Propriety doesn't necessarily come easy for Ransom, who has spent the last 10 of his 29 years with felons who were far more familiar with Miss January than Miss Manners. But here he is, aspiring applicant for a pretend position in the shipping department, trying to impress a pretend human-resources specialist with politeness and humility.
The journey, for Craig Ransom, has been a long and arduous one from the teeming North Side neighborhood known as "the Bud," fraught with trouble and temptation, to the confines of this classroom in a building near the projects, where wayward and disillusioned fathers come with hopes of turning their lives around. Ransom, a brawny, soft-spoken man, is determined to hunker down into the straight life -- regular job, permanent address, maybe a car. It may sound uncool, especially for a former "playa," but it works for Ransom, who needs the stability to provide emotionally and financially for Taronda, his 9-year-old daughter. The Fathers' Support Center St. Louis is offering Ransom the tools he needs to make it happen.
Ransom and Barnes are the focus of a small group of guys sitting around them, observant, notepads at the ready. This week, in December 1999, week No. 5 in the six-week program, is Job Readiness Week, and, accordingly, the fellows are attired in their finest duds. In previous days, they have gone through résumé-writing and job applications; today is the mock job interview. Landing a good job is key for these young men, all of them fathers, all of them estranged to some degree from their children. These fellow dads -- Craig Ransom, Ronald Ransom (Craig's brother), Edward Scott, Charles Thompson, Paul Webb, Leo Taylor-Bey and Edwin Furlow -- have given themselves a name: Fathers from the Hard Knock That Won't Stop.
After the mock interview, the guys conduct a peer review while Barnes, program facilitator and an alumnus of the program, makes a list of do's and don'ts on the blackboard: Keep answers direct and short. Always have an answer. "We don't accept 'I don't know' from our children," says Barnes. "Why should an employer accept it from us?"
A debate ensues over whether it is all right to wear earrings to a job interview. The consensus seems to be that it is OK, if they're not too flashy. Barnes says it is not OK. "Dress conservatively," he adds. "Try to coordinate, at least." Other points: Make eye contact, but don't stare. Use good posture. Smile occasionally. Avoid slang. Thompson, a peer, notes that Ransom lapsed into slang during the interview: "When Mr. Barnes asked him if he was incarcerated, he said, 'I caught a case when I was 19.'" That's right, he did, the others agree.
"How can we say that?" someone wonders aloud.
"I got put away when I was 19," a class member offers.
"Nah, just be straight," responds another. "Say, 'I committed a crime when I was 19.'"
"We all from the streets," says a fourth. "We got to live two different lives. We got to know when to turn it off, the street slang."
"It's hard!" admits Thompson.
"Think about this," says Barnes. "When they ask that question, say, 'Yes, I was. I made a mistake, and I paid for it, and now I'm trying to turn my life around.' See? You turn that negative into a positive."
Conjuring euphemisms for "jailbird" is only a tiny tile in the overall mosaic of goals set by the Fathers' Support Center (FSC), a fledgling organization that provides parenting and personal-development skills to noncustodial fathers. Located at the Guardian Angel Settlement Association in the Clinton-Peabody public-housing complex south of downtown, the center offers an intensive six-week classroom session that includes seminars titled "The Hazards of Being a Real Man," "Condom Talk," "Maintaining Your Cool" and "Paying Child Support" and culminates in a graduation. After graduation, class members' progress is followed for up to two years by FSC staff. There are job referrals, meetings with mentors they have chosen, individual and family counseling if they so wish. Essentially, the center is there for them -- to open doors, if needed.
The program has received enthusiastic praise from John Robertson and Nancy Vosler, professors at Washington University's George Warren Brown School of Social Work, who wrote in their "Report on the Pilot Phase of the Fathers' Support Center St. Louis": "The program has recruited and retained some of the most alienated, unattached non-custodial fathers in St. Louis. The program has gotten these men working and paying child support. The fathers are becoming actively involved in the lives of their children."
Ultimately, the program is all about children. Children -- and the second chance to establish a bond with them that these young and often down-and-out parents receive when they enroll in the program. Executive director Halbert Sullivan, who holds a master's degree in social work from Washington University, understands that there is no quick fix for these dissipated family units -- the fathers, their children, the mothers of these children -- though he is willing to start from the ground up. His working paradigm, which forms the basic tenet of the program, is simple, actually: By increasing the involvement of the fathers, the most fragile families can be strengthened, which in turn improves outcomes for the children.
