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Promoting Fatherhood And Families: Chattanooga's 'First Things First'

Friday, 13 June 2003 12:00 AM

As Father's Day approaches, it is a good time to take stock of the state of fatherhood and marriage in this country.

Some quick statistics from the National Fatherhood Initiative's Father Facts should make clear that neither institution is as healthy as many of us would like:

The women they are dating have a great deal to say in how the young men will act. Young women raised in families where the fathers are present and involved with the children are more likely to have enough direction and confidence to abstain from sex. They are much more likely to want a real marital commitment.

If the father is not present, then it's anybody's guess as to what happens, but, as the statistics above indicate, plenty of couples – teens or otherwise – have been guessing wrong.

Clearly, fatherhood is important, and not just for the sake of the mother. The father's presence matters to the children too, including young women.

Marriage went "out" in the late 1960s as "free love" was coming "in," and we have been paying the price ever since. The cost is paid in unhappy children, growing up without one of their parents present – quite often the fathers are the ones who are absent.

Families headed by one parent are more likely to be living on the edge economically and socially, oftentimes creating strained relationships between parent and children. Higher rates of criminal activity, drug use and low educational achievement afflict children raised in single-parent and stepparent homes than in two-parent families. [See: www.fatherhood.org/fatherfacts/sample.htm]

Fortunately, one community, Chattanooga, Tenn., is the beneficiary of a campaign to restore a culture of marriage that started six years ago, an effort that is deserving of national recognition.

Back in 1997, civic leaders in Chattanooga were grappling with the problems of crime, health care and workers with below-average skills. The more they studied those problems, the more they learned how the breakdown of the family had aggravated each problem.

Indeed, at that time, Chattanooga's divorce rate was 50 percent higher than the national average and it had the fifth highest out-of-wedlock birth rate among the nation's cities.

First Things First was formed with the mission of accomplishing reductions in the Hamilton (Chattanooga) County divorce and out-of-wedlock birth rates by 30 percent and to increase involvement of fathers in raising children by a similar percentage.

Mobilizing churches and synagogues, civic organizations, businesses, the medical community and local government, First Things First has conducted campaigns to promote character education, teen pregnancy prevention, marriage education, divorce mediation and fathering classes.

The results?

Hamilton County witnessed a 21 percent decline in divorce filings over six years. Divorce rates plunged 16.7 percent. Nearly 150 churches now require premarital counseling before performing weddings, in the expectation that the earlier significant differences between couples are recognized and addressed, the better it will be for the marriages should the couples decide to go forward.

Naturally, there are those couples that will realize it is better to break off an engagement rather than a marriage. That's good.

But there are those couples that have been married, only to contemplate divorce once the thrill of the first few months or years fades. Thanks to First Things First's efforts, more emphasis is being placed on divorce mediation to try to keep bickering married couples together and out of divorce court.

Teen out-of-wedlock births declined by 21 percent also. Public agencies are now starting to tell women that they are endangering themselves and their children by bringing babies into the world out-of-wedlock. The value-neutral message by the social service professionals is being jettisoned.

First Things First emphasizes that the more the bonds between unwed fathers and their children can be built early, the more likely it is that the father and mother will remain involved and possibly even marry. Mothers are encouraged to include the fathers in raising the newborns. A "Boot Camp for New Dads" trains new fathers in how best to take care of their newborns.

Julie Baumgardner, the executive director of First Things First, told Philanthropy magazine that the "polling research we consulted told us that individuals felt ill-equipped to build strong marriages, but that families were hungry to do that."

Thanks to First Things First, rather than simply accept the adverse consequences of the sexual revolution, Chattanooga is actively working to restore the importance of marriage, family life and fatherhood. That's good news.

First Things First's comprehensive effort in tackling divorce and out-of-wedlock pregnancies while promoting fathering is worth emulating in other communities too. Americans need to relearn what our parents and grandparents knew: that traditional family values are functional values.

First Things First realizes that strengthening family life and traditional values are keys to improving education and to reducing the problems of crime, drug and alcohol dependency, poor health and poverty.

There's one more success story from this program that's worth telling. First Things First acknowledges that two of their board members resigned. Was it because of a scandal? Not at all. The men realized that they needed to spend more time with their families.

First Things First: www.firstthings.org

National Fatherhood Initiative: www.fatherhood.org

Heritage Foundation Family Data Base for Information About Studies Related to Family Issues: www.familydatabase.org

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As Father's Day approaches, it is a good time to take stock of the state of fatherhood and marriage in this country. Some quick statistics from the National Fatherhood Initiative's Father Facts should make clear that neither institution is as healthy as many of us...
Friday, 13 June 2003 12:00 AM
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