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BALTIMORE — When Darnell met his sister's friend Charlotte after his release from prison in 1997, he was sure God had sent her. While locked up, he'd often prayed for divine help.
Darnell and Charlotte had their first date at an IHOP. (They declined to provide their last names because of privacy and legal concerns.) Within six months, he told her he wanted to get married.
At first Charlotte didn't think much of the proposal, but Darnell went ahead and put the liquor on layaway. When he could finally afford to rent a hall, he cooked all the food for the reception, and they did what no one else they knew was doing: They got married.
Within a few months, Charlotte was pregnant with their first child. Darnell, 29, already had a daughter, whom he was supporting, and Charlotte, 25, a year-old baby girl. She also had custody of a young cousin, who lived with her and the baby in a two-room apartment in one of the city's public-housing projects. Charlotte used to send her cousin to the barber when she had spare money, but when Darnell came into her life, he would take the boy every week.
Charlotte had been supporting herself and the two children with the $824 she made each month patching together a 40-hour workweek at KFC, Value City and a local clothing store called Lovely Ladies. She and the children also received food stamps and other aid through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a federal program that provides cash assistance, Medicaid and job training to parents living in poverty. But Darnell’s income — about $1,750 a month from a construction job — was too high for the new family to continue receiving help through TANF, let alone additional aid once the new baby arrived. (To qualify today in Maryland, a household of four must earn less than $755 per month, or $9,600 per year.) A complicated pregnancy, meanwhile, meant Charlotte had to quit working.
With just Darnell's earnings, they say, they didn't have enough to get by. The couple had deferred living together until they could afford a bigger place, and with the baby on the way, they were squeezed even further. Now Charlotte and Darnell's marriage — what they most prided themselves on — became, in a sense, a liability.
It holds tremendous promise. If it works, it will redefine policy.
Maryland Department of Human Resources
When Charlotte applied for additional benefits from Maryland's Department of Human Resources (DHR), the state agency that administers TANF and other welfare programs, she lied about being married so that Darnell's income would not be considered in her application. At the same time, she had to register Darnell as the father of her new baby with a second DHR agency, the Child Support Enforcement Administration, in order to qualify for additional cash assistance.
In many states, including Maryland, the parent seeking assistance — typically the mother — must identify the other parent to the child-support agency so it can begin to collect payments owed to the state. (Darnell, for example, owed about $400 each month.) This is intended to offset the costs of food stamps and other aid the state pays out. Missed payments accrue in arrears. The state can collect that money by garnishing wages, intercepting tax refunds, suspending drivers’ or professional licenses and other measures. (A 2012 Maryland law, however, now stops child-support debt from accumulating when parents in arrears are in prison.)
Thus, a potential conflict was introduced into Charlotte and Darnell's relationship: the benefits she gained as a result of his vulnerability to the state.
"I always thought that was crazy," Darnell says. "We shouldn't have to say we were separated to get help. If anything, they should have helped us stay together. They are saying they want the father involved but won't help you if the father is involved. That is backwards."
These are the unintended consequences, some government officials and social-service experts say, of programs built on an outdated paradigm. Welfare institutions were set up historically to aid single parents — usually a woman widowed or abandoned by a man who has refused to provide child support — not couples like Darnell and Charlotte.
But Maryland is about to try something new.
Whereas state welfare policy wasn't fashioned to serve Charlotte and Darnell as a family, a nonprofit in West Baltimore, the Center for Urban Families (CFUF), treated them as one. In 2010,after years ofstruggling to maintain their marriage,they enrolled in the center's Couples Advancing Together (CAT) program.
In Baltimore, where fathers are already in short supply, in part due to high incarceration rates, CFUF seeks to help couples stay together or at least effectively raise their children together. The organization offers a mix of programs that focus on job training, relationship-skills building, parenting and financial counseling. The group also works with men who owe child support to craft with DHR a viable payment plan, including forgiving or alleviating arrears. Last year, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation to expand CAT’s program that, starting this month, could put the state at the forefront of potentially innovative policy.
"It holds tremendous promise," says Thomasina Hiers, deputy secretary of programs at the Maryland Department of Human Resources. "If it works, it will redefine policy."
Child support debt
In four Baltimore ZIP codes where CFUF works, parents owe a total of $111 million in child-support arrears. That's about a quarter of the city's total. In those ZIP codes, DHR jointly with CFUF identified 4,642 cases (9.4 percent of the total caseload for the city) in which individuals owe an average of about $130 per month. In 68 percent of those cases, DHR has never received a single payment.
