Halbert Sullivan is not about to let his audience off the hook.
Inside a packed theater in Midtown last month, he has taken command of center stage, alone. Sixty years old and thickly built, Sullivan used to be a "crackhead" and a criminal. Today he is the director of a nonprofit based in north St. Louis called the Fathers' Support Center, or, as it's known to some, "the deadbeat dad center."
About 150 people have gathered to celebrate on this spring evening, but Sullivan is stone-faced, sizing up the first several rows. Looking back at him are 42 male graduates of his latest "boot camp," an intensive six-week, 180-hour program designed to help mostly low-income, non-custodial fathers get their act together and reconnect with their kids.
Failure rate is about 20 percent, but the guys here showed up by 8 a.m., day after day, to practice job interviews, humble themselves, sharpen their communication and get an earful (if need be). Friends and family surround them in support.
Sullivan quizzes the latest batch of grads — a.k.a., "Class No. 89" — in his husky baritone: "What does 8 a.m. mean, guys?"
"Seven forty-five!" they call out in unison. They've heard it over and over: If you arrive on time, you're already late.
Sullivan first lauds those graduates who showed perfect attendance. He knows what good can result, he says, when a man rises early every day.
He himself sobered up in 1993. He then went to college and later earned a master's degree from Washington University. Now he owns a child-care center, an auto salvage yard, a flea market and runs the FSC. He and his wife, Jean, live in a subdivision in St. Peters.
Sullivan built himself up from nothing, and he demands his students do likewise — but not just for their own sake.
"Our children are in turmoil," he informs the crowd, which, like the graduating class, is almost entirely black. "In America, 24 million kids are growing up without their fathers. And 62 percent of that 24 million" — almost two-thirds — "are African American children."
The audience, fidgety after sitting for two hours, falls quiet. Sullivan is not finished.
Children in that situation, he continues, are more likely to commit suicide and land behind bars. As his voice climbs, he punctuates each painful stat like it's a poke in the ribs. "Seventy-two percent of them drop out of high school! Seventy-three percent of them use drugs! Eighty-two percent are involved in teen pregnancy!"
He erupts at last: "How about we break the cycle by having dads be dads in the home?" Wild applause lifts the room.
Sullivan's message is not new, though few people can drive home the point like he can.
The "responsible fatherhood movement" arose decades ago after the loosening of social mores in the 1960s caused a huge spike in the number of fatherless households. By the early '90s, study after study was sounding the alarm: Kids without dads suffered in all kinds of ways.
President Bill Clinton funneled federal dollars into a fatherhood initiative in the mid-1990s. George W. Bush carried the torch, and so has Barack Obama, who recently set aside $75 million for father services. In 2011 the Fathers' Support Center beat out dozens of applicants to snag $1.5 million of the pot.
"Trust me, a lot of people were mad and upset they didn't get funding," says Wallace McLaughlin of Indianapolis. His own fatherhood center, plus Sullivan's and a third in Baltimore are widely recognized as the only ones of their kind in the United States. "For a program that young to be able to garner so much local, state and federal support is unheard of. Halbert is a crafty negotiator and skilled leader."
Indeed, the FSC's budget now stands at $2.8 million and has grown by more than $100,000 every year since 2006, thanks to benefactors such as the Deaconess Foundation and the United Way. On June 14 a swank fundraising dinner at Windows on Washington netted the organization $40,000 in a single night.
Most importantly, the center's methods seem to be working: FSC staff boasts that 62 percent of graduates find a job, and 75 percent end up supporting their children financially.
But another number that administrators cite reveals the enormity of the challenge: In the city of St. Louis, more than half of all children and 70 percent of African American children live in female households with no husband present.
Sullivan knows firsthand how poverty can cripple a young black father. He knows firsthand how a felony can damage job prospects. He also agrees with black social conservatives such as comedian-activist Bill Cosby that institutional racism still exists. But like Cosby, he refuses to accept those realities as excuses for failure.
"If you want to change a man's attitude and behavior, you have to put some work into changing his perception," Sullivan tells Riverfront Times. "You're not a victim. Why do you want to be a victim? Why is it somebody's else's fault? We don't play that. It's you. What can you do about your situation?"
Halbert Sullivan grew up estranged from his own dad. His stepfather and mother, however, ran a no-nonsense home in Memphis, Tennessee. Polite manners, homework and chores were not negotiable. The family briefly moved to New York then decided to return to the South. A fourteen-year-old Halbert stayed behind in Rochester with his aunt. He says he "didn't want to keep up with the rules," so struck out on his own and started "hanging out where the thugs hang out."
