Day of the Dad

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Recognizing that changes in the family structure were creating new problems for fathers, Dr. James Levine had founded the Fatherhood Project in New York City back in 1981. Two years later, U.S. Representative Patricia Schroeder convened congressional hearings on the topic of "Paternal Absence and Fathers' Roles." And in 1994, the National Fatherhood Initiative was established to create "a broad-based movement" to restore fatherhood as a priority. By the mid-'90s, local, state and national fatherhood projects had the backing of both the White House and Capitol Hill. Still, early efforts in Colorado met with some skepticism from people worried that they might siphon funding from mothers' groups and hinder child-support collection efforts. "They did not see what we had to offer," Brady says. "We had to vividly draw a picture for them that the dads mirror the moms, that they lack the same assets and that they need the same assistance. If you empower moms without empowering the dads, you're not helping families. It was not an easy process."

In 1996, then-governor Roy Romer launched the Responsible Fatherhood Initiative, convening a task force to develop a blueprint for improving services to fathers. With that in place, resistance softened and cooperation improved. Under the Fatherhood Initiative, projects grew to include not only those organized by federal, state and city agencies, but local non-profit groups. People like Jim Garcia, Romer's senior policy advisor; Arturo Rodriguez, of the Denver Inner City Parish; Robert Conklin, who was with Colorado's child-support enforcement agency; and Kathleen Rodriguez, Conklin's Denver counterpart, joined Brady in developing programs to help fathers with everything from earning a livable wage to negotiating visitation rights to reducing domestic violence. Partners for Fragile Families focused on fathers between the ages of fourteen and 26. Head Start's Family Star and Rocky Mountain SER reached out to dads as part of its child-development programs. An umbrella organization, the Colorado Fatherhood Coalition, was formed to help cover any gaps.

"I never thought we'd have an impact on the bureaucracy and the culture," Brady says, "but we did. In the beginning, there was a perception that dads really didn't want to be involved and that all they wanted to do was make babies. But the truth is, many dads do want to be involved. The desire is there. A lot of them need help."

DiPaulo panicked. When he was married, his wife handled the kids. When he was separated, his mother, who'd moved to Denver, helped out with the boys -- all he knew was working, zoning out, boozing and studying.

But after his wife gave him custody of their sons, he was suddenly a full-time father, face to face with three boys looking to him for comfort, support and guidance. His mother bowed out of babysitting. His oldest son, then seven, lashed out. His youngest, Marco, acted up in school.

When his son's kindergarten teacher said that Marco suffered from attention deficit disorder and needed Ritalin, diPaulo agreed. "I figured she was the expert," he says.

But diPaulo didn't recognize his medicated son, so he began to read about ADD. And the more he read, the more he suspected that the boy had been misdiagnosed. He was right: Marco turned out to be gifted. Kindergarten had bored him.

"Right then, I knew I had to change," diPaulo recalls. "My sons needed me."

Although he'd completed the business degree he'd been working toward, he took a job as an elementary-school family coordinator. He began volunteering to read to his sons' class. He enrolled in parenting courses. He joined community advisory panels. He met other single parents, including one woman who became a strong source of support. He realized that he wasn't alone.

In 1996, diPaulo learned of a pilot program called Los Padres, funded in part by Romer's Fatherhood Initiative. During the fourteen-week course, he discovered things about being a dad that he'd never considered.

He learned to flick off his internal problem-solving switch and listen. He learned that if he held back emotions, they might erupt when one of his sons spilled a glass of milk. He learned that every child has different abilities and that playing a violin is just as important as doing algebra equations. He learned that if children don't feel welcome at home, they'll fill the void with gangs, drugs or sex. And he also learned that he was a role model -- whether he liked it or not.

If he plopped down on the couch and watched TV, his kids would, too. So diPaulo started switching off the tube and picking up a magazine or a book. Even if he didn't read, he'd pretend to. After a while, his sons started picking up books. Now the entire family reads for one hour each evening.

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Harrison Fletcher