Government's fatherhood campaign takes to the TV

A preschool-aged boy faces the camera, smiling and playing with a toy truck. "His father left home today - forever," a voice intones. "He'll be twice as likely to drop out of high school, 30 percent more likely to attempt suicide."

The US Department of Health and Human Services along with Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, and Ohio released a series of six such announcements in English and Spanish last weekend to nearly 25,000 newspapers, magazines, and television and radio stations around the country.

While the $1.4 million effort is largely symbolic, it's the latest sign Americans - including the government - are waking up to the importance of fatherhood.

In recent years, men have become more vocal in their complaints that modern America discriminates against the family man - from custody issues and paternity leave to a welfare system that is more supportive of mothers. But from the Million Man March to new welfare laws, a growing number of projects are working to help men become active dads.

"We've come a long way" from 20 years ago, says Wade Horn, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative in Gaithersburg, Md. Five years ago, Mr. Horn organized a conference in Los Angeles featuring a panel of fatherhood experts; only four people showed up. "Today we are filling stadiums with men," Horn told 200 people gathered last weekend for the 1999 Fatherhood Summit in Chicago.

The growing fatherhood movement has its roots in broader social changes. As more mothers work outside the home, families have needed fathers to play bigger roles at home. Many young fathers, regretting that they didn't see their own dads more when they were growing up, are vowing to spend more time with their children.

More than 50 hospitals around the country offer "Boot Camps for New Dads." Web sites are sprouting on the Internet where fathers can trade parenting tips. Since 1994, the University of Pennsylvania's National Center on Fathers and Families has promoted research into the changing roles of fathers.

The federal government is also changing the way it views fathers. Uncle Sam is no longer just acting as a bill collector trying to force "deadbeat dads" to pay their child support. The public-service announcements aim for men's hearts as well as their wallets by promoting the notion that fathers play vital emotional roles in children's lives.

The government's emphasis on fatherhood represents a break with the past, observes Jeffrey Johnson, president of the Washington-based National Center for Strategic Nonprofit Planning and Community Leadership. In the past, most programs, especially welfare, focused on helping mothers care for their children, Mr. Johnson says. "When we've said 'children and family' in the public sphere, we didn't mean dads," he says.

The 1996 welfare-reform laws allow new flexibility to tailor programs to encourage paternal involvement. For instance, federal laws allow states to use welfare-to-work funds to provide job training for fathers who don't live with their children so they will be more likely to support their families. The campaign includes efforts to encourage unwed fathers to declare their paternity when their children are born. These programs are showing signs of success: In some states, 70 percent of unwed fathers are voluntarily signing paternity forms.

But it will take more than government campaigns to boost men's involvement in their kids' lives, says Larry Feldman, associate professor of psychiatry at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago. Many men lack confidence in their parenting abilities and fear they will be considered weak if they spend time as a caregiver, he says.

Despite these obstacles, Jordan Friedman of Seattle sees more men spending time with their children. "These days I notice more fathers with their kids at the grocery store or just out on the street with their strollers," says Mr. Friedman, who has a one-year-old son, Jacob. "Fathers expect to be more involved than they were 10 years ago."

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