For Craig Ransom, the program has meant an enhanced relationship with Taronda -- nicknamed C.J.-- whom he calls "the most important thing in my life." Like most of the guys in the program, Ransom heard about FSC through word of mouth: His uncle had gone through the previous six-week session and recommended the experience.
Ransom was fresh out of the penitentiary after serving 10 years of a 19-year sentence for attempted murder. "I was selling drugs and stuff," admits the affable Ransom, looking nothing these days like a depraved felon. "I didn't have no kids then -- just my girlfriend, and she was pregnant. I thought that dealing would make a better life for me and her. I wasn't even thinking about getting caught. I thought I was invincible.
"And I wasn't out of prison but three days when I looked around and realized I had no idea what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go." He was, at first, "lukewarm about the fatherhood class, but once I got to orientation and heard them talking positive, I thought I wanted to be a part of that. I knew what kind of father I wanted to be to my daughter; problem was, I didn't really know how to be a father."
Ransom is precisely the sort of person the program would like to help: someone who has come from a disadvantaged background, who has screwed up -- really screwed up, in Ransom's case -- knows he has screwed up and at last is ready to make a positive change across the board.
Craig Ransom is even more motivated than the typical estranged dad who shows up on the second floor of the Guardian Angel Settlement building on South 14th Street. He's got to go straight to please not just himself, his daughter or Halbert Sullivan but also his probation officer. And it is hard, man, hard as the mattress of a jailhouse bunk bed. "It took me going to jail to realize there ain't nothing gonna be given you, and it ain't easy," he says. "I could have gone to college, but I chose the streets. Now, I've really got to walk a thin line. I can't be out there acting a fool, getting stopped by police, because it only takes a split second to get you into trouble, but it takes a whole lot of time to get you out of trouble. And I can't leave her (Taronda) no more. I know that now."
Being in the fatherhood class, he says, is the best choice he's made in years. "It helped me tighten up my parenting skills," he says in a voice low and sleepy, sort of like a growl. "It helped me learn how to discipline her when she needs it and how to talk to her about issues that in the past would've been difficult. And, really, it helped to settle down. Just out of the joint, I would've liked to be in the clubs half the night, but now every weekend it's my time with my daughter, and we can go do things, have fun. I take her to the museum, the show. I can tell I'm a good influence, and that's good, that makes your child better. And just the fact that I'm there for her -- because I wasn't there for her for most of her life. She was born while I was in jail."
The Ransoms grew up against a backdrop of poverty and strong family ties. "That was a rough neighborhood," he says, referring to the crack-weary streets of the mid-1980s, in the vicinity of Fairgrounds Park on the city's North Side, "but we pulled together and we survived. Mom made sure we had necessities, but the things that you wanted, that wasn't always in the picture." The two-family flat at Kossuth and Harris avenues was occupied by Mom, Grandma, siblings, aunts and an uncle. Dad, however, was not in the picture. "I don't know where he went," says Craig. "When I was 12 or 13, I met him for the first time, and he started doing little things for me. He bought me my first car, but he wasn't ever really there."
Were it not for Craig's family, Taronda would have endured the same fatherless fate. Fortunately, even though incarcerated, he was able to see his daughter regularly. Some combination of his mother, grandmother and brother would bring her to the correctional facility, where they could sit in a bare, open room and carry on a near-normal conversation under the watchful eye of the guards. Those times kept him going, and though Taronda's mother, Yvonne Williams, never chose to visit, Craig passes it off: "She was doing her own thing," he rumbles. "I was doing mine."
Craig's younger brother and roommate, Ronald, noncustodial father of two children, has also done time for criminal activity, receiving stolen goods, but as far as he is concerned, all that is over his shoulder. He is off probation, finished with his GED (high-school-equivalency certificate) and enthusiastic about his stint at the Fathers' Support Center. At 26, Ronald is more than ready for a new start, and, in fact, things were looking up for the Ransom brothers back in January. Through the center's connections, both had secured work at Universal Printing for $8.68 per hour.