But while the measures the state can take to recover that money are intended for deadbeat dads, men caught up in the system in inner-city Baltimore are often dead broke. DHR officials say those in arrears are mostly parents who would pay but cannot — the unemployed, underemployed and incarcerated — not those who can pay but won't.
"It takes a four-legged stool to get out of this," said Peter Beilenson, who served as Baltimore's health commissioner from 1992 to 2005. The community needs "decent housing; public schools that can turn out kids ready for college; access to healthy homes (lead-paint-free), healthy food and health care; livable-wage jobs in the community. None of those occur in huge swaths of Baltimore city."
In addition to discouraging low-income fathers from entering the job market because their wages can be garnished, child-support debt can ultimately alienate the father from the mother — then from his child — rather than giving him an incentive to be an active participant in the child's life.
"In the beginning, everybody is like, 'I have this partner, she's wonderful and she's pregnant, and I'm ready to be here,'" says Otis Buckson, manager of the CAT program. "But then life happens. The father realizes there are some responsibilities that (he) can't comply with. Most of it is financial: She needs the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children federal-assistance program). But he has to go downtown, register and have a child-enforcement case against him. That might be one of the reasons he backs up and says, 'If you are going to take me downtown, how can we be together? And if I’m here supporting the child and yet I'm still having these arrears building up?'"
An outdated model?
Social-service experts say these child-support policies treat men this way because they are based on another era’s notions of family.
"The reason the system looks bizarre is because it was originally constructed around a conceptualization of who single moms were in 1974," says Ronald B. Mincy, director of Columbia University's Center for Research on Fathers, Children and Family Well-Being.
In 1974, when the state-federal child-support enforcement program was created, two-thirds of children in single-parent homes were children of divorced couples, according to Mincy. The child-support system then was geared toward helping women who went on welfare after they divorced and their husbands left, taking the family’s source of income with them. Social-welfare policies were designed to force fathers to provide financial support for their children.
But many of today's couples are not broken up, even if they are unmarried. Most unmarried parents in the U.S. today — more than 80 percent — are in a romantic relationship with their co-parent when the child is born and expect to eventually wed, says Sara McLanahan, director of the Center for Research on Child Wellbeing at Princeton University and principal investigator of a large national survey, the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. Of that 80 percent–plus, approximately 51 percent are living together and 31 percent are romantically involved but living apart, as Charlotte and Darnell were after they were first married.
Many of today's impoverished parents, however, are unable to establish long-term, stable unions or co-parenting relationships. The term "fragile families" emerged in the 1990s to describe this demographic. Researchers used the term "family" to counter the stereotype that such relationships were casual and "fragile" to capture the idea that these partnerships face greater risks than those of more traditional, higher-income families. This fragility, says McLanahan, is rooted not only in poverty and ill-considered government policies that penalize couples for marrying, but in widespread acceptance in some communities of single motherhood and demographic and psychological factors that make it difficult to maintain healthy relationships.
Charlotte's and Darnell's parents illustrate the pressures that poor families face. Her mother was 15 when Charlotte was born. Her biological father was an addict. For most of her life, Charlotte's mother lived with another man, a "kind" person whom Charlotte calls a "functional junkie." Both died from HIV-related illnesses. Darnell’s parents were never married. His father died years ago, and his mother works in a hospital cafeteria.
According to CFUF, the absence of fathers, meanwhile, is damaging to the entire community — socially, economically and psychologically. Many believe it contributes to Baltimore’s high crime rate.
When shootings in the city spiked last summer — in a single weekend 20 people were shot — many grassroots efforts sprang up, organized by men asserting that absence from their children's lives was partly to blame for the violence. For months, dozens of men marched through Baltimore streets as part of recurring 300 Men Marches and weekly Enough Is Enough walks, initiated by Nick Mosby, a city councilman.
"My mom was my everything," says Mosby. "But never having a guy doesn't mean there isn't a void; (it means) that things are missing. These kids become men and women in pain, and this becomes generational pain. It is passed down."
A different approach
Joe Jones, CFUF's founder, wants to break that cycle of generational pain. Abandoned by his father at age 9, Jones says he quelled the hurt by trying heroin for the first time at age 13. In and out of jail, he was finally offered the chance to stay on the outside if he enrolled in long-term drug treatment. He had a son, and his absence from his son’s life was eating at him. Jones took the deal.