He still managed to make honor roll in high school, but instead of graduating, Sullivan says, he ended up in the penitentiary — or, as he calls it, the "institute of higher learning for criminals." He got out in 1972, but by 1975, found himself locked up again for selling drugs — this time in the notorious Attica Correctional Facility.
"It was a very dark, gloomy, ugly situation," he recalls of the prison, which had been rocked by riots three years earlier. "It was so dark in that prison, we said you had to ship the sunshine up in there." His attorney had his charges reduced on appeal in 1979, and within months he was back on the streets.
Upon release Sullivan fell into his old habits. He'd already tasted the joys of pot, pills and cough syrup. Now he moved onto coke and crack. "That crack cocaine," he says today, "is the ruination of creation."
At the age of 30 he vowed to shake his new habit and for a short while stayed with his mother, who had relocated to St. Louis. "But when I left New York, you know who I brought with me?" he says. "I brought me with me."
Soon he was hitting the pipe again, back in Rochester, living the "horrors of addiction" — squatting in vacant buildings, panhandling, rarely bathing. Eventually he drifted anew to St. Louis. In July 1993, Sullivan says he awoke on a park bench outside Beaumont High School on the city's north side with no idea of how he arrived there. In the depths of depression, he checked into rehab.
Thanks to the twelve-step program of Narcotics Anonymous, he says, he's been clean ever since. "No relapses, no beer, no wine, no nothing."
The day after leaving rehab, Sullivan says, he enrolled for classes at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park. He earned his associate's degree in May 1995, then his bachelor's degree from Fontbonne University in 1996, then entered the master's program at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University.
Meanwhile, two white women — Doris Stoehner, vice president of nursing at Christian Hospital and Sue Breslauer of the Junior League — were trying to tackle the local problem of teen pregnancy.
"There were seemingly a lot of programs for pregnant teen girls," recalls Stoehner, "but there was nothing addressing the male issue."
They invited Wallace McLaughlin from Indianapolis to speak at a November 1996 conference about his own fatherhood service center. His ideas wowed them so much, they resolved to start their own program. All they needed was a leader. They made inquiries to a Wash. U. professor, who introduced them to Sullivan.
Stoehner remembers meeting the graduate student at the social-work building on campus.
"Sue and I walked out of there and said, 'Did we just find our executive director?'" she says. "We knew right away we had to have Halbert."
So they asked him to come on board. He refused.
"They didn't have no mission, no methods, no strategies," Sullivan remembers. "I said, 'All you got is a good idea. You got any money?' They said, 'No, we ain't got no money.' Lord have mercy." With a criminal history, Sullivan felt lucky to have just landed a job as a social worker in St. Louis Public Schools and decided to stay put.
One of his first assignments, though, altered his thinking. A fifteen-year-old student kept getting into fights. Sullivan soon learned that the young man was being mocked for having body odor, wearing the same clothes every day and not having the designer brands popular in 1996: Nike, Nautica, Tommy Hilfiger. So Sullivan helped get him some new clothes. He also connected him with tutors. Still, the kid often missed school on Mondays and some Tuesdays.
When Sullivan drove out to the boy's home to investigate, he found his mother (and other adults) drinking forties and smoking pot and crack in the family's two-family flat. Then he noticed the woman's other children milling around, and it all clicked: The mother would disappear on a bender each weekend then fail to return Monday morning. The student had to babysit his siblings instead of showing up for class.
"I realized that someone needed to be working with these parents," he says. He returned to Stoehner and Breslauer and agreed to direct the Fathers' Support Center. With the help of Jeffrey Johnson, a social-work professor at Wash. U., they came up with a six-week curriculum that includes sessions such as: "Anger Clues/Maintaining Your Cool," "Relationship Roadblocks" and "Redefining Manhood."
Two grants rolled in: $20,000 from United Way and $30,000 from the Joseph H. & Florence A. Roblee Foundation, a St. Louis-based charity that funds socially minded projects. But even with that, Sullivan didn't get a paycheck for the first two months. He had to live off revenue from his side business: hustling costume jewelry at a booth in Soulard Farmers' Market. When the FSC finally received the grant money, he put away his "can of earrings" for good.
The center gained 501(c)(3) status in December 1997, then opened for business the following May inside the Guardian Angel Settlement Association of the Clinton-Peabody public-housing complex, south of downtown. Stoehner remembers grilling hot dogs in the projects to lure male recruits.
"They were real skeptical of anybody wanting to do something for them," she says. "But Halbert could relate to them." Only a handful of dads enrolled in the first six-week session, and Sullivan was the only employee.
