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Stark County is Counting on Noncustodial Dads for Much More Than a Check

Hall of Fame activity
M.L. SCHULTZE
/
WKSU

Stark County has staked part of its hope of combatting everything from infant mortality to drug abuse on noncustodial fathers. WKSU’s M.L. Schultze has more on the expanding initiative that insists “fathers are more than a paycheck” and presumes many of them want to prove it.

Lovelle Cannon acknowledges he agreed to spend a month of his afternoons at job and parenting classes for the most practical of reasons:

“I needed to keep my license.” 

But he says something kind of snuck upon him. “As I stayed in the class, I started to realize a lot things that I thought I knew that I didn’t know.”

Build or destroy
For four years, groups of men like Cannon have been participating in Right Path for Fathers in Canton. They spend two hours a day alternately focusing on job and parenting skills. Sometimes one blends into another.

Gary Plauger is one of two facilitators. He focuses on the parenthood part.

“Whether it’s with your kids or at work, either you’re going to build or what?

“Destroy something.”

“Yeah, you’re going to tear it down. And I’m going to take that philosophy and put it in every aspect of my life. Regardless of where I am at or what I’m doing, I’m there to build others.”

The Right Path classes include discussions of rocky relationships with exes, missed opportunities, teenagers, setting examples, and holding onto tempers.

Cannon raises a concern.

“You can be frustrated with your child and say I’m not angry with you but I’m frustrated and I might talk to you at a level 5.” 

Gathered around the table are about a dozen parents -- mostly men, mostly unemployed and mostly behind on child support.

When the stick may not be needed

'A father is more than just a paycheck. A father can play can play a vital role in the development of that child to become a healthy adult, a productive citizen and have a chance to lead a happy life.'

A few years ago, Stark County’s Child Support Enforcement Agency would have approached them with a very big stick: Pay up or lose your license, maybe even go to jail.

And about 90 parents a month would lose their licenses. Stark County Job and Family Services’ Robert Pierson says that ultimately made no sense.

“Someone who doesn’t have the ability to pay, they’re in poverty themselves -- low income or no income -- taking their driver’s license was counterproductive. Usually you need a valid driver’s license to find employment.”

So many now are offered the Right Path training. As a further incentive to complete the program and get a job, the county will forgive as much as $5,000 in arrearages.

Pierson says 75 percent of the program graduates get jobs, and that means they keep up with their support.

More importantly, he says, “A father is more than just a paycheck. A father can play can play a vital role in the development of that child to become a healthy adult, a productive citizen and have a chance to lead a happy life.”

Lovelle Cannon still has questions about what he sees as a systemic imbalance between the rights of parents who have custody of their kids and those who don’t. But that’s changing.

“I always thought fathers got the bad break but I also figure now there are some people out there that care about the fathers and what’s going right for the kid.”

Partners in saving the youngest children
The Right Path program is knitted into a collaborative in Stark County called the Fatherhood Coalition. Among its partners is the Canton Health Department.

Stark County is dealing with one of the nation’s worst infant mortality rates. Nearly half of the children in Stark County are born to unmarried couples.

So Dawn Miller, who heads the county’s effort to combat infant mortality, says it makes sense to enlist noncustodial fathers to literally save their children’s lives.

“Talking to them about how to put their child down to bed. How to support the pregnant woman. What to expect as far as milestones that the child is going to go through as they grow.”

Dustin Gardner brought his girlfriend and 10-day-old daughter to the Right Path graduation. He’s also working toward getting unsupervised visitation with his 7-year-old daughter from another relationship and he sees the right path class as a way to get there.

“I missed a lot of things with my daughter. I missed the birth. I wasn’t able to be there.”

A team sport
Not everything in Right Path happens in the classroom.

On Presidents’ Day weekend at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, about a hundred families – fathers with sons and daughters -- are hiking rolls of toilet paper and making their way across the room on yoga mats and hola hoops. The Hall of Fame’s Mike Myers explains,

“This isn’t a competition to see how fast the dad is, or how smart the dad is or how fast the kid is. It’s really to see how well they can work together and communicate.”

Barring federal budget cuts, the Right Path program is about to expand. A five-year federal grant – one of a handful nationally -- will support similar classes and activities – with a significant addition: drug treatment.

Job and Family Services Rob Pierson says he’s not naïve. Some fathers will never be involved with their kids. But he says Right Path proves many want to try.

Editor's note: that last name of Gary Plauger was misspelled and has been corrected.