The sun is peeking up outside the frosty window, but Lee Cody Wilson is already juggling at full speed in his Minneapolis apartment.
He’s ironing the white school shirts for his sons, 7-year-old Jontae and 4-year-old Jameeko. He’s handing a bottle of formula to Kennon, his 11-month-old daughter, in her playpen. Jameeko can’t find a shoe, so the search is on.
“Brush your teeth and gargle and then I’ll get you a Pop-Tart,” he tells the boys, dangling an incentive.
The hectic routine is one faced by an increasing number of fathers. As a single dad, Wilson is part of one of the fastest-growing segments of Minnesota’s population. By 2030, the number of single-father families is expected to climb 55 percent — from 6 percent of all households counted in the 2000 census to nearly 10 percent, according to state projections. It’s not certain why that number is growing, but it is clear that single dads often face additional challenges in raising a family. Surveys show they often have more employment and housing problems than the mothers of their children, as well as less education.
Also, Minnesota’s Voluntary Recognition of Parentage form, which establishes a legal relationship between father and child when the parents are not married to each other, spells out dads’ rights in black and white: “When a child is born to parents who are not married to each other the law gives custody of the child to the mother. If the father wants a different custody arrangement, he must go to court.”
Policy changes would acknowledge and support dads who are shouldering greater parenting responsibilities, according to family court experts and parenting advocates.
“We want to keep men stable, happy, healthy and connected to their kids so the next generation can break the cycle of fatherlessness so many dads today have experienced,” said Kirkland Johnson, who runs a Young Dads program that serves nearly 300 men a year at the Employment Action Centers in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Nationally, census figures show the number of male-led households with children went from 616,000 in 1980 to more than 2 million in 2005.
“The role and definition of fatherhood has really changed in one generation — from being primarily the breadwinner up until the 1980s to more of a nurturer today,” said Paul Masiarchin, director of the Minnesota Fathers & Families Network, a statewide coalition of dozens of dads groups.
“The consciousness has changed and now some of the policies need to reflect the new reality,” he said.
Nearly one-quarter of Minnesota households with kids were run by single parents in 2000. By 2030, projections show that single-mother families will increase by less than half the rate of single-father homes.
How to break the cycle
Wilson is among the 20 or so men who met weekly at the Young Dads program in Minneapolis. The 17-week sessions include anger management classes, job counseling and housing help.
Leaning on fellow dads helps Wilson through the stressful times.
“If you have problems with your babies’ momma, it’s good to bounce off people in the group,” he said.
The Young Dads are becoming increasingly political, holding informational protests at courthouses, county board meetings and state child-support offices. They’re working on trying to amend the system to enhance fathers’ rights in custody cases.
“Groups like Young Dads justifiably believe that committed relationships with their children will benefit not only the children, but the dads,” said Hennepin County District Judge Bruce Peterson.
For members who have criminal histories, the group has a list of several dozen landlords who are willing to take a chance that the dad training merits a second chance.
Struggles: legal and otherwise
Most of the other 20 men in the weekly meetings are struggling with the legal system to win at least partial custody of their kids.
Matt Garayt, 25, recently got out of jail for an assault conviction that, he said, stemmed from a fight with a guy who used a date-rape drug on another friend.
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