It takes a lot of folks to make this program work, but employers are the linchpins. Job training and job placement are a big part of the program, and most of the men are placed in decent jobs during the classroom phase, because as far as Halbert Sullivan is concerned, a good job -- "better than minimum wage, with benefits" -- is the key to removing the stigma of the so-called deadbeat dad, a father who often has little or no participation in the lives of his children. "We don't have deadbeat dads," Sullivan, 48, is fond of saying. "Some of them are dead broke," he explains, "and therefore unable, not unwilling, to lend financial support to their children."
Coming to class on time is good practice for getting to work each day on time. Despite working second shift and the formidable distance between their apartment in Baden and FSC, the Ransom brothers had perfect attendance records for the six-week classroom sessions, which begin at 8 a.m. "We encouraged each other to be here," says Ronald, a big man with a fullback's build. "We worked second shift, didn't get home until midnight, and after we'd eat and shower, it'd be 1:30 before we turned in -- and then to get up at 6 to catch a bus downtown and be on time."
The promise of work is a potent incentive to join the program -- that and the $75-per-week stipend the class members receive for showing up and participating. Most of these guys have bounced from job to job and are weary of that. They see FSC as a way to break out. "This program," says Ronald, "not only helps you get a job but teaches you discipline and responsibility that you need to keep that job, not just get paid a few times and leave."
Of course, all the discipline and responsibility in the world isn't going to help a man keep his job if the company decides to lay off personnel. A call to the brothers some three weeks after graduation revealed that both he and Craig had been laid off at Universal Printing.
More hard knocks, but the Ransom brothers view adversity as something like a brick on the sidewalk: It's in your way; you simply kick it aside. "It won't be long before I find something, through a temp service or whatever," says Ronald, upbeat. "We been pushed down so many times, ain't nowhere else to go but up."
Additional income would help Ronald achieve a goal that at present is out of reach. Unlike the others in the program who seem content with or resigned to the role of noncustodial parent, Ronald hopes to gain full custody of his children -- Tamara, 6, and Ron Jr., 8 -- with whom, along with their mother, he lived for three years. For that, he'll have to get an attorney and go to court. "I'm getting around to that," he says, "but it's kind of expensive." Meanwhile, the arrangement he has with his common-law ex is out-of-court and unofficial: He gets visitation "most weekends" and contributes financially when he is able. He picks the kids up at her house in a sort of hit-and-miss fashion because, says Ronald, "her phone is off right now."
On a recent Sunday, Craig and Ronald's three children were gathered at the brothers' small, modest apartment on Gustav Street, off North Broadway. They all made a day of it, taking in a movie, followed by a wild rumpus at the local playground and a visit to the bountiful steam tables of Old Country Buffet. "Being together, that's the highlight of our week," says Craig. "The event."
This sweet and simple family outing flies in the face of all too common perceptions that pigeonhole noncustodial fathers as deadbeats and users of young women who get them pregnant and then abandon them. It is a stereotype that Halbert Sullivan has been fighting since the center's inception.
"It is not unusual for society to believe that when a breakup occurs that involves children, the man just walks away from his obligation or he doesn't feel an obligation," says Sullivan, a confessed former deadbeat dad. "And I'm not saying this doesn't happen, but there could be reasons why the fellow doesn't follow through on his obligation. Now, these reasons don't necessarily make him right, but there are reasons. And one of the main reasons is that people break up so hard these days, with such negative feelings on both sides, that problems crop up."
"The female has the power -- well, she has the children, and she'll use the children against the man: 'You can't see them this week, you can't see them that week,' and things like that. The fella, in turn, will try to use the fact that he has the money to leverage that power: 'Well, if I can't see the children, then I ain't gonna pay this week.' And you can see how it escalates. That goes across the line, whether you're African-American, Hispanic, Caucasian, whatever -- those types of games are played."
Charles Thompson knows the situation all too well. He says he had to jump through various legal hoops just to see his newborn son, also named Charles. "At first his mom was rebellious because we weren't together -- the first three months of his life I didn't see him," recalls Thompson, 25. "I had to get a lawyer and get the noncustodial visitation." The legal process for unmarried couples, called a paternity judgment, is virtually the same as what married couples go through. After paternity is established -- a signed affidavit by the mother will do -- the father and mother go to court, where child support and a visitation schedule are worked out and made binding.
