A Tribute to ‘Dad’

“Other things may change us, but we start and end with family.”

As cliché as it may sound, I truly believe that “any man can be a father, but it takes a special person to be a dad.” Being a part of American Humane Association’s Fatherhood Initiative, which helps connect children involved with the child welfare system with their dads and paternal kin, reinforces for me this distinction and the great influence my Dad has in my life.

I feel beyond fortunate to have two very loving and supportive parents — and even more aunts, uncles, grandparents, and close family friends who have provided additional encouragement and love to me throughout the years. Yet, there is something special about the “daddy-daughter” relationship, as we know that dads contribute in unique ways to the development of their children. So, in honor of Father’s Day, I wanted to take the time to reflect on the influence my Dad has on me by sharing some of the life lessons I’ve learned from him.

Work hard, play hard — but work hard first. This lesson was instilled in me by my Dad and my paternal grandfather. Commitment and dedication to education and professional pursuits are important values in our family, yet just as important is taking time out from those pursuits to “play hard.” My Dad has modeled this for my brother and me and is quick to remind us that vacation days are meant to be taken.

Find a way to connect to what you feel passionate about on a daily basis. At every major turning point in my life, I can remember talking with my parents for guidance about what decision to make or path to head down. In each conversation with my Dad (some lasting hours on end), he never “gives me the answer” or tells me what to do. Instead, he asks me just the right questions to help me see the choice or decision that is best for me and that allows me to connect with what I feel most passionate about.

Don’t be afraid to show your emotions. Through family “meetings” and conversations, my brother and I were encouraged as kids to openly share our feelings related to whatever was facing our family at the time. My Dad models this by being open with us about his own feelings and emotions, including telling us how much he loves us at every opportunity. As an adult, I realize that having had this type of relationship with my Dad has empowered me to speak up for myself and my beliefs in all parts of my life.

Get dirty. On the softball field as a young kid, my Dad used to yell this to me as my cue to slide into a base to avoid getting tagged out. But, I liked having a clean uniform, so I just tried to run faster to keep it that way. I realize now that my Dad just wanted me to live in the moment and enjoy being in the Great Outdoors. It’s no wonder that’s where I spend most of my free time now and why I chose to move to Colorado.

Be there for your family and friends. I cannot remember a single time when I needed my Dad and he wasn’t there for me. Whether in person or on the other end of the phone line, he models for me what it means to love your family and friends unconditionally — through the good times and the bad — and to be there for each other, no matter what.

Believe in your worth and pursue your dreams. When life brings challenges, I can hear my Dad’s voice in the back of my mind — echoing sentiments he has told me over the years about my worth in the world and to others. Whatever they have been (even if it has meant moving hundreds or thousands of miles away), my Dad has always supported me to pursue my dreams. He has encouraged me to dream big, set my eye on the prize, and go for it.

These lessons, and many more, have shaped me into the woman I have become today. Continuing to reap the benefits of a strong “daddy-daughter” relationship even as an adult, I know how special the love, support and encouragement of a dad can be. Each child deserves this type of relationship, and I’m proud to be part of the work of American Humane Association in making that possible for children across America.

Why I Celebrate Father’s Day

Ashley Rhodes-Courter

Growing up, I never thought Father’s Day would mean anything to me. I still don’t know who my biological father is, and during my 10 years in foster care, I never had a memorable father figure. But today, I relish celebrating Father’s Day every June because I have one of the best fathers anyone could ask for. After I was adopted, I learned what it means to be “daddy’s little girl”! My adoptive father, Phil Courter, ensured that every moment of my days was filled with laughter, joy, and love. We worked on projects together in his workshop, bounced on the trampoline, swam until our fingers wrinkled, and tossed balls from every sport. He nurtured me, believed in me, and helped form me into who I am today.

Fathers play a critical role in the development and well-being of their children. Nationally, there is a strong movement to highlight the importance of fathers, and child welfare agencies are no longer simply looking to the biological mothers for resources and family ties. Stay-at-home dads are more common than ever, with more serving as primary caretakers of their children. American Humane Association has taken a special interest in this issue with their fatherhood initiative. By visiting the fatherhood initiative website, dads can learn more about how to interact with their kids at various ages and stages, and readers can see statistics that support the evidence that fathers are essential in the development of their children.

Children are very observant and are constantly absorbing the world around them. To this day, my dad brings my mother tea in bed every morning and he is always kind, respectful, and honest with others. Until this couple came into my life, I had never witnessed a healthy marriage and relationship. By watching my adoptive parents interact with one another and their communities, they modeled positive friendships and partnerships that I can emulate for the children in my life. Phil didn’t yell, or cheat, and was never violent; the absence of those unacceptable or unproductive behaviors is not lost on me. Many of my former foster brothers and sisters grew up and either became abusers or entered into abusive relationships because that was their childhood experience. Dads have an opportunity to change these perspectives with their children by giving examples of what caring, dedicated men look like.

