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On the eve of its tenth birthday, the South Carolina Center for Fathers and Families is proud to point to its demonstrable record of strengthening communities and changing lives across the state by communicating, investing in, and advocating for the value of fatherhood.

An outgrowth of the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina, the Center is a faith-based organization, whose mission is to develop and support a statewide infrastructure deeply invested in repairing and nurturing relationships between fathers and families.

This mission is a natural extension of the Foundation that was established in 1996 to address the needs of the poor and underserved in the state. As fighting poverty is also a pillar of the mission of the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine, the Foundation was specifically charged with performing responsive grant-making that would channel resources to emerging and/or unmet needs relating to the issue of poverty.

In 1996 the Foundation formed a task force charged with responding to the following questions and defining the issue that would be pursued:

  • Is the issue a niche and does it represent an underserved community?

  • Is there any available research on the issue and can more research be done?

  • Is the issue palatable for public discourse?

  • Does the issue satisfy the mission of the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine?

Guided by those selection criteria and informed by the synthesis of research, the task force produced what would ultimately become the founding document for the Foundation and its first proactive grant-making initiative, "The Seven Dimensions of Poverty:"

  • Family Structure

  • Community Structure

  • Health

  • Economic Development

  • Education

  • Culture, Values & Attitudes

  • Life Skills

The Foundation found perhaps the greatest potential for development in the dimension of family structure particularly because of the multifaceted nature of its connection to the issue of poverty.

Research also revealed that while almost universal awareness of the needs and challenges of single mothers exists in the public arena, the recognition of fathers' needs - particularly those of lower socioeconomic strata - was less substantial, and the forums for discussion were far less numerous.

Statistics being collected highlighted a growing problem with significant social and economic consequences pointing to the relationship between father absence and negative outcomes for children. Those insights directed the Foundation toward "fatherhood" as a critical subset of the dimension of family structure. With the mission identified, the Foundation set its philosophy in motion by announcing that it would:

  • Provide services to low-income fathers based on best practices/research and

  • Provide money to deliver technical assistance and capacity building

Having partnered with University of South Carolina in 1996 to provide technical assistance, synthesize the research that became the best practices of the initiative, and design the program models, the Foundation developed its first funding project by 1997 and launched "Reducing Poverty through Father Engagement," commonly known as the Fatherhood Initiative.

The work of the statewide fatherhood initiative in those first few years brought a new level of public awareness of low-income fathers and the barriers and disappointments they faced to be active in their children's lives. The research emanating from the fatherhood initiative revealed that unintended consequences of certain government policies/procedures were shutting dads out of the system rather than reconnecting them to their families/children. To reduce these unintended barriers, the Foundation created the Policy Project Office to tackle policies affecting low-income fathers who do not live with their children.

By 2002 a loose network of about 18 Foundation-funded fatherhood programs operated around the state, but doing so minus adequate money and resources for full realization of their potential. Believing in the importance of this initiative, the Foundation approached the South Carolina Department of Social Services (DSS) about creating a partnership which would recognize the values contributed by both agencies. With the shared mission to strengthen fragile families, this partnership could coordinate and consolidate efforts, secure the initiative, keep programs together, and enhance fund raising efforts.

Out of that partnership the South Carolina Center for Fathers and Families was born and the Center was established in 2002 becoming the hub of the Fatherhood Initiative and the culmination of the Foundation's five years of earnest support.

The phenomenal growth of the initiative in the last decade is clear evidence of the wise decision to concentrate all of these resources under the stewardship of a new organization solely dedicated to fatherhood issues. The Center has been able to more than double both the Foundation's on-going investment and the number of financial and material resources available to its network of programs.

Initially, the programs that formed the core of the Center's services focused almost exclusively on men who participated voluntarily. However, experience revealed that a court-ordered model to address one of the biggest challenges of fatherhood, meeting child support obligations, could be a successful strategy for reengaging fathers who might otherwise be going to jail. Accordingly, the Center set a goal to expand its model to include court-mandated participants.

In 2006 that goal was realized when a North Charleston pilot project was replicated at several of the Center's sites. The model project was successful in gaining recognition for court-ordered participation as a rehabilitative option for fathers who agreed to the terms of the program. Demonstrating the success of that program - and with the generous support of the General Assembly - the Center for Fathers and Families expanded to create a program called "Jobs, Not Jail" that serves as an alternative to incarceration for low-income fathers who are having difficulty meeting their financial obligations. By 2009, the Center had replicated its alternative to incarceration programs at nearly all of its sites. The Center continues to promote this model as one that can be replicated nationwide.

In 2007, the Center added "access to healthcare" to its core of services, further expanding its scope. The demographics of the population served in the fatherhood programs reflect a vulnerable population of predominantly African-American, low-income, non-custodial fathers who struggle to provide financially for their children. Lack of health insurance and education, poor health habits, and a mistrust of systems, including healthcare, often result in the fathers ignoring conditions and suffering multiple health problems. The non-judgmental, trusting environment existing within the fatherhood programs has proven to be ideal for introducing and integrating fathers into existing community healthcare services. Those realizations led to the hiring of a nurse practitioner to visit four of the Center's locations for the purpose of conducting critical health screenings for low-income fathers who would otherwise not have had access to such care. And, the Center continues to push for additional healthcare-related services for fatherhood participants by aggressively pursuing grant opportunities in this area.

Building upon its experience of taking pilot project implementations to larger scales and impacting system changes, the Center and local fatherhood programs have created relationships with local workforce development agencies and with child protective services. Partnerships formed with local workforce development agencies have enlarged the understanding of barriers faced by fathers desiring to access workforce development services. Agency-to-agency partnerships also help fathers overcome barriers and/or affect internal policies and practices which results in more accessible and father-friendly workforce services. Lessons learned are being captured and used to expand and strengthen these partnerships and their effectiveness.

In situations where children are temporarily or permanently removed from the care of the custodial mother because of abuse or neglect, non-custodial fathers have historically been excluded from the process. Through a partnership with the SC Department of Social Services Child Welfare Division, the Center and local programs developed father-friendly training for child welfare workers in the form of a pilot project designed to encourage greater father involvement and define specific protocols when foster care placement appeared to be immanent for the child. Support was provided for fathers and their extended families so that a safe and nurturing home could be arranged within the family versus a foster care placement.

Entering its second decade of service, the South Carolina Center for Fathers and Families continues to support low-income men in their journeys to responsible fatherhood, especially in the arena of policy reform. With a ten-year record of providing capacity-building, leadership and consistency for its statewide network of programs, the Center now participates in national debates that contribute toward shaping policies, as well as, advocacy publishing based on its considerable experience and data collection.

Today the Center continues to expand its outreach, which now goes well beyond programming, awareness and policy research. Recognizing the extent to which the statewide legal, healthcare and workforce development systems are inexorably intertwined, the Center now advocates for comprehensive system changes which help rather than hinder the re-engagement of fathers with their families.