An Interview with Responsible Fatherhood Advocate Joe Jones

Joseph T. Jones, Jr. is founder of the Center for Fathers, Families and Workforce Development (CFWD) and the Men’s Services Program in Baltimore, Maryland which started as part of the Baltimore Healthy Start Initiative. In 1999, the Men’s Services Program came under the umbrella of CFWD, which empowers low-income families by enhancing the ability of men to fulfill their roles as fathers and help both men and women become productive members of society. Mr. Jones is nationally recognized as a pioneer in the movement to promote responsible fatherhood. We spoke with him recently about his efforts to promote father involvement through programs that address life skills development, parental involvement and employment.

Q. Your work is well known across the country, but you also have a remarkable story about your own life. Who is Joe T. Jones, Jr.?

A. I am a lifelong resident of Baltimore City, Maryland. My parents divorced when I was young. As a result of no longer living with my father, contact between us was greatly diminished. My mother was working while attending school, and I had much more freedom than I had ever experienced before. I soon became involved with a group of peers who were into things that I had never been exposed to. I can’t even say that I experimented with drugs because I went past experimenting. I didn’t start with smoking marijuana or drinking alcohol. At 13, I went straight to shooting heroin. I became addicted, and was in and out of the criminal justice system for a good part of the next 17 years. While I was incarcerated, my father didn’t forget about me, he continued to reach out to me.

Q. What was it that made you change the direction of your life?

A. I always saw myself as someone who could change my situation, but I just didn’t know how to do it. In 1986, I heard about a residential program that was sort of a tough love boot camp approach to drug treatment. For the first time in my life, I was totally committed to something. Men who successfully completed the program had the choice of soliciting donations for the program or serving as a court advocate for other program participants. I elected to become part of the legal advocacy team. I received my GED and graduated from the local community college. In 1990, I was hired by the city health department as an addictions counselor working with pregnant women. This locally funded infant mortality program was the predecessor to Healthy Start in Baltimore. My position as an addictions counselor took me into the community. In working with at-risk pregnant women, I discovered that the guys in these neighborhoods had similar challenges. However, where women had health care services and drug treatment programs available to them, there were no access points for men. I pointed out how we could build a valuable resource for our program by engaging these men and providing services, but the health department didn’t have funds for such activities.

Q. How did the Men’s Services Program come about?

A. In 1992, the federal government made monies available for the National Healthy Start Initiative. A small section of the application addressed male involvement and fatherhood. The rationale was that by providing services to men we could perhaps have an impact on the infant mortality rate and also achieve the goal of family stabilization. Baltimore was one of the original seven sites awarded funding. We began the implementation of the Men’s Services Program in spring of 1993, working with a small subset of men who were the partners of the expectant mothers.

Q. What strategies did you use to engage men in the program, and what challenges did you face?

A. One of the strategies was to have men accompany the moms on their prenatal visits. However, initially what we found was that neither the culture nor the setting was “male-friendly.” There were no father-related materials, not even a Sports Illustrated magazine in the waiting room! The guys that went with their partner for her appointment said that the doctor and the clinic staff completely ignored them. Another strategy was having the men participate in peer support and curriculum groups. The latter involved sessions on manhood development, fatherhood and male parenting, domestic violence and other relevant topics.

Q. What strategies did you use to overcome challenges in program implementation regarding prenatal visits?

A. We started working with health providers to try to promote an understanding of how essential men are to the development of the child. Sensitivity training was important so that things like a man’s dress, speech or personal hygiene didn’t create barriers. We developed training materials for clinic staff. We created a feedback mechanism to learn how men were being received with respect to the clinic visit. We also developed a form to verify their visit. All of these steps were necessary to change the culture and, in turn, to improve birth outcomes for children.

Q. What approach did you use in the sessions?

A. We approached this, somewhat, from an Afro-centric perspective since we serve a predominantly African-American population. We recognized up front that we would have to make the subject matter “real.” This is not something that the guys in the “hood” just sit around and talk about! We emphasized the father’s role during pregnancy, with a goal to help men bond with the child while he or she was still developing. To educate on fetal development, the men divided into subgroups based on the trimesters of a pregnancy. Each group was assigned to research a trimester, with one person selected to be the reporter. We awarded a prize to the whole group that ended up doing the best job at reporting. Men thrive on competition. Create competition among men around a subject that they don’t normally talk about—fetal development—and they might listen and learn. We also used similar strategies to address the nutritional needs of the mother and fetus.

Q. What other types of programs and services does CFWD offer?

A. Our programs and services include: STRIVE (Support and Training Results in Valuable Employee’s), which is based in New York City. STRIVE Baltimore is for men and women 18 years and older who have a difficult time getting hired and functioning in a work environment. Another workforce development program is called Jumpstart, which is a an electrical training program to address the workforce shortage in the electrical trade. Our family services pilot program is called 50-50 parenting, which provides support for never-married parents and, of course, the Men’s Services Program, which is the responsible fatherhood component. Overall, we serve approximately 500 clients per year with some duplication depending on the client’s needs. We also offer a GED program and make referrals to other workforce development programs.

Q. How do you partner with other organizations?

A. Working with other organizations allows us to share resources and deliver services of great value to our clients. Issues like employment, child support and domestic violence are significant to some of our clients. With respect to the latter, our participation in sessions funded by the Ford Foundation resulted in the establishment of a partnership with the House of Ruth, probably the premier domestic violence program in the country. Another partnership is with the City of Baltimore Health Department, which created a Men’s Health Center that provides health care to indigent men.

Q. Overall, what are some of the outcomes that the program tries to achieve?

A. We focus in the program areas of employment, child support, spirituality and a need to foster positive relationships with men. Helping fathers obtain gainful employment is key. Ensuring that they understand child support responsibilities is crucial not just for compliance sake, but also to manage child support in the event of a reduction in pay or loss of a job. We encourage a sense of spirituality, trying to help men understand a connection with a greater power, and helping them to impart that to their children. Our program also looks to offer ways our participants can foster positive relationships with other men. Helping men established a brotherhood that is based on positive interactions.

Q. What are the future plans for the program?

A. We are in the process of developing a Human Services Training Institute to provide technical assistance to organizations looking to incorporate programming for fathers. Although the Institute is not fully operational, we have already been awarded two contracts. One involves a marriage curriculum for low-income, fragile families in Louisiana. The other involves outreach services and training for the District of Columbia. We will also provide technical assistance for the 50-50 parenting program. The Human Service Training Institute will help to expand our expertise, build our clientele and help organizations better serve the needs of their communities.

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