Sober, he worked to change his life. As a social worker in the Baltimore City Health Department, he discovered how few resources were available for fathers. In 1993 he launched Men’s Services within the health department, with the goals of helping fathers reconnect with their families, find employment, pay child support, overcome addiction and learn parenting skills. But soon it became clear to Jones that the need for such programs far exceeded what he could do within the health department. In 1999, with funding from the Ford Foundation, the Abell Foundation and other nonprofits, he founded CFUF.
Since child-support collections may not recover significant money because the parents are often broke, and because the buildup of arrears is damaging to fragile families, CFUF looks instead to increase the earning capacity of unwed fathers through job training, improved communication skills and parenting lessons. The organization also works with men to meet their child-support obligations and payments.
Over the course of six weeks, 10 couples follow a curriculum that teaches them how to plan the family's future, set and achieve professional goals, build credit and treat a spouse or partner with respect. Roughly 60 percent of couples complete the six weeks.
In the past 14 years, CFUF has served more than 25,000 Baltimore residents. During President Barack Obama's visit to the city last spring, the second stop on his Middle Class Jobs and Opportunity tour, he praised the center for helping people find well-paying jobs that strengthen families and rebuild communities.
After Maryland State Delegate Sandy Rosenberg heard Jones speak about the program in a 2011 speech at Johns Hopkins University, he wanted to learn more. Rosenberg had helped overhaul Maryland’s welfare system under President Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform. The CAT program sought to help the very people he saw missing from a social equation that focused on mothers and children — namely fathers.
"It’s a more complex problem than we first thought," says Rosenberg, "and therefore we have to go beyond just getting the mother into the workforce if we want both parents and the next generation to have a legitimate shot of getting out of poverty."
In 2012, Rosenberg sponsored a bill to adopt CFUF’s more holistic approach to fragile families. The bill passed last year on its second try, and Gov. Martin O’Malley signed it into law.
The law calls for a pilot collaboration between CFUF and the Maryland Department of Human Resources to implement CAT in three jurisdictions in the state, beginning with Baltimore. The Annie E. Casey Foundation provided $215,000 to expand the program, and DHR, $100,000.
As part of the new law, a CFUF employee will work at DHR's Baltimore office and recruit 100 couples. The couples must be Baltimore residents under 36 years of age and must have had one biological child together. Many see it as a potential leap forward for Baltimore families.
"This is radical," says Mincy, who was on the advisory committee overseeing the program’s expansion.
Both CFUF and DHR are eager for their collaborative program to begin.
"Sometimes you have accidental collaborations when stars align," says DHR's Hiers. "But it is not deliberate. Now we are deliberately looking at 100 families to see what it’s like when we break the silos."
I'm not going to let nobody else raise my kids.
Charlotte and Darnell consider themselves lucky. They have had six kids together, ages 2 to 14. Charlotte has been off cash assistance for four years and now works full time for a cleaning service, so Darnell is no longer subject to child-support payments to DHR. Unlike many men who enroll in CAT, he never fell into arrears. He was lucky again, he says, because he had a steady job and could afford the payments. Today he earns about $2,080 a month and Charlotte earns about $1,808. Both their jobs provide health insurance and other benefits.
Being off welfare, say Charlotte and Darnell, means they no longer need to hide their marriage. They recently celebrated their 15th wedding anniversary — at an IHOP. Both say that attending CAT sessions helped them get this far. The program, they say, worked with them to organize their finances and improve their communication skills. They also appreciated being treated as a family.Children often attend CAT sessions with their parents; CFUF provides transportation and dinner for everybody.
"I was just trying to keep us involved, doing family things with the family," said Charlotte. "We learned how to do trips together, to picnic together."
But they saw others fail, including couples in their CAT group.
"A lot of people are not established. The guys don't have a job. So how can they pay child support?" says Charlotte. "The clock ticks. If there's no job, the money (owed) builds up. They get angry because some of them already do (a lot) for their kids, so they want to know, 'Why you putting me on child support?'"
Even if the deck is stacked against Baltimore's urban poor, Darnell says the bond between him and Charlotte is strong. What's the secret? "Understanding each other," he says. When he pauses to explain, Charlotte cuts him off.
"Believe me, it's not all peaches and cream," she says. "But I know there's no one else out there. Also it's (about) my kids. You can't just think for yourself. You have to think of consequences of what would mess your kids up; that keeps me straight."
"I always say, 'I'm not going to let nobody else raise my kids.' If I'm dead and gone, that’s different."