On the second floor of the Dawson Technical Institute on Chicago’s South Side, a dozen African-American men sit around a conference table discussing the trials of fatherhood. “I see some of me in a few of my sons. Mostly the bad stuff, but I’m trying to change that,” says Eugene Bradford, a father of 18 kids with 13 different mothers. Others around the table nod in agreement. The meeting is a weekly group-counseling session, the centerpiece of the Fathers, Families and Healthy Communities (FFHC) program, a nonprofit in Chicago that helps African-American noncustodial fathers play more significant roles in their children’s lives. Sequane Lawrence, who holds a master’s degree in community economic development, founded the program over a decade ago to help African American men with a variety of social services. In 2011, he decided to focus specifically on reconnecting noncustodial fathers to their children, which he believes is a key strategy to combat the cycle of poverty in African-American communities, where nearly 70 percent of children are born into single-parent families. “When a father’s engaged, they are better off. They graduate from high school, girls are less likely to get pregnant,” Lawrence says. “To put it in a more positive way, they become really productive members of their community.”
Bradford sought help from the group a few months ago after he missed child-support payments and, following Illinois state law, had his driver’s license revoked. FFHC has been working on refinancing Bradford’s child support and helping him get his license back, but Bradford says he has received more from the program than expected. He says the group sessions in particular have taught him to connect in new ways with a number of his children. “It’s been enlightening since the first day,” he says. (Bradford’s case — 18 kids with 13 mothers — is an extreme example of an FFHC father, according to Lawrence. The typical man who arrives on FFHC’s doorstep is in his 30s with two or three children from different mothers.) Since FFHC started three years ago, Lawrence says he has helped around 150 fathers manage child-support payments, find work and improve relations with their children.