CLEVELAND — Although he has four children, Thomas Fulford realized he was not much of a father# when one day his 17-year-old son asked to follow him into the streets to sell crack.
Shocked by the request, Mr. Fulford resolved not to lead his son into a life hustling narcotics. He abruptly ended six years of drug abuse, and today says he is closer to the four children from his former marriage than at any time in years.
Fulford found help for his turnaround at the National Institute for Responsible Fatherhood and Family Development, housed in two cramped rooms in a gray community center in Cleveland's tumble-down neighborhood of Hough.
The institute, which since 1982 has prompted some 2,000 men to acknowledge and support their children, is a unique effort to help fathers be part of the solution to the problems of welfare dependency, crime, and out-of-wedlock births. Run by fathers who have successfully changed their ways, the institute emphasizes self-reliance.
It thus holds special appeal for the current national debate on welfare reform.
In meetings with institute staff, Fulford realized he was passing on to the next generation the same impulse for self-indulgence that his alcoholic father had nurtured in him. After breaking his family free from this cycle, Fulford was hired by the institute. He now helps wayward fathers make a similar about-face.
''Most fathers know what to do to set their lives right, they just need guidance and support; we're role models for them,'' he says.
Many of the fathers who have come to the program have turned away from alcohol, tobacco, drugs, gangs, and promiscuity, according to a study by the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
Most have earned their high school equivalency diplomas (GED), and about 11 percent have gone on to college. Overall, according to the study's survey of 151 former clients, 97 percent said the institute taught them to be a responsible parent.
''The fact that the outreach workers have walked in the same shoes as the people they serve enhances their credibility dramatically,'' and makes the institute effective, says Anthony King, a social-work professor at Case Western Reserve and co-investigator of the study. He also praises the institute ''because it tries to meet the complete emotional and practical needs of fathers.''
By reuniting fathers with wives or girlfriends and children, the institute helps combat poverty, crime, and welfare costs. With branches now in Washington and Nashville, the institute plans this year to expand nationwide. It aims to open offices in San Diego, Milwaukee, Fort Worth, Texas; Yonkers, N.Y.; Richmond, Va.; and Montgomery, Ala., says Charles Ballard, founder and president.
Founded on the belief that fatherhood can transform a shifty man into a dependable husband and father, the institute affirms that fathers are part of the solution to the suffering that accompanies poverty and illegitimacy. It challenges the view of some welfare officials, Mr. Ballard says, that unwed fathers have little to offer but child-support payments.
''The institute is a concrete example of people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps,'' says Rep. Louis Stokes (D) of Ohio. It is a leading bidder for $500,000 the US Department of Health and Human Services will dispense this year to fatherhood programs, political analysts say.
The institute has advantages over traditional welfare. It is a lean, grass-roots effort, not a top-down bureaucracy; it does not have to follow the dictates of distant policymakers; and staff, who are on 24-hour call, draw from their own experiences to tailor counseling to each father.
''Outreach specialists'' are trained to counsel men in homes, community centers, laundromats -- even on basketball courts. If necessary, they guide fathers to education, drug treatment, and other specialized services. Their approach helps men reform their thinking, rather than merely meeting material needs.
''The current welfare system completely denies the existence and responsibility of men in family life,'' says Anthony King, a social work professor at Case Western Reserve. Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the main federal program, was structured to provide aid only to single mothers; it thus drove men from households, sociologists say.
In contrast, institute staff testify by their own lives to the need for paternal guidance and the power of fatherhood to improve men. No life story speaks louder and clearer than Ballard's. His father left home when he was three and died when he was nine. Ballard took to drugs and alcohol; at 16, he fathered a son, dropped out of school, and ran away to the Army.
While in the military, Ballard was convicted of attempted murder. He embraced Christianity in prison, and, upon release, returned to his son. He worked his way through a GED program, college, and a master's degree at Case Western Reserve.
One recent evening at a Cleveland community center, staff member Lawrence Sharp demonstrated the institute's strength. Sitting in a circle with 12 errant fathers, he shared his own story: how his wife divorced him after he abused her and their two daughters; how they remarried, but within three months she left when he again hurt her; how he turned to the institute, which urges men to treat the mothers of their children with the respect due an equal partner.
Sharp then asked the men to recount their attitudes about their fathers. As feelings began to flow, he nudged them to recognize the tendency of a man to repeat the mistakes of his father. He encouraged them to see good traits in their fathers and begin to cultivate those traits in themselves.
''After meetings at the institute, the fathers start nurturing their children the same way that the outreach specialist nurtures them,'' Ballard says. ''You can see, in a matter of months, this father transformed from a guy who runs in the streets to a guy who is responsible for his children.''