Responsible fatherhood: He’s been a key voice in the national conversation

Joseph Jones knows firsthand what it feels like as a kid to not have a father around. So he’s been helping other men be good parents for decades now.

David Karas
At the Center for Urban Families in Baltimore, Joseph Jones has created programs to strengthen families.

Amid documents and reports in Joseph Jones’s West Baltimore office are photos taken of him at events and with dignitaries, President Barack Obama among them.  

But Mr. Jones is perhaps proudest of another article he keeps not far from his desk – the framed graduation certificate dated Jan. 24, 1988, commemorating his completion of a drug treatment program.

While the certificate represents the end of a 17-year drug addiction marked by countless court appearances and several stints behind bars, it is also emblematic of the type of progress and improvement that he works to bring out in others who live in Baltimore.

Jones is founder and president of the Center for Urban Families (CFUF), established in 1999 with the objective of empowering low-income families through programs designed to help wage earners contribute to their families and to help men fulfill their roles as fathers.

“Our mission is to disrupt poverty,” he says. “We take an integrated approach to how you strengthen families. We don’t believe it is just one thing that you need to do.”

Jones points to the acute need that exists even in the immediate area surrounding CFUF’s headquarters. There are dozens of outstanding warrants, high rates of reentry among those released from correctional facilities, and a tally of more than $26 million in collective child-support arrears, he notes.

CFUF works to connect wage earners with an array of services, including occupational skills education, job-coaching resources, and job placement support. The organization has logged more than 3,500 full-time job placements since 2010, and the average starting hourly wage of those placed is nearly $3 more than the Maryland minimum wage.

It is also critical, Jones believes, to strive for family stability. Nationwide, some 24 million children – about 1 in 3 – live without their biological father in the home, according to the National Fatherhood Initiative, which cites census data.

With such realities in mind, Jones has made the Baltimore Responsible Fatherhood Project central to his efforts.

In this program, participants are offered three months of fatherhood group sessions, individualized case management support, and referrals to other services – not to mention activities for fathers and their children. Areas of focus include child support management and effective communication.

In all, CFUF reckons that since its inception, it has touched more than 27,000 lives, through either direct services or connections to other programs.

Jones is passionate about the role that fatherhood can play in strengthening cities like Baltimore.

“I’m convinced that if we invest the right way in responsible fatherhood, it can be the greatest poverty [reducer], it can be the greatest crime prevention strategy that we can find in this country,” he says.

His childhood

The issue of father absence touches Jones personally. Although early on his parents shared parenting responsibilities while also working and attending school, things changed when he was 9 and his parents divorced. Over time, his father fell out of his life.

“I started getting exposure to things I had been buffered from,” he says, noting that peers also didn’t have active fathers in their lives. “Before I had sex, before I had smoked marijuana, before I had anything close to alcohol – I began to shoot heroin.”

His addiction began around the age of 13, and ultimately, his primary drugs of choice were powder cocaine and heroin.

“The experience, and the drug itself, camouflaged the hurt I felt about my parents’ separation and divorce,” he says. His first arrest came at the age of 14, but it was far from his last. He estimates he spent a collective five to six years behind bars.

After 17 years, Jones entered a residential drug treatment facility – an attempt to avoid a long prison sentence for new charges, and a means by which he could overcome addiction. Following his graduation, Jones completed his associate degree, got married, and landed a job with the Baltimore City Health Department, working with pregnant mothers addicted to drugs.

That position in particular led him to ask a poignant question: Where are all the men?

His interest in father absence eventually resulted in him establishing an informal support group for men. That led to him entering the national fatherhood discussion, in which he rubbed shoulders with the likes of then-Sen. Al Gore.

When President Bill Clinton took office, Jones was part of the team reviewing federal agency reports on policies and practices aimed at enhancing the role of fathers – an experience that allowed him to witness firsthand “how fatherhood began to take shape in the federal lexicon.” He later worked on initiatives with Mr. Gore and then-first lady Laura Bush, and he served on Mr. Obama’s task force on responsible fatherhood and healthy families.

CFUF is largely the byproduct of Jones’s diverse range of experiences.

In his conversation with the Monitor, Jones reflected on recent conversations with other males about the issue of fatherhood – including one with a man in his 60s who broke down when talking about never knowing his dad, and one with a young boy who said he hates his father for leaving.

“It eats at the core of who people are when they don’t have a relationship with, or cannot relate with, [a parent],” he says. “I know how devastated I was when my pops left ... [and] we have got too many kids in our communities who have that kind of experience.”

A success story

Warren Hill, who is in his late 20s, is one of CFUF’s success stories. His daughter was just 6 months old when he was incarcerated. Following his 2013 release, he participated in both employment and fatherhood programs with the nonprofit.

“I thought [the fatherhood project] would be a good idea in order for me to reconnect with my daughter,” Mr. Hill says. “The program was awesome: It built me a platform to start working on getting back into her life.”

Hill says that CFUF’s comprehensive approach is second to none, and he credits Jones for his dedication and commitment to clients. “He eats, sleeps, and breathes improvement and purpose,” Hill says, describing Jones as “a father figure for those who have not had a father figure.”

Jones thinks that parenting should be a shared responsibility – not left solely on the shoulders of mothers.

“It is ideal that they are together – but we know that not all of these relationships are going to last,” he says. “At a minimum, you want them to be able to co-parent.”

Deb Kuo is vice president of real estate and facilities for Baltimore Exelon, part of a nationwide energy provider, and she led the development of a company building in Baltimore – a process during which Exelon partnered with CFUF and its workforce development program. In an email interview, Ms. Kuo spoke highly of the engagement that CFUF participants have in the program and in their own development.

And she praises Jones’s commitment. “Joe’s leadership and passion [are] sincere and true,” she says, “and you see and feel it every time you meet with him, regardless of who you are, or your role, or station in life.”

Awards and other honors

Jones has been recognized throughout the region and across the country for his efforts related to fatherhood, with honors including an award from the Leadership Development Program sponsored by Johns Hopkins Medicine, and the Walter Sondheim Public Service Award from the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC). He has also been named a White House Fatherhood Champion of Change and a CNN Hero.

In presenting the Sondheim Award in 2013, GBC president and chief executive officer Donald Fry described Jones as “a beacon of hope to young men and women in Baltimore.”

He added that Jones “lifted himself up from a young life of family trauma, poverty, teen drug addiction, and criminal arrest, and now dedicates his life to lifting others up.”

How to take action

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups that support families:

KickStart International creates opportunities for poor, entrepreneurial farmers in sub-Saharan Africa to make money. Take action: Lift a family out of poverty.

Uganda Village Project facilitates community health and well-being in rural Uganda through improved education, among other measures. Take action: Make a donation to provide safe water for rural families.

Mayan Families gives opportunities and assistance to indigenous and impoverished people in Guatemala. Take action: Support families there.

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