July 24, 2012 - National Association for Relationship and Marriage Education

July 24, 2012

Baltimore, Maryland

National Association for Relationship and Marriage Education

Everyone in this room is a true Champion for Children. And to be a champion for children you have to be an optimist. I am reminded of the story of the two little boys whose mother was concerned that they had developed extreme personalities—one a pessimist, one an optimist.

Because of her growing concern she took the boys to see a counselor who knew just what to do. For the first boy, the pessimist, he took him to a room stacked to the ceiling with wonderful toys. But being a pessimist, the boy broke into tears. When the counselor asked him why, the little boy tearfully exclaimed that he was afraid he’d break them all.

Hoping he’d have better luck trying to temper the overly optimistic view of the other child, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with horse manure. But instead of wrinkling his nose in disgust or acting more like his pessimistic brother, the boy yelled with delight and immediately climbed the pile and started digging with both hands.

When the counselor asked him what in the world he was doing, the little boy said, with all this manure, there’s got to be a pony in here somewhere. You are all optimists who believe that we can give struggling parents the tools and support services they need to provide for their children.

In so doing, you believe that if we get it right, we can give the one thing that struggling parents need the most. Hope. And hope is the most important thing they can pass on to their children. For without hope, there is nothing else. We are at a critical point in the evolution of our approaches to serve families and help parents enter into healthier, more loving and supportive relationships and marriages.

That said, it is our stance that the federal government has no direct role in telling people that they should marry or to whom they should get married. That is ultimately a personal decision. But that doesn’t mean we can’t offer well-researched, proven programs that help families become more stable and secure. In the process allowing both parents to stay connected and engaged with their children—regardless of their marital status.

By doing that, we can reduce domestic violence, discourage teen pregnancy, and prevent child abuse.  By offering information and training on relationship skills to men in particular—services that historically have not been available to many with low incomes—we can raise each father’s awareness of how important he is to his children and make it easier for him to take an active and positive role in their lives. 

I think there are a lot of myths and misconceptions out there about noncustodial moms and dads. And I think if we’re ever to move to a point in our development as human and social services providers we need to clear some of them up.

Maybe not so much to the professionals inside this room, but for the folks who follow what we do with great interest. I don’t know about you, but if you want to get me to do something, especially if you want me to do it with a positive attitude, it’s best to not call me names.

Deadbeat dads for instance. Can we just get rid of that term? It’s destructive and counterproductive, and really, not accurate by most measures. The truth is, most noncustodial parents have a relationship with their children, many seeing or speaking their children several times a week. It is incorrect to call them fatherless as we often hear done.

Now, it would also be naïve to say all non-custodial parents are meeting their obligations and providing the emotional support their children crave and the financial support they depend on.

And that’s where you can make such a profound difference. The programs and services you provide that help parents, especially parents re-entering society following jail or prison sentences, are so very critical to the children in their lives.

You help make them better parents.  Better parents, happier parents, means better, happier children. The research is clear. 

Our focus has got to be on the children and what’s best for them. Not what’s best for mom and what’s best for dad. We provide services and supports to them in order for them to be better parents for their children. A child needs his or her mom and dad to be positively engaged to maximize outcomes.

We must provide services, supports and tools for noncustodial parents so that they can see how important it is that they remain active and engaged in the lives of their children.

Perhaps at no other time in our history has it been more important for child and family success to have two parents actively engaged in the raising of their children. It is clear that children do better in school and in society when they have two emotionally and financially supportive parents.

The research is clear and the evidence irrefutable. Parents who for one reason or another abandon their children, place them at great risk of social isolation, poor educational outcomes and drug use and other risky behaviors and later on, exposure to the juvenile justice system and even prison. The list of ills goes on and on.

But because their children are so important, we cannot turn our backs on those parents. In fact, those are the very parents we must work with the most because their children are at the greatest risk.

We must remember that no matter who the client may be, the real focus of our work is the child or children in that family. By applying the right strategies and approaches, we can help parents fully understand their roles and why it’s so important that they be actively and emotionally engaged in their children’s lives.

