Focus on Fathers Program Grows in Philadelphia


In 2004, D'Juan Diggs moved to Philadelphia with his girlfriend and three children. More than anything, Diggs wanted to create a stable environment for his children. Diggs recalls, "We were living in a small apartment trying to save for something bigger." Unfortunately for Diggs and his family, time and money soon ran out. Their family had to be placed into the shelter system through the Philadelphia Department of Human Services (DHS).

Gerrell Jones's story is similar. After watching his home burn to the ground, he knew his only option was to move his family into a shelter. "Not having anywhere else to turn to, we had to move to a shelter temporarily," said Jones. Even more painful to Jones, however, was the inadequacy he felt as a father. "Not having a place to call my own was affecting my pride."

Although Diggs, 31, and Jones, 33, moved into Philadelphia shelters for different reasons, they both found one unique program to unite them as fathers. Focus on Fathers, a program of Resources for Children's Health (RCH), is the only program of its kind in Philadelphia - focusing strictly on developing and maintaining father-child relationships.

Sulaiman Wood has been working for RCH, an affiliate of Public Health Management Corporation (PHMC), for more than six years and is currently the Focus on Fathers project manager. "Our program is one of the few places where men can come together as fathers and engage in parenting issues," says Wood. Jeanne Ciocca, executive director of RCH agrees, "Too often, services for men do not focus on parenting or fatherhood, but instead focus on employment, child support or legal issues. Focus on Fathers starts with the premise that fathers want to take an active parenting role in the lives of their children, and should be supported in their efforts to do so," says Ciocca.

Jones had always considered himself an active father but was surprised that his shelter lacked parenting assistance. When he began to inquire about parenting classes outside of the shelter, he was referred to RCH who then invited him to a Focus on Fathers meeting. "I ended up loving it so much that I asked if we could bring the program into shelter," recalls Jones. Soon representatives from the Focus on Fathers program began visiting the shelter on a regular basis, providing parenting education classes, peer support and discussion groups, individual case management, and father-child activities. The program comforted Jones, "I didn't have to worry whether or not my child would be okay, even though she didn't have her own room anymore," he says.

While in temporary housing with his family, Diggs was approached by Focus on Fathers parent educator, Robert McIntyre. Although wary at first, Diggs decided to sign up for the program - he didn't have much to lose, he says. "In my own personal thinking, this was the last thing that I needed considering my housing situation." But the stress of being the primary caretaker of his family was taking a toll on Diggs. "The program offered me a way to voice some issues about being a better father and caretaker. It also helped me deal with the shelter environment." As he continued in the program, Diggs began to appreciate its benefits. "I realized the distinctiveness of the program, something just for men, a forum to talk about serious issues pertaining to our own individual families."

It was with those very same goals that Focus on Fathers began in 1997. The only federally-funded fatherhood program in Philadelphia, Focus on Fathers is also a member of the DHS Parenting Collaborative. The Collaborative, established in 2001, is a network of more than 70 parent-education programs and operates under the direction of the Philadelphia DHS.

Research from the National Conference of State Legislatures (2000) has found that fathers are often "unsure of what is expected of them as men, partners and fathers" and assume their families are "better off without them." RCH recognized this problem. "[We] provide parenting education and support in a variety of settings throughout Philadelphia," explains Ciocca. "Through our work, it became evident to us that an important population was underrepresented - fathers. The overall goal of Focus on Fathers is to increase the participation of fathers in activities that support an active and positive parenting role."

After completing the Focus on Fathers program, Diggs, was asked to join as an employee. Diggs's unique position as a former shelter-resident helps him to reach out to other participants. "You have to understand that men, especially those in the shelters, are skeptical about getting real help," says Diggs. "They also don't think they will be offered the same type of resources that are offered to women." Diggs believes that his experiences also help to ease anxieties of the men in the program. "By going through the group myself, I often try to bridge the gap; I once stood in their shoes. I assure them that it's okay to feel uneasy." Jones agrees, adding, "This program is so unique that after the first session, guys find the group to be therapeutic and informative to their own personal situation."

Larry Woody is a Focus on Fathers case manager and he also understands the anxieties men feel when it comes to the role of fatherhood. In fact, for the first three years of his son's life, Woody served as the primary caretaker. He learned the basics of childhood development firsthand as he fed, diapered, and played with his son. "I just had a knack for parenting," he said. "I was an educated man but I was also a stay-at-home dad."

Now, Woody brings that same parenting knowledge to the Focus on Fathers program, showing fathers how to spend more quality time with their children. In addition to this experience, Woody is also responsible for providing services to fathers who are facing family court. A custody-battle veteran himself, Woody claims "Fathers deserve the same chance as mothers. Kids need both parents. If fathers aren't there, kids are missing half the picture!"

According to Woody, the best part of Focus on Fathers is the impact it has on children's lives. "It's about the child always," he says. "Kids do better when the father is involved. Everybody benefits, society benefits."


About RCH and Focus on Fathers

Resources for Children's Health (RCH) is a non-profit agency dedicated to promoting positive parenting, healthy pregnancies and healthy children. Focus on Fathers is a voluntary program that provides direct services through parenting education, case management, and peer support services for fathers, stepfathers, and adult males who are involved in raising children. Focus on Fathers also provides policy and advocacy development through the Philadelphia Fatherhood Practitioners Network. Currently, Focus on Fathers is funded through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families, the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, and the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania.


For more information, please contact Nichole E. Kang at (215) 985-2582.