Thompson can identify with several others in the class who, like him, have had problems with the law. A rap for receiving stolen property, an unregistered gun he says his grandmother gave him for security on a return trip from California -- "it was stolen in 1972, before I was even born!" -- got him five years' probation. This was an obstacle for the clean-cut high-school graduate who, before his arrest, had worked as an auto mechanic and a baker. About the time the class started, he was $1,500 in arrears for child support and paying it off incrementally through a job as a driver with a school-bus company. Since graduation, Thompson has attended Franklin Truck Driving School and hopes to be pulling in good money while getting his life together. His only concern, he confides, is that extended periods on the road will keep him too long from his son, now 2 years old.
The fatherless household is a hot topic with motivated social workers such as Halbert Sullivan and Donnell Whitfield. "The fact that there are so few positive male role models in their developing environment does affect how these children perceive life," says Sullivan. "So a young man growing up in the projects or the inner-city ghettos, be he black or white, just doesn't get the opportunity to see the role of a strong, responsible male. This program started to change that. Not only do we encourage responsible fatherhood, but responsible citizenship. We want our men to be beacons into their own community."
Whitfield is a retired St. Louis city police captain and current executive director of Prince Hall Family Support Center, one of the social agencies with which FSC works. "Once you remove men from the household and the community, you have real poverty," he says, "the kind that can't be cured by money." Whitfield has read the reports from sources as diverse as the Texas Department of Corrections to the National Report on Teenage Pregnancy, all of which emphasize, to Whitfield, the vital connection between the committed father and the stable, functional family. Thumbing through the dry pages of various studies, he will tell you that 90 percent of homeless and runaway children come from homes where the father is absent or not involved. Ditto for 71 percent of high-school dropouts and 82 percent of pregnant teenage girls. "Is that any surprise?" wonders Whitfield. "When there's no father in the home to validate their daughter, tell her she's pretty and smart, guess what? Someone else is going to come along and do it."
Another entry in Whitfield's array of statistics, courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau, is that 65 percent of African-American families have a woman as the head of the household. "What does this mean to the boys in those households? " asks Whitfield. "Where do they find, in their immediate environment, that significant male role model, that pillar of strength? In the church on Sunday? Probably not. In the schools? Well, the majority of grade-school teachers, especially in the early grades, are primarily female. So where do they get that male role model? That's why programs like the ones Halbert and I run are so important. We are trying with all our resources and all our hearts to try to re-engage fathers in the lives of their children."
Walk out the door of the Guardian Angel Settlement and just beyond the small parking lot, on the periphery of the Clinton-Peabody housing project, are a battery of Dumpsters. On one of them someone has scrawled in white spray paint, "Mob Life Bettah." It's ironic that this message should be thrust in the faces of those trying to rise above that. Charles Thompson calls the slogan "a lot of nonsense," seeing it as reminder of how far the group has distanced itself from such sentiments.
To Sullivan, it comes a little closer to home. Before he reached out to places like North County, he went to all those nearby apartments and tried to recruit people. He talked to the guys hanging out in the parking lots with the abandoned cars that you could sit in to take a hit off a crack pipe. He extended his hand, and very few of them took it. But the altruistic social-worker spirit prevails.
"One of the reasons we picked this neighborhood is to try to effect change in those areas identified as most problematic," says Sullivan. "Even within that complex, there are people who want to do something different in their lives -- they just don't know how to do different. You know, you can wake up any day and say I'm going to go find a job and change my life, but when they step outside the house, there are so many negative influences that will prevent them from following through with that. We want to be there to try to get in the way of those negatives and help them stay on that path of trying to change their lives. Some are just caught up in their environments and they can't break out. We're there to try to help them break out and to show them how you can be successful in changing your life."
