Fatherhood policy vs. fatherhood practice: The question remains “How can you support a child if you can’t support yourself?”

This is William C. Bell’s keynote address at the 2009 Statewide Policy Conference for Washington state.


Good afternoon, and thank you for allowing me to share a part of this day with you.

I think this is an incredible opportunity for caring, compassionate people to come together and focus on an issue that should be important to all of us, because I’m a firm believer that caring, compassionate people – when they put their minds to do something – can change the world if they choose to. I want to talk to you a bit today about choosing to do the right thing.

I want to thank Marvin and his lovely wife, Jeanett for inviting me to be a part of this.

It’s an honor for me to share in this moment because I come at this issue from a number of different fronts. I come as a concerned citizen, as an active participant in making the world better for vulnerable children in America. And vulnerable children for Casey Family Programs is focused on what we used to say are the 500,000 children in foster care; and I’m proud that we can now start to say the 475,000 children that are still in foster care. Our 2020 effort at Casey will look to that day when we will say the 250,000 children in foster care, and watch that number continue to go down because people have chosen to do the right thing.

I also come at this from the perspective of a human services career that spans nearly 30 years of being focused on trying to change the path that young people are walking. One of my models that I look to in terms of how people live their lives is Rev. King. Dr. King said that one of his favorite songs was, “If I Can Help Somebody as I Travel Along.”

And so for me the focus that I bring to my work is that I want to know somebody personally. I want to intervene in their lives personally so that I know that I am helping somebody, because then my living is not in vain.

I come at this as a father of two little girls – one 2 ½ and one just two months. I remind myself about those two little girls quite frequently, because God forbid, if something were to happen to me or my wife, and there was nobody in our family who could step in to take care of these two little girls, I would want the system that, by default was going to become their parents, to be a system that I could be proud of. And I would not want anybody else’s child to be at the mercy of a system that I wound not want for my own. This picture (holds up picture of his two little girls) reminds me of why I must consistently be a caring and compassionate human being. Because it’s not just about somebody else’s children, it’s about my own as well.

I come at this with those two little girls having an opportunity with me that their two older sisters didn’t have. I have a 25-year-old and a 22-year-old from my first marriage. I had a duty and a responsibility to two young people, and that challenge of trying to parent from a distance is something that, if you’ve never had to experience it, it doesn’t quite trigger in you when you listen to these gentlemen talk about their lives. I don’t for one second suggest that my life was the same as anybody’s, because everybody has a different experience when you’re dealing with this.

And, I also come at this from in the 80s and 90s in New York City being part of a group called, the Black Fatherhood Collective.

This conversation has been going on for some time, and I think that it is time for the choir to begin to sing this chorus that I think has been reverberating in this room today. That chorus is one that says, we need to take what has been envisioned in people’s heads for far too long and move it into reality. That’s what DADS is doing. That’s why I’m honored to be in fellowship with DADS. It could’ve been that Marvin and Jeanett were just going to get their lives together and handle their business and make sure that their children had something. But without a vision, the people perish; and what they did was to say, if it worked for me, then I have an obligation as a caring, compassionate individual to make sure that it works for everybody else that I can touch.

What we need to be about is, as caring, compassionate individuals, asking ourselves, in a system where we say it is government of the people, for the people and by the people, what is our intent. What outcomes are we seeking to drive by our policies, and our practices, and our behaviors?

It’s important, as I started to say earlier, to recognize that there are no enemies in this conversation. Earlier when Marvin was talking about something going to the prosecuting attorney and nothing good coming from the prosecuting attorney; well,we love prosecuting attorneys. We love the folks who wok in TANF. We love the folks who work in child support enforcement. But what we don’t necessarily love is a system that we’ve allowed to evolve.

So, the first question that we should ask ourselves is, “what is our intent,” because your intent will drive what you do,and sometimes we are doing things because it has been written for us to do and we don’t question it. We just do it because it’s our jobs. We all want to get the gratification of doing our jobs well, because that’s how you get promoted. You’re given an assignment. You take that assignment on. You do the best possible. You outshine the folks around you, and you’re recognized and elevated.

But I think it is time to take a step back and ask ourselves: Do we have what we intended? Do we have playing out what we would choose to have play out in our own lives?

One of the things that I’ve learned from watching my 2 ½-year-old refuse to go to sleep at night unless daddy is in her room holding her hand; one of the things that I’ve learned from that experience is that every child deserves the opportunity to say, “I love you, daddy,” and to hear back, “I love you too, baby.”

Every child deserves that opportunity, and if our system is contributing to something different, then we need to question the design and the intent – whether conscious intent or unconscious intent.

I love the term, “child support.” What children should not be supported? Child Welfare. What children should not have their well-being in the forefront of caring, compassionate adults? But unless the outcome of the movement of the system is moving toward helping fathers build positive relationships with the mothers of their children; if it is not moving toward helping fathers spend more quality time with their children; if it’s not moving toward helping fathers understand how to nurture their children; then we must question intent.