This is not some pie-in-the sky, feel good approach. This is what all the research bears out. We know what the research says about what’s best for children. We know what’s best for families:  Stable, supportive, engaged parents, preferably two and preferably together in the same home.

No offense to researchers, this is also kind of a no-brainer, isn’t it? Or, as we’ve all heard a child in our lives exclaim, Duh!

My father fought in both World Wars and was retired by the time I was born. It was, I guess, a lot like having a father and a grandfather all at the same time. And since my older brothers and sisters were grown and gone, I pretty much had mom and dad all to myself.

And even though Dad passed before I graduated from high school I got to spend a lot time with him. My mother worked into her 70s to make sure I got a college education, a law degree and was well on my way before she finally retired. As a child you don’t think about the implications of your mom and dad working long hours to provide a home… food… clothing…. and still have enough time left over to show you how to grow into a young man or young woman.

Those of us fortunate enough to have a grown up in a two-parent household, where at least one parent could always attend your ballgame, your afterschool recitals or lead your scout troop, while the other made sure dinner was ready, and your clothes were clean, know now that even if we didn’t grow up rich that really we had it made.

The importance of having two parents actively engaged in your life cannot be overstated.

President Obama said it best when he said, “Our children don’t need us to be superheroes. They don’t need us to be perfect. They need us to show up and give it our best shot, no matter what else is going on in our lives. They need us to show them, not just with words, but with deeds, that they, those kids, are always our first priority.”

For those of us who grow up without that love, without that presence and without that protection, the statistics are heart-wrenching and tragic.

Some of the latest statistics let us know we have our work cut out for us. Many of you are already providing meaningful services and successful programs to help young or struggling parents.

There is some good news out there, but there’s bad news too. Births to teen moms have decreased again for the second year in a row…Despite that encouraging trend, America still has the highest rate of teen pregnancy among developed nations. 41 percent of births in this country are outside of marriage. 

One out of every three children in America lives in a home without a father living in the home. That’s roughly 24 million children in this country. I believe that the tide is turning. What can I say, I’m an optimist. The tide is turning because we no longer channel our programming to the negative side of the equation.

We once blamed nonresident or non-custodial mothers or fathers as the root of the problem and sought ways to punish them. Now, through many of your agencies and organizations these same parents are learning there are alternatives.

Our laws used to further alienate those decent men and women who didn’t know how to be committed and loving parents.

How could they be, when, very likely, they were quite young themselves and didn’t have the support of loving, committed parents themselves?

Instead of giving them tools to overcome their circumstances, we gave them prison for not having the ability to pay child support.

Instead of uplifting them, we drove them underground where they hid from their children and their responsibilities.

For years, we’ve seen the tide slowly but surely turning thanks to the leadership of committed individuals and leaders like Vicki Turetsky who leads the Office of Child Support Enforcement at the Administration for Children and Families.

Working with other leaders in the field such as Earl Johnson in the Office of Family Assistance and many of you in this room, we sought and have found a more balanced approach.

Instead of approaching the equation from the perspective of the mother or the father or even both, we now look at the issues from the perspective of the child. That’s a bigger change than it may sound like.

It is no longer enough to say we passed tougher laws for noncustodial parents who don’t pay their child support. It is no longer acceptable to turn our backs on young or incarcerated fathers assuming their lack of involvement is a sign of irreparable dysfunction.

I say these things are no longer acceptable as if this philosophical change occurred overnight. It didn’t. This new approach is two decades in the making and is the result of the hard work and dedication of men and women like:  Joe Jones, Jeffery Johnson, Ron Mincy, Kirk Harris, and Julie Baumgardner.

All of whom you will have the opportunity to hear speak and interact with during this conference.

As we begin to see the fruits of this vision of meaningful inclusion, targeted assistance, and programming that empowers instead of imprisons, we must remember that we have miles to go.

We have seen well-established programs in Baltimore and Oakland, but we need more. We have seen innovative approaches in places like Seattle and the Bronx, but we need more.

We have seen successful programs where young men and women are leaving prison and connecting or reconnecting with their children, but we need more. We know there’s a close connection between having a job and being a responsible father.  Beyond the obvious financial considerations, the ability to support a family instills maturity, strength and confidence in a man. 