FSC graduates six to eight dads a session, and with the recent opening of a second site at St. Jane Catholic Community Center in North County, add another eight dads. Critics may reasonably say that churning out a mere 16 caring, responsible fathers every few months isn't going to make a dent in the larger issues of poverty, lack of skills, promiscuity sans birth control and dependence on welfare. Not when, as of March 1999, according the Missouri Division of Family Services, 12,852 families in the city of St. Louis were receiving cash benefits in the form of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. This figure expands to 27,378 children on the welfare rolls, offspring who by and large live in single-parent households in which, we may surmise, the father is but a shadowy figure. Or perhaps he is there but, as Donnell Whitfield maintains, in a sort of here-today-gone-tomorrow underground capacity.
But to social-work professor Nancy Vosler, even a small number of stand-up dads is better than none: "Granted, there are lots and lots of families who need this program, but for the ones who are fortunate to have a father enrolled, this is a small window of hope, because if they can get a stable job, get involved or re-involved with their kids, pay child support and/or co-parent their children, then the kids have half a chance. Now, they're still going to be in poverty or right on the edge of poverty, but likely to have a more stable life and not be so cut off from everything. And that's what's so exciting to me about this program. I'm at a point where I'm grateful for small blessings, and this program seems to be working for this handful of fathers that every few months are going through, getting jobs and getting connected to their children."
The posters on the walls of the windowless classroom offer diversion for those who seek it. "Fathers Make a Difference" reads one. Another shows a picture of a darling little girl, about 3, with the caption "She's counting on both of you. Establish paternity." Still another throws out a challenge: "Thinking About Becoming a Parent? Get an Education. Get a Job. Get Married. Then Have a Child."
In the middle of the room, to the rapt audience, Charles Barnes drives home a point about self-control and the Big Picture. "Your girlfriend, the mother of your baby, you can't control either one of these females. What you can control is you. We have a tendency to argue with that female, and it's not necessary. Let it go. I call it 'kissing.' Just let it go. Are you trying to make a point, or are you trying to see your child?"
This homily is met with a chorus of righteous rumblings. Learning patience and tolerance and, conversely, leaving Neanderthal behaviors behind represents a huge step forward for many of the guys. Testimonials are readily elicited.
"When we came here, we were below bottom," says Ronald Ransom, speaking for himself and Craig. "We had to jump to touch bottom. Most of us didn't know how to do things but one way, and that way was a kind of fly-off-the-handle way -- part of what Mr. Barnes calls 'that stinkin' thinkin' -- which got us in trouble. I know I've taken a load off since I got here. I can cope better, especially with my ex, and now," he admits, "I'm not as likely to punch a wall because she's acting stupid."
The "ex" and mother of Ron and Tamara is Francine Davis, 30, a work-study student in the communications department at St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley. Both she and Ronald say that, until recently, they had not spoken for two years, possibly three. And although Davis doesn't know too much about the class -- "He told me it teaches you how to be a better father" -- she can tell something is at work.
"I have noticed a tremendous change, considering before. He comes to get the kids more often. He spends more time with them, and he's started to help out with clothes, a few outfits here and there." Davis notes an important distinction in her and Ronald's new era of cooperation -- namely, that they don't engage in friendly chitchat. "We don't really communicate about anything personal between us," she says, "only as far as the kids are concerned."
Now that the lines of communication are reopened, Ronald has had to face parenting dilemmas. On re-entering the picture, for example, he didn't like what he heard -- that his children were below grade level in reading and that his son had been held back a grade. "I felt bad; I wasn't keeping up with them," he admits. "She felt it wasn't that big a deal. 'Everybody flunks once in their life' was what she said. I could've put it all on her, but I saw this situation as part my fault. I said, 'We got to do better. Not just her, but me too. First thing," says Ronald, "I went out and got some First Reader books."
Every father who enrolls in the multifaceted program gets a healthy dose of life lessons, and each fellow finds something to latch onto. Like Ronald Ransom, Charles Thompson feels that learning "how to better communicate with my child's mother" was the best thing he got from the program. "For example," he says, "at first we couldn't talk on the phone to each other. She would say something where I know she's trying to piss me off, and I would just blow up. Since I've been in the program, we have not had an argument, because I've learned how to humble myself and show her a different side. I don't even let it get to me no more. It takes two to argue, and if I don't participate, it's not an argument."
If Thompson is sincere, it is a lesson to us all. Though the moral qualities of tolerance, patience and humility are woefully lacking in society at large, they are viewed as a requisite for success in the Fathers' Support Center program. Nor is it easy embracing these virtues, summoning one's inner Gandhi at will. In fact, many of the participants are goaded and badgered toward this higher state of fatherhood, at which they may arrive emotionally bruised but nonetheless better for the experience.