How many of you had a nurturing father when you were growing up? I didn’t. I didn’t, and I paid the price for not having it. But I committed myself to understanding how to be a nurturer myself, because I didn’t want my children to grow up not understanding by not having the opportunities that were not afforded to me. Statistics about what happens to children who are raised in an environment where their father is not there say that there is a greater propensity that those children are:

  • Five times more likely to live in poverty,
  • Nine times more likely to drop out of school,
  • 20 times more likely to end up in prison.

You see, when caring, compassionate people know that this is the result, it’s time to ask the question: “What are we intending to do?” As we are doing our jobs, what are we intending to do? What message are we sending? Are we saying we want to help build strong, nurturing families around all children? Or are we saying we want to punish fathers who don’t live up to their responsibility? I think that we have to recognize in this business of helping fathers live up to their responsibility that it’s pejorative to say that someone’s not responsible, because we don’t know their struggles. But back to what I was saying, which of those is our intent? Because that intent will drive what we do and what we do will drive the outcomes that we see. If what we see is a wage that this father may never earn in his lifetime – it’s imputed at the standard of which he is responsible for paying child support, and all of the things that follow that imputation – what are we seeking to do?

I had to wrestle with these questions for myself, because I’ve been in the system, as I said, for over 30 years. I ran a child welfare system in New York City where, when we got a child welfare case and a child went into foster care, we sent the name to child support; and we collected child support. And when we collected child support for low-income mothers, we took the child support money to pay for foster care and gave a small percentage of that money to the mother.

It’s a question: “what are we trying to do?” It’s time for America – it’s time for caring, compassionate adults – to just look ourselves in the face and ask ourselves: “What are we really trying to do?” What’s our intent? What are the outcomes that we are seeking, because that will shape our response. That will shape the programs that we design. That will shape the experiences that people have when they come into our care.

Women, Infants and Children – that’s a wonderful program. How many of you are familiar with that program? (A show of hands go up.) How many single dads do you know who have been enrolled in that program? (One person raises hand.) OK, I’m happy to hear that. You’re the only one that I know. What did it take for you to get in? (Answer is inaudible.)

WIC — a great program with the intent of supporting children, but if that child happens to be living with a single dad, do they somehow lose their need for support? What is it we’re trying to do?

I’m not bringing you answers today. I should have put that disqualifying statement up front. What I want to do is to raise something up inside of you that will never allow you to sit and watch this continue and not take action. Because caring, compassionate people act when injustice is placed before them.

I had to wrestle with myself, because I’m reading stuff, I’m reviewing material that I’ve been given, I’m hearing from folks, that forced me to start talking about some things in a way that I might not be comfortable talking. I have to question myself and make sure people don’t get the wrong understanding of what I’m saying, because when you raise the conversation about child support, an immediate response from me to myself was: Don’t you believe that fathers should support their kids? Absolutely! Without a question!

But the question is, “how can you support a child if you can’t support yourself?” How do we help people get to a place where they can support themselves? How do we help people get to a place where they can unpack what is inside of them? How do we look at what we intend to do with our policies?

An example is in New York City, if you are released from prison on a felony conviction, upon your release, you’re disqualified from being able to live in public housing – because you committed a felony. What’s the intent? If the reason for public housing is to provide affordable housing for people who don’t have the income to get housing otherwise, and you say to this person as a father you are disqualified from this avenue to affordable housing, what’s the message?

What’s the question? What are we intending to do? What’s the answer? Support children. Build up child welfare. Make sure children have an opportunity to grow up and be healthy adults. Whose responsibility is it to do that? The parents. What does our system do to make that possible versus what does our system do – whether conscious intent or unconscious intent?

I didn’t tell you the consequences to a number of things that we do. My purpose for being here today is simple. It’s time for the choir to start to sing. It’s time for the choir to sing in a way that raises the stakes – that raises the stakes in terms of where are we going as a nation, as a nation that is capable of putting people in outer space and allowing them to live there for days, weeks, and months at a time; capable of sending supplies to refuel them; capable of using a mechanical arm to repair a broken structure in outer space. It is astounding how smart we are, how capable we are when we choose to do the right thing.

Some of you may know the story of a father who overheard his son praying one night. He said, “Dear God, make me the kind of man my father is.” Later that night, the father, as he lay down to pray, said, “Dear God, make me the kind of man my son wants me to be.”

As a father, who has a second opportunity to be an active participant in my two young daughters’ lives, who has an opportunity to avoid some of the mistakes that I made in my older daughters’ lives; it is an honor and a privilege that is priceless. But I think it’s time for America to ask itself a question: Do we really believe that every child deserves the opportunity to say, “I love you, daddy,” and to hear back, “I love you too, baby.”

God bless you. Thank you.