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Ideas abound to help fathers with their work

The state Commission on Responsible Fatherhood came to Ocala on Wednesday looking for strategies _ big, small and any size in between _ to help get dads more involved in their children's lives.

The commission is most interested in common-sense, workable solutions that the Legislature and social service agencies can implement or support. One commissioner called such answers the "low-hanging fruit," in other words, easy to grab.

Two commissioners, who were there representing the 25-member group created by the Legislature last year, heard plenty of ideas that seemed ripe for picking.

One came from Cynthia Graham, a health and nutrition coordinator with Childhood Development Services.

Ms. Graham noted that state government rightfully pursues fathers who don't pay child support butdoes not help those "deadbeat dads" find jobs. As a result, the father fails to pay and the legal system cuts him away from visiting his children.

"There needs to be a program once the father is targeted," Ms. Graham said.

Another idea came from Larry Brown, who works with the Ocala MAD DADS program. Brown and his colleagues work with young men before they become fathers, trying to teach responsibility and proper behavior.

That way, when the young men do bring children into the world, they will be prepared to be good fathers who are involved in their children's lives, Brown said.

The Ocala stop was one of many that commissioners are making throughout Florida. They hear from social service workers, private citizens and government officials about ways to encourage responsible fatherhood.

The commission already has made legislative recommendations, and plans to make more in the coming months. A statewide symposium on fatherhood is to convene in June in Orlando.

The state's interest in responsible fatherhood is not just philosophical. It's financial.

Fatherless children are five times as likely to live in poverty as children who live with both parents, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports. As a result, the female household head is likely to be on public assistance.

Likewise, when compared with children whose fathers are in the home, fatherless children are twice as likely to drop out of school and are at a higher risk of drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, suicide, poor school performance, teen pregnancy and criminal behavior, the government reported.

Steven Insalaco, who works with the Department of Children and Families in Ocala, was one of 16 people who attended Wednesday's meeting. He said the state views fathers as a source of child support, and nothing else.

"What I'm looking for is a change in attitude," Insalaco said.

Commissioners Alex MacKinnon of Tampa and Evan Marks of Miami noted that responsible fathers pay child support. And the state Department of Revenue is becoming more and more sophisticated in the ways it collects overdue money.

Under state guidelines, however, courts determine support amounts based on the non-custodial parent's income, not the child's needs. That sometimes creates an undue burden on the father.

Those guidelines are due to be revised this year, Marks said. The commission also would encourage the courts to better enforce a statute that says failure to pay support is not grounds to cut off visitation.

"We hope to shift the focus away from father as dollar sign," Marks said.

Another idea: Stop automatically garnisheeing wages to collect child support. Some fathers who regularly pay find it embarrassing to allow their employers to know what's happening in their personal lives.

A solution, the commissioners said, would be to devise a direct-payment arrangement from the father's bank account.

"That would take out the demeaning part," Marks said.

If fathers or others have information to share with the commission, they can contact chairman Charles S. Peters at (813) 539-5299.