“We know the statistics – that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and twenty times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioral problems, or run away from home, or become teenage parents themselves. And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it.”
– President Barack Obama, Father’s Day Remarks 2008
The national dialogue surrounding fatherless children weighs heavily on my mind, and the minds of so many leaders in and around Chicago. The challenges unique to fatherless households are overwhelming, and poverty is almost always at the core. The long-term consequences of this issue are extremely damaging not only to children, but to our entire society.
At A Safe Haven Foundation, we know this struggle well. We house and serve nearly 1,000 children annually, the majority of whom come from single parent households. We also house hundreds of youth (18-24 year olds) who have grown up without a father. Last year alone, we housed and served over 1,200 single parents, many of whom were fathers with children in the care of a single mother, or extended family member. Sadly, many single parents we serve also have children in the foster care system due to homelessness, unemployment, addictions, and incarceration history.
A Safe Haven understands the value of providing at-risk youth with role models in the community, and we offer numerous volunteer mentoring programs that result in positive relationships. We also prioritize helping single mothers, and make a point to house and support them as a high-need population. I am always amazed by the heroism of single moms as they single-handedly raise their kids. However, less attention is given to the equally important role of separated, poverty-stricken, and homeless fathers—a population A Safe Haven has identified specifically because their needs and issues are often overlooked.
Due to our unique community role serving every spectrum of the family unit, A Safe Haven has a different perspective. We know the ideal situation for any child is to have the love and support of parent(s) who are socially/financially stable, and involved in raising them. We do everything we can to rebuild the lives of single fathers with the added benefit of positively impacting the lives of their children and families as well. Financially and emotionally involved parents create necessary and important support systems for young children and at-risk youth. However, before anyone can reap the benefits of family reunification, a lot of work needs to happen. I like to compare this mindset to the airplane safety plan “Ensure your own oxygen mask is in place before helping your child.”
At A Safe Haven, we start with the basics. We assess parent’s social determinants such as: education, physical wellbeing, employment history, and employment potential. We begin the rebuilding process by addressing the root causes of their issues, through drug or alcohol counseling, education, financial literacy, and parenting education. We connect homeless parents to individualized services designed to ultimately reconnect them to employment, permanent housing, and family reunification. Through our partnerships with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), we are able to appropriately time the reunification of parents with children, and ensure the process is successful. Upon family reunification, we can accommodate living arrangements for the entire family and provide therapy and behavioral healthcare services for everyone.
An important thing to remember about the fathers and parents we serve is that, regardless of the way they came to A Safe Haven, they almost always experience tremendous guilt and pain. For fathers who have been unable to live up to promises, or who were in the grips of addiction and unable to support their families, feelings of inadequacy and guilt can be especially potent. Unfortunately, too many fathers in crisis find that fulfilling the typical role of a husband or father is not possible, and subsequently ‘give up’ or ‘check out.’ The resulting emotional cost leaves deep, unresolved wounds for everyone involved.
Once men and fathers arrive at A Safe Haven, they often express that they are eager to do better. I’ve heard time and again that they are seeking help specifically to be able to reconnect with their children. Most individuals at A Safe Haven must first work to build a strong foundation before family reunification can happen successfully. For some, this can happen quickly, but for others it may take months or even years. Each case is different, but it is crucial that reunification is not rushed to avoid a relapse or setback for the parent, or the child.
I would love to say that all reunions are happy and heartwarming experiences, however, the reality is that reconnecting in a meaningful way necessitates an incredible amount of strength, courage, and endurance. Reunion can be filled with rejection, hate, and accusations of past lies and disappointments. More importantly, fathers must be able to commit to renewed promises and honor their words with their actions. Trust becomes stronger with time, and the results of a solid, stable family are worth any pain or discomfort the process requires.
For over two decades, A Safe Haven’s model has successfully helped rebuild the lives of thousands of fathers in a way that has given them the strength and courage to reconnect with their children and families. I am incredibly grateful and proud to see men we serve to become positive, productive family members and role models to their own children. I’ve also realized that reunification can never occur too late. Whether the parent re-enters their child’s life when the child is 2, 12, 20, or 40, the forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation that occurs is truly a blessing.
I hear many amazing stories of fathers and alums who entered A Safe Haven’s programs when their children were small, and are now successful fathers of children who have gone on to do amazing things. It is always exciting to hear from our Alums about their children’s academic and professional achievements! Their successes are the type that many of us take for granted, such as making good grades or finding steady jobs. However, these success happen when children have a safe living environment, solid support system, and unconditional love and trust from their family at home.
As our society struggles with the issue of fatherless children, A Safe Haven understands that it is not always easy to inspire sympathy for fathers who have lost their way. Most of us find it easier to simply write them off. I urge you to consider the possibility of helping us support the fathers we serve as a way to reunite families and rebuild the lives of our children and youth. I can say with confidence that the fathers who receive help from A Safe Haven are working hard to get back on their feet and to do the right thing, not only for themselves, but for their children.
As we enter the fall season and begin the holiday planning season, let’s take a moment to be grateful for our own families, and thankful for our ability to support them.
God Bless You & Your Families,
Neli Vazquez Rowland
President and Co-Founder