living together, they must come together for the sake of that child's future."

Poverty and teen pregnancy are intertwined and cyclical, says Passmore. "We have to start with one generation, and break it," he says.