"It's very difficult to change a person's mindset, to get them moving in a new direction," says Sullivan. "I, for one, don't think that change is going to happen if you're just coddling them and patting them on the back. I did a lot of research at Washington University, and traditionally the way we approach our social services and delivery of services has been that nice, gentle approach, and it has not worked. So we take another approach."
Some call it the boot-camp approach. The first two weeks are the toughest, with Sullivan and Barnes playing the thankless role of drill instructor. Nothing gets by them. Throughout the six weeks, the men's $75-a-week stipend is docked if they are late or leave early. They are fined if they curse or show disrespect to the staff. As in real-life boot camp, not all the recruits make it through the program. During this session, for instance, two participants didn't make it to graduation. Sullivan, a believer in confidentiality, won't say exactly what they did to fail muster, but it's a good bet it had to do with attitudinal adjustment -- or lack thereof. "You come here because you want to come here, stay because you want to stay," he says. "I don't accept their reasons why they can't do something. I've got tunnel vision. Here you do what's right." Not that Sullivan and Barnes are giving up on these guys. They will have the chance to get "recycled." If they are serious about completing the program, they have to start anew.
"What's unique about this program," says Barnes, "is the combination of compassion and disciplinary action. We have to project the reality of life situations that these men will face. We can't sugarcoat it. And some do come here with a lot of garbage," he continues. "The world is wrong, and they're right. They don't want to open up. The attitude is 'I'm a man, I can handle it.' Our response is 'Well, if you were handling it, brother, you probably wouldn't be in the situation you're in, so please let someone help you.'"
The way it works, according to Sullivan, is that as the individual's behavior starts to change, the group dynamic starts to change, positive reinforcement sets in and confidence and self-esteem accrue, influencing the program as a whole. The guys start to think of themselves not as disparate characters out for themselves but as a cohesive unit built on fellowship. It worked for Edward Scott, the youngest dad in the group. Scott joined the program after his brother handed him a flier. His take on the dynamics of the group? "It's a good bond now," he says. "Wasn't like that in the beginning. Everybody here's been on the streets. They've experienced so much, at first it was hard to interact. One guy'd give his opinion and someone else would get upset. Finally we all agree to disagree. It's a cool group -- I like it."
Scott, personable with a penchant for nice clothes, is another FSC success story. He, too, had run afoul of the law and was on probation from ages 16-21. But now, at 22, that's all behind him, and he's hungry for education. His postgraduation choice is not to work but to be a full-time student. Meanwhile, he sees his infant daughter three to four times a week, more frequently than before he began the fatherhood program.
"I'm more in her life now," Scott says. "We've started to establish a bond. Even my relationship with my baby's mother has improved -- better communication, no little petty arguments. We can be around each other. I used to not take responsibility," he offers. "I had problems with my father, my family, my girlfriend, my baby's mother, and then I looked at the one common denominator in there, and it was me. I thought, 'All these people couldn't be wrong.' I had to be the one. I had to step outside myself and take a good look at myself. I wasn't being very appreciative; I wasn't showing any gratitude."
The graduating class seems to have had scattered success. Edward Scott, whose goal was to climb the academic ladder rung by rung until he reached the top, with a Ph.D. after his name, had planned to start St. Louis Community College-Forest Park. However, his financial aid fell through, and of late he has been looking for work. Charles Thompson went through truck-driving school and became an over-the-road driver. He sees his son when he can.
Between them, the Ransoms have gone through a series of jobs. Craig now works full-time, with benefits, at Paul Flum Ideas Inc., a marketing/manufacturing company. After Universal Printing, Ronald worked at Nellcor Puritan Bennett, a respirator manufacturer, and the Loan Co., as a mortgage broker. Currently he's a laborer for the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
Each of these jobs, says Ronald, came by way of referrals from the Fathers' Support Center. "I've only been back once, but we've talked by phone a lot. We're always looking for better opportunities, something that can be permanent with better pay and benefits, something that will fit in with our lifestyle -- because, you know, we got kids."
For more information, see Support System.