Instead of going to jail for not paying child support, the local Department of Social Services gives men parenting and job-skills classes, and helps them find jobs to pay for their children’s care.

By Rose Hoban

Purple caps, black tassels and long black robes, the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance”: These are the sure signs of a graduation ceremony.

But this ceremony, which took place at the Rocky Mount campus of Edgecombe Community College on Wednesday afternoon, was different. Instead of traditional mortarboards, the caps were purple baseball caps. The graduates were not, for the most part, teen-aged or in their 20s.

Frank Caine, Ernest McKinnon, Jerald Barnes and Kennedy Pettaway (from right to left) wait to go to their graduation. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

These graduates were mature men, men old enough to be fathers, some grandfathers, men with children old enough that they’re behind on their child-support payments.

They were graduating from a series of classes on parenting and job skills – 24/7 Dads – sponsored by the Edgecombe County Department of Social Services. In the audience to encourage the men were family members, workers from the county DSS, several county commissioners and some potential employers.

Most of the men had been remanded to the classes by local judges who have worked with DSS to allow each man to go through the class process rather than sit in jail for nonpayment of child support.

The hope is that once they complete the job-training and interview skills, along with parenting classes and classes on communication, they’ll all have the potential to be better fathers and caretakers, able to meet their child-support obligations.

“It’s a godsend,” said Delano Brooks, a student who was one of the graduation speakers.

The ‘real’ need

“What do you call it when you’re young and stupid?” Brooks said, laughing. At 51, he has four sons, three in their 20s and the youngest 14, living in Florida with his mother. “That relationship went fast; it went far, real fast.”

But Brooks hasn’t been able to keep up with child support.

“I had plans on taking care of my responsibilities, but none of them panned out job-wise,” he said. His inability to find work and keep up payments landed him in court.

Delano Brooks reads comments from his classmates at the 24/7 Dads class, while Reuben Blackwell and Department of Social Services head Marva Scott look on. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Brooks is a freelance graphic designer, photographer and videographer, “My dream was to have those skills work for me instead of going to jail.”

He pulled out his phone to show off an ad he created for the repair shop doing work on his car. He was hoping to barter the work in exchange for some repair costs.

Delano Brooks created an ad he hoped to barter with his auto mechanic to pay for some of the work on his car.

“It’s exasperating. When I went to court last time, I only had $40 in my bank account and my car needed a tune-up and I was doing all I could do,” he said, referring to his inability to pay his $390 per month child-support payment.  “I figured I was going to go to jail that day, but the fatherhood program was available, and here we are.”

Marva Scott, Edgecombe County’s DSS director, said Chief District Court Judge William Farris got behind their efforts to help address the root problem of many of the men’s failure to pay: joblessness. Edgecombe County had an unemployment rate of 10.1 percent in December, but that doesn’t represent all job seekers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of underemployment in North Carolina in 2015 was almost 6 percent higher than the official statewide unemployment rate.

“The real need is for employment,” Scott said.

Following through

Wednesday’s event was the graduation for the fourth cohort of men to go through the class since the Fatherhood Initiative started in August 2015. Scott said that of the 103 men who have participated, 48 are now employed.

DSS director Marva Scott said that instead of traditional graduation mortarboards, she chose to give the men hats that are more practical for work. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“I got the vision from praying and asking God what do we do differently to make a difference in the lives of the men of Edgecombe County,” Scott said. Other counties, including Mecklenburg, have similar programs that Scott looked to in creating the Fatherhood Initiative.

The men sign “personal responsibility agreements” that compel them to attend the six-week parenting and communication course, then participate in job-search activities and “soft skills” training that focuses on things like negotiating, teamwork and attitude.

“If they do not follow through, then the following month they’ll be right back in court again, and they’ll have to go before the judge,” Scott said.

If that’s the case, the men could be required to pay a lump sum of what they owe or else head to jail.

“If they’re following the program, we’re keeping them out of court for 90 days to complete the program and get the skills training that they need in order to become employed,” Scott said. “If they’re still following through and actively seeking employment, then we’re going to continue to work with them.”

She also said she’s collecting data on the program’s outcomes for both the men and their children.

Love your children

As they got ready, the men joked around, tied one another’s ties, smoked one last cigarette and shifted nervously from foot to foot. But as soon as the music began and they started filing into the auditorium, it was all seriousness.

Brooks read reflections from his classmates.

“I learned there’s more ways to be a great parent, and I think more men should come together and work through their problems,” he read.

The highlight of the program was a half-hour inspirational talk by Reuben Blackwell, head of OIC Family Medical Center, a local community health clinic.

“Regardless of the circumstance that brings you to this place, you have made the decision that you are a great dad,” Blackwell said. “Not going to be, not planning to be, not learning to be, but I’m already a great dad, right?”

“Everything ain’t pretty … let’s tell the truth about this,” he said. “Some things we have to fix; nobody can do that for us. But being a dad and being a man means that we take responsibility for what we do.”

He also spoke of how the legacies of race, inequality, generations of poverty and lack of local employment opportunities put the black men before him at a disadvantage in finding jobs, finishing school, finding decent housing, just getting by.

Then Blackwell turned to County Manager Eric Evans, also sitting on the stage, and told him that what these men needed were jobs. “The issue in Edgecombe County … is how to have jobs and how to have opportunities for everybody. How to prepare ourselves so that we can compete and earn a living so that we’re able to take care of our responsibilities.”

The room murmured.

Blackwell also cited high rates of depression among black men in Edgecombe. “Can’t find work, housing is not as good, opportunities are not as great, and that’s the official stuff. There’s relationship stuff, your own daddy, your own mama …”

But in general, Blackwell had a message of hope for the men.

“You gotta love yourself,” he said as the men jumped up to applaud, several wiping tears from their eyes.

They went to celebrate. And then, it’s off to look for work.

Anthony Chavis and his daughter show off his graduation certificate. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

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