It's been over a year, but I can still sense the silent, awkward pause on the other end of the phone. When I talked with Emil, he spoke excitedly about his work with fathers in Torrington, CT. When I asked him "the why" behind his work with fathers, his tone changed from excited to convicted. In 40 minutes of conversation, I learned what's happening with dads in Torrington while being reminded of the conviction it takes to lead.
In 2000, there were 676,467 married households—52 percent of the state population in Connecticut. By 2010, that number had dipped to 672,013—49 percent. That's even considering the overall population of the state having grown from 3.41 million to 3.57 million. We have talked about Connecticut and fatherhood in the past, but another story is worth sharing.
Family Strides is an organization located in northwest Connecticut, who helps families and communities to ensure healthy pregnancy outcomes and positive parenting practices in order to strengthen families and reduce the incidence of child abuse and neglect. Family Strides has seen the above pattern of marriage and fatherhood take place in its community. In fact, the only place in the entire county that was serving fathers was the child support system, and the only place to send fathers who were not paying child support was prison. That is, before Family Strides came along.
Thirty-five minutes from Hartford is Torrington. For this county, there's a different option, besides jail, for dads who need help. A man named Emil is helping dads see that the role they play in their children’s lives is much more than just paying child support. Through our 24/7 Dad® Program, we have helped Family Strides teach dads to be better fathers.
Where does Family Strides find dads to help?
Whereas some organizations may find it difficult to recruit dads to attend a fatherhood program, Family Strides doesn't recruit. How do they get dads to attend? "Every father thinks he knows what he’s doing," says Emil, "There's so many programs for mom. But dad has nothing." He continues, "We ended up going into court system in the county, into the child-support court systems. They had no place to send dad but prison, or anger management."
The county magistrates, before Emil and his group came along offering something different, had nothing but prison for dads who didn't pay child support. "If the dad doesn't pay child support, you warn him...you warn him..you warn him...then you lock him up.", Emil explains. Emil has been in that court system for 10 years. Now, he doesn’t spend time recruiting dads. He works only from referrals like: family courts, hospitals, employment agencies, head starts, and other community-based organizations.
“I’ve worked with over a thousand dads, ” says Emil. The biggest issue? "Many men feel their job is to put roof over head and feed them (kids)—and that's where it ends. Nothing more..." says Emil. Emil asks dads he meets, "When was the last time you went to a parent-teacher conference?" Emil explains, "Most dad's will answer: isn’t that her (mom's) job?" Emil will also ask, "Who's your child's first teacher?" He recalls from years of experience, dads will always give the name of their child's teacher at school. Emil will then say, "No, dad, you are...you are the teacher.”
What happens in the fatherhood program?
Must dads think they are the only ones to ever make a mistake. But something magical happens when I dad gets with other dads in a group. He starts to realize, "Yeah, I screwed up, but so did he." For maybe the first time ever, this dad learns that we all make mistakes. Emil explains, "You can make a 30-minute mistake. But, you can’t make a 30-minute mistake daily." At some point, we have to find a reason to live better stories. For some, the child is that reason.
There is nothing more valuable than your child. Nothing. Not the size of your house, how much money you make, what kind of car you drive, or what kind of vacation you take. Every decision you make has to place your child first.
Dads who attend Emil's group learn everything related to fatherhood, from relationships and communication, to discipline. Emil points out, when all a dad knows to "teach" a child is yelling—dads must learn that they have other options. For a topic as seemingly simple as discipline, understand you're only gonna do, as a dad, what you were taught and what was done to you.
Sadly, most dads Emil sees don't want to be like their own dad. But, as Emil explains, "they are 50 percent their dad and 50 percent of mom." You are the sum of your experiences and education. How you were parented is often how you parent. This is all fine and good unless you had less-than-perfect parent models. Emil explains, "Alcoholism is a big issue. Drug abuse is an issue. Economy and jobs is an issue." He often asks to meet the dads' kids. Experience shows, "I can’t help everyone..but, when the father starts seeing how much he can help his kid, he can change..." says Emil.
Emil often meets the children of the dads he works with, "I ask them, 'what do you think of this guy?'...when they say, 'He’s my daddy. I love my daddy. He’s my world...' These fathers break down. They haven’t heard that before. A light-bulb goes off.." recalls Emil. It's a 13-week fatherhood course. Emil says, "I don’t throw guys out of the class after 13 weeks. They are all welcome to keep coming. They come back occasionally. I have gentlemen that come back for the last six years at least monthly."
The Why Behind the What
Emil started helping dads in Torrington 10 years ago. At the time, he had a 12-year-old daughter and an infant soon. Emil had a strong relationship with his Dad, recalling over the phone how his dad used to tell him, “I love you so much it hurts.” Emil recalls the first person he called upon having his son was his father, simply to say, “Now I understand what you mean.”
Emil's son, Emil Jr, was born with an intestinal problem. At three days old he was transferred to a special teaching hospital in Connecticut. It was 10 days later, Emil's son was diagnosed as having Down Syndrome. His son got some better as time went on, but they lived in children's medical center. After a few years, Emil lost his son to leukemia. “As a dad, there is nothing worse than being helpless.” I listened as Emil recalled those helpless times of walking the hallways of the hospital. I listened to Emil's voice shake as he shared with me.
Emil explained, with conviction, why he cares so much about fathers. He says, "I still use my son in teaching the group." When a dad says “I stay away because 'she' (the mother) won’t let me...” Emil will reply, “I’d love to trade with you. You are choosing not to see them. I can’t choose...You can get on a phone and call at least. You can make your visits. I can't see my son anymore. I go to a stone."
How does Emil know his work with fathers matters?
At his son’s wake, over 200 dads attended. As we closed our conversation, Emil has a message he wanted all dads to understand about having kids:
They need you all their life…be there. You need to be the man you want to see your daughter with. You don’t want to see your son brutalize girls. So you don't need to brutalize the child's mom. Be there for your child. Nothing is more important.
For Fatherhood Program Leaders > Learn more about Emil's work with fathers in Connecticut.