As men become breadwinners, they often discover the rewards that come from being an involved, loving and stable parent who is part of a self-sufficient, functional family. 

That’s one major reason it’s so critical that we continue to link fatherhood programs to job readiness and training efforts. This reminds me of the graduation ceremony of a job readiness program in Baltimore. One happy mom commented on the effect her son’s father’s participation in the program was having on the boy.  This mom proudly said that since his dad started dressing professionally to attend classes, her son, in his own words, wants “brown shoes and a tie like daddy.” 

I also remember a man I met at a fatherhood program in Seattle. He showed up at this program because he thought the people who ran the program could help him get out of paying child support.

Instead, they provided him a path to get more involved in his children’s lives. He joined a support group and found himself saying things that he never said before. Things like “I’m scared and I don’t know what to do.” Through that program he found a community of people who helped him figure out what to do.

Healthy marriage programs are having a similar impact on couples all over the country.  They’re teaching people how to communicate and how to compromise.  People like Wendell and Terri in Pittsburg, California.  They had kids, but were living apart and had never married.

They decided to give their relationship one more chance and joined the program.  Their experience was life-altering.  Six months after graduating, Wendell and Terri got married and are now coaching other couples.

I know that many of you hear stories like that every day.  They bring home the profound effects these programs can have, one father at a time, one couple at a time, one child at a time.

The most important lesson of all is that the children are watching.  They are learning how to become productive citizens.  If parents can lead by example and instill the values of responsibility and relationship, then I believe we will have done our jobs.

As the social commentator Neil Postman once wrote: “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.”

I want to assure you that President Obama, Secretary Sebilius, and I are committed to helping parents and children to become economically independent and self-sufficient through job training and educational enhancements, substance abuse and domestic violence counseling and other proven interventions.

But our commitment and your commitment are just the beginning. For we still see babies being born to single mothers, or parents who are leaving and shirking their responsibility to their….our… next generation.

We know an involved father is more likely to find or develop lawfully the means to provide financial and emotional support to his children.

That’s the real key, programs that keep fathers involved in their children’s lives. Those are the programs the Administration for Children and Families will be funding through Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood programs.

When weighed against the tremendous capital and human costs of incarceration, the costs of foster care and the cost of public assistance, these programs already make sense.

The research is clear: men who comprehend their responsibilities from the beginning are more active and remain active in their children’s lives.

They will know their child’s intellectual, emotional and financial well-being are their responsibility; not just the mother’s or the government’s responsibility.

We will be working with you to ensure the services you provide noncustodial fathers are integrated and serve all of that family’s needs.

In the end, it’s not about outcomes for ACF, and it’s not about outcomes for your organizations. It’s about outcomes for kids and the nurturing parents they need in order to succeed in their own lives.

The future you, and our president, see is a future of fully integrated social services for families. We’ll get there by working together toward our common purpose of stronger, economically independent families.

You are the folks who are closest to these issues. You serve these families every day, you need to bring your experience and expertise to us and work with us to develop programming and funding mechanisms to reverse the trend.  We need your insights.

As the economy continues to show some signs of improving, we need to ensure that low-income mothers and fathers get to participate in the recovery as well.

Subsidized wage employment opportunities and the ability to be gainfully employed build personal pride and self-esteem.

You’re a very important group. We will work with you and together we will build the strongest most responsive network to build healthy marriages and partnerships, as well as responsible fathers.

I want to close today with these words that Robert Kennedy wrote about what his father meant to him. I quote: "What it really all adds up to is love -- not love as it is described with such facility in popular magazines, but the kind of love that is affection and respect, order and encouragement and support. Our awareness of this was an incalculable source of strength and because real love is something unselfish and involves sacrifice and giving, we could not help but profit from it. Beneath it all, he has tried to engender a social conscience. There were wrongs which needed attention. There were people who were poor and needed help. And we have a responsibility to them and to this country. Through no virtues and accomplishments of our own, we have been fortunate enough to be born in the United States under the most comfortable conditions. We, therefore, have a responsibility to others who are less well off."

I hope you have a wonderful conference. Thank you and God bless you.