Soon, a small white nun from the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul approached Sullivan to ask if she could volunteer as a parenting coach.
"I didn't want no women around," Sullivan says. "But I couldn't say no, because we were getting money from the Daughters of Charity." He agreed to let her try it.
BANG! On a recent May morning, Sister Carol Schumer is slamming her hand on the table in front of Bill Russell, a member of Class No. 89.
"Bill!" she shrieks, jolting everyone awake in the FSC's basement classroom at the Prince Hall Family Support Center, a hospital-turned-government-building in the Penrose neighborhood of north St. Louis. "I wanted you to paint my car blue, but you painted it pink! Bill, you really screwed up!" She rattles off more mock complaints then calmly asks that he repeat them back to her. He grins. He can't remember.
"Gentlemen," she explains, "people don't hear us when we're yelling. It's wasted air. It's like James Brown said: 'You talkin' loud, but you ain't sayin' nothin'!"
Schumer, 65, looks nothing like her students: She's five-foot-two dressed in a blouse and a skirt bearing the colors of the Daughters of Charity, navy blue and white. But she never wears a nun's habit. "I'm white, I'm a woman and I have no children," she says, "I don't need to set myself apart like that."
She's not the only facilitator at the FSC: St. Louis Community Credit Union employees give a course on financial literacy and why, for example, payday lending is a bad idea. A woman from St. Louis County Department of Health lectures on the perils of fast food. Instructors from Computer Village impart basic skills in Microsoft Word and Excel. Schumer's specialty for the past fifteen years has been parenting. And today's lesson is about discipline.
She tries to keep it lively, but the mood darkens briefly as each participant describes how he was disciplined as a kid. Many recount beatings.
Extension cords, broom handles, canes and shoes: Schumer has heard it all. But the goal on this morning is not to make peace with the past. Rather, it is to renounce abuse so that it won't pass on to future generations, which goes back to the quote she'd displayed on the overhead projector at the outset of class: "Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see."
(She also loves putting cartoons on the overhead to emphasize her points; after one Dennis the Menace strip, she complains: "You guys don't even laugh at my jokes!")
If a child refuses to eat broccoli, Schumer teaches, don't punish him. Give him two choices you can live with: The child can either eat broccoli and go play outside or not eat any and stay put.
"Give your child some power," she says.
She then projects an image of two kids smeared with paint next to an empty paint bucket.
"It's not fair to yell at these children," she insists in her high, wiry voice. "Because children can't help it. The child is an explorer. Anything within their reach is fair game. It's not the child's problem. An adult left that paint there."
"Sister Carol," one participant mutters, "that's a hard pill to swallow right there."
After class, Schumer says she endeavors to remind her class how it feels to be a child.
"Many of them have not had a pleasant childhood," she observes. "They weren't allowed to be children, children who didn't have to worry and who were taken care of and were supported. That's one of the reasons why stickers go over so well."
Yes — she awards her dads with stickers for arriving on time: smiley faces, flags, monkeys and, as they grow wiser, owls.
The nun's stickers may seem goofy and her folksy demeanor an odd fit for a classroom full of men raised on the streets, but several members of Class No. 89 privately say that her class was the most illuminating part of the program.
"I had it out with my daughter the other day," recalls one recent graduate. "And I used some of Sister Carol's techniques: You say two or three encouraging things, and it helps get your point across. Use eye contact, use an affectionate gesture. Some guys will say, 'Ah, that's bullshit, that don't work.' But if you're open-minded and objective, believe it or not, it does."
"Man, this is jacked up!" fumes Charles Barnes Jr., facilitator of the daily circle discussion called "What's New" that takes place every morning at 8 a.m. in the basement classroom at Prince Hall. The clock now says 8:05 a.m. on the very last day of the program. Two members of Class No. 89 have trickled in late and outside of the required dress code for the sixth and final week: a nice shirt, tie, slacks and dress shoes.
"I don't care if it's 3:59 p.m. on the last day, I'll still drop you," he warns. Barnes, a large man with a salt-and-pepper beard, is sitting as he normally does: hands folded across his belly, a Buddha of responsible behavior. But his eyes are flickering like flames. "This half-assed mentality is not acceptable. That piece of paper you're supposed to get don't mean jack if you still have the same behavior as before. Is this what you're going to do with your kids? Make it all the way through then drop the ball?"
Barnes — a graduate of Class No. 3 who has facilitated for twelve years despite no formal degree in the field — later acknowledges that he's not always the most loved FSC employee.
