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Thursday, February 9, 2023

Smith: The important work of Fathers and Families Center

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This year marks the 30th anniversary of Fathers and Families Center. Since its inception in 1993, Fathers and Families Center has served roughly 21,000 men and their families throughout Indianapolis. I am humbled and proud to have been selected to succeed Dr. Wallace McLaughlin, who is the center’s founding president and CEO. In his 29 years at the helm, Dr. McLaughlin created a nationally recognized model for helping socioeconomically disadvantaged fathers to improve their life chances, as well as those of their children. I don’t know how big his feet are, but his shoes will be difficult to fill.

The story of the center’s conception is an interesting one. In 1989, a woman named Sarah Meadows was the head of the Social Work Department at then Wishard Hospital. As Dr. McLaughlin recounts in his history of the center, Meadows “was called to visit a young woman who was grieving the loss of her newborn and had to make decisions about (the child’s) burial.” The child’s father was in the hospital room, but was not consulted regarding the decisions that were being made. This deeply troubled Meadows, who strongly believed that young fathers could — and would — be an asset to their families if they were equipped, empowered and encouraged to do so.

In 1991, Meadows birthed an idea that became the Father Resource Program. She conducted research and consulted experts. Among those who contributed to the program’s development was renowned psychiatrist Dr. Alvin Poussaint. Meadows, who is white, believed that an undercurrent of racism contributed to the marginalizing of young Black fathers from being more actively involved in decision-making regarding their children. Her perception was validated by researchers, including the late Roger Wilkins of George Mason University. Due to Meadows’ persistence, the program was formally launched at Wishard in 1993.

Meadows hired McLaughlin as program director in November 1993, one month before he was awarded his doctorate. The first class of participants launched in 1994. The program quickly began to garner positive attention from social service organizations, academic institutions and business leaders. Crucially, politicians from both sides of the aisle began to recognize the vital work in which the Father Resource Program was engaged.

In 1999, McLaughlin, who is affectionately known as “Dr. Wallace,” led the successful application for the Father Resource Program to become a separate 501(c)(3) organization. Fathers and Families Resource and Research Center (the organization’s formal name) was certified. In a move that reflected her humility, Meadows joined the staff of the center, reporting to Dr. Wallace. Though she retired several years ago, Meadows continues to be devoted to the center and to the men it serves.

The center maintained its relationship with Wishard Hospital until the transition to become the Sidney and Lois Eskenaki Hospital. Fathers and Families Center continues to be proudly affiliated with Eskenazi. Today, we offer a variety of programs that are designed to address the myriad needs that our clients have. This includes providing the opportunity to earn a high school equivalency (HSE); earn a certificate in forklift operation, welding or other trade; obtain a commercial driver’s license (CDL); and be connected to employers who embrace hiring “returning citizens.” Most importantly, we help men restore and rebuild their relationships with their children and with their children’s mothers — even if they’re no longer romantically involved.

In stark contrast to widely accepted stereotypes, research demonstrates that Black fathers are more involved with their children than their white and Hispanic counterparts. This holds true even when Black fathers do not live with their children full time. While more than 70% of Black, non-Hispanic children are born to parents who aren’t married, research that Josh Levs conducted for his book, “All In,” indicates that roughly 60% of Black fathers live with their children.

Further, as New York Times columnist Charles Blow has pointed out, CDC data show that Black fathers are more likely than white and Hispanic fathers to feed, read to, eat with, play with, diaper, bathe and dress their children daily. In short, the CDC demonstrates that Black fathers are at least as likely to be involved in their children’s lives as dads of other races.

As we embark on our 30th year of service, Fathers and Families Center will begin expanding beyond Indianapolis/Marion County. We are currently considering how best to come alongside other communities that are inquiring about our programming.
Today, as we have from the beginning, Fathers and Families Center continues its mission of “Building a Noble Legacy of Fatherhood.”

Larry Smith is a community leader. The views expressed are his own. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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