"Oh, I've been called every name in the book," he says. "It's like that line from A Few Good Men: 'You can't handle the truth!' You're gonna get the truth from me. I don't want to give them the fantasy that life is easy. You may not like it. That's not my problem. It's not always pretty. But it's real."
To use his phrase, some participants have already "dropped the ball." Class No. 89 began with 32 students — about half of whom were referred by a probation officer, the other came on their own volition. Only thirteen have survived. Of these, nine have a criminal record, Barnes says.
One of them is 38-year-old Marvus T. Barnes (no relation to the facilitator). At six-foot-four and 216 pounds, he's a big presence in the classroom this session, and known to some as "Tic-Toc" for the pair of retail clothing shops he had by that name in north St. Louis. Those stores closed down when he got locked up for being more than $5,000 behind in child support, a felony in Missouri.
After leaving prison he joined the program by choice to tighten up his fathering skills and for the business resources it offers (the FSC says that it has graduated 1,689 men through the end of 2011, and its alumni actively network with each other).
But halfway through the six-week boot camp, Barnes became fed up. A job prospect collapsed, and he was living in Dismas House, a halfway facility. He planned to quit until Charles Barnes coaxed him into staying.
On this last day of class he's all smiles and sitting up straight in his tie and blue leather shoes. His eleven-year-old daughter has come up with a nickname for him: Mr. Getback, the guy who gets knocked down but always gets back up.
"I just got a text from my daughter," he brags to the group during the "What's New" rap session. "I'd texted her, 'I love you, study hard.' And she texted me back, 'Love you too, Daddy, a.k.a. Mr. Getback."
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce says sometimes she recognizes a young defendant because her prosecutors have locked up his father.
"It's very sad," she says. "I'm looking at a lot of cases where fatherhood has failed. A lot of the defendants that come across our desk have had no father influence in their life or a negative father influence in their life. We see that on a daily basis."
Joyce says that most of the time her attorneys try not to charge fathers who've fallen behind $5,000 or more on their child support with a felony because such charges just perpetuate the cycle. A felony makes it hard to land a job, and without a job the dad will continue to miss payments. Instead, city prosecutors hold the fathers in contempt of court, a lesser charge. She adds that a special "Fathering Court" is now in the works within the St. Louis Circuit. Judge Beth Hogan is planning to team up with the FSC to steer those dads away from booze and drugs and toward a GED and, hopefully, a job.
Joyce says she recently spent a day observing how her child-support enforcement unit handles cash-strapped dads trying to tread water in a gloomy economy.
"I was really impressed with some men coming and wanting to make arrangements. Some really do want to be good dads, but I get the sense that sometimes they don't know how to go about it. I can't help but think that if we had more programs like FSC, my workload would decrease."
U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay of Missouri's 1st Congressional District is also a big fan of the Fathers' Support Center and alternative methods for dealing with so-called "deadbeat dads." Clay says he's working with Congressman Danny Davis of Chicago on a new fatherhood bill that would, in part, present creative ways for dads to pay child support, such as getting credit by paying for their kids' doctor visits. The bill is still in the formative stages, Clay says, but he's consulted with the FSC staff on how to write it.
Clay, a Democrat, acknowledges that the Fathers' Support Center espouses a somewhat conservative philosophy, but that doesn't bother him.
"In the case of fatherhood in the African American community, we need to look at all our options on how we can better that situation," Clay says. "If it takes a conservative philosophy to strengthen families, then I'm willing to entertain it and be of help."
Class No. 89 graduate Nathaniel Lewis can attest to the benefits of a change in priorities.
Lewis — a 41-year-old former Marine Corps infantryman who served in the first Gulf War — left the service in the early 1990s and joined the drug trade. He wound up in federal prison for four years on conspiracy charges to traffic cocaine but recently got out and headed straight into the program.
He says his perception of manhood changed while in prison, and that change accelerated during FSC's boot camp.
When he was slinging drugs on the street, he says, he adhered to "the code," which meant: "Getting it any way you can; buying stuff we don't really need to impress people we don't even like; the more women you have validates your manhood; it doesn't matter what you do to the next man as long as you get yours. Man, that's bullcrap."
Especially harmful, he believes, is the notion among ex-cons that "it's cool that our kids do what we did because we did it. I've seen plenty of fathers and sons hanging out in prison. That's one thing in the program I really learned: You have to have courage to stand up and break the cycle."
The FSC's Halbert Sullivan, it appears, has taught him well.
Lewis continues: "A lot of times in society, and especially with our people, we have a lack of courage as men, and what we think is manhood and strength is really false," he says. "We have to have some courage to stand up and do the right thing. They say a lot of negative things about us, but I know we can win. It's just gonna take some hard work."