No child can ever have too many people in their lives who care about them. Having a positive father figure changed my life for the better and I can’t wait to celebrate his contributions this Father’s Day!

Ashley Rhodes-Courter is a National Ambassador for American Humane Association and author of the New York Times best-selling memoir, “Three Little Words,” which describes her life in the foster care system.

A Level Playing Field: Essential for the Super Bowl and for America’s Families

Why is American Humane Association — the nation’s voice for the protection of children & animals –discussing the Super Bowl, the most anticipated and highly celebrated annual sporting event in the U.S.? Is there really a connection between this great event and child abuse and neglect? Read on…

As our nation nears Super Bowl XLV Sunday, two storybook National Football League (NFL) teams — the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers — will compete to be crowned the best in their sport. Two teams with loyal followers — one group eats kielbasas and twirls terrible towels (made in Wisconsin, by the way) and the other eats brats and wears cheese on their heads. Millions from over 175 countries will tune in to watch the culminating game of America’s favorite pastime, the NFL. Sorry, Major League Baseball, but you have been bumped, whether you admit it or not.

The storylines will be many. The pinnacle and tenacious play of quarterbacks: Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, who replaced the beloved and despised Brett Favre (every football fan has an opinion about his retirements and unretirements), and Steeler’s Big Ben Roethlisberger, who this season sprung back from a four-game suspension for off-field conduct detrimental to the NFL. Or perhaps, it will be the impressive defenses — Pittsburgh’s steel curtain and Green Bay’s fastest team in the league. Maybe it will be Pittsburgh’s experience vs. Green Bay’s youth, as the Packers sport the youngest team. It’s the team owned by 120,000 community shareholders (Packers) vs. the team with the most Super Bowl rings (Steelers). Does America resonate with the notion that the smallest NFL market team — Green Bay, a city of a measly 100,000 — is playing another small market team for the championship? In the NFL, a city’s size and team’s spending capital aren’t the tipping point for success. Sorry, New York.

Given that Americans are obsessed with sports that are deeply knitted into the everyday fabric of daily life, from youth sports leagues to hundreds of radio and television channels airing sporting events from around the world, perhaps the Super Bowl also represents an opportunity for our society to take pause to reflect upon one of the social issues plaguing this great nation and affecting many players, coaches and others associated with this sport — child maltreatment and foster care. As our society becomes more mobile, there is a tendency for geography to create distance and to minimize connectedness within families. The location of kin (which is defined to include paternal, maternal, extended family or others who are defined by the family as having a close supportive personal relationship) becomes essential to the physical and emotional well-being of children. That being said, however, the engagement of families who have children in the foster care system is often lacking, especially the engagement and involvement of non-resident fathers and paternal kin.

The 2010 Academy Award-winning movie The Blindside, which portrayed the life of Baltimore Raven’s player Michael Oher, riveted the nation, showcasing his real-life experiences of growing up neglected. While there are other retired and current NFL players who have suffered maltreatment and lived in foster care, including Dante Culpepper (retired, Minnesota Vikings); Keith Bulluck (Tennessee Titans); Michael Lehan (retired Miami Dolphins, Cleveland Browns), Ricky Watters (retired San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles, and Seattle Seahawks); Anthony Hargrove (New Orleans Saints); and Justin Tuck (NY Giants), they represent a miniscule fraction of those who have experienced foster care. Annually, in America, there are more than 420,000 children and youths who live in foster care, and hundreds of thousands who are maltreated. We can learn from these players’ experiences, as collectively, their stories demonstrate the resilience of the human spirit; the importance of families and caring adults in supporting the growth and development of children; the pain of separation, attachment and loss that many children experience; and the need of every human being to have forever connections and support.

So, on Feb. 6, 2011, the two teams will gather in Dallas to play the Super Bowl. They will compete on a neutral field, one that gives no advantage to either team. There is no home team. Why is this important? Because research shows that across all major sports, the home team wins 75% of the time, giving it a distinct advantage to win its matches, games or competitions. The visitors must overcome crowd noise, energy and momentum, climate changes, jet lag, and an array of other factors to win. Since 1967 — the first year of the Super Bowl, where the Green Bay Packers hoisted the Lombardi Trophy — the playing field has been considered fair to both teams. While in 2011, there will be frenzied fans, dressed in their team’s colors and cheering loudly, each team will have nearly the same conditions to overcome to secure the victory. And, in America, we wouldn’t want it any other way — the most critical game of the year — should not favor one team, or controversy would embroil the outcome.

So, given our desire for a fair match in the Super Bowl, shouldn’t America’s families have the same opportunity for a fair playing field when it comes to our nation’s child welfare policies? Currently, child welfare agencies are advantaged when children come to their attention. The professionals know the game because the agencies have constructed the rules, agendas and processes, and they are paid to play it. But for parents and for extended family members (if the child welfare agency invests the energy to find them), it is likely a very confusing and intimidating experience. Often these parents, extended family and community members are relegated to the sidelines. And, while on the sidelines, they aren’t reviewing the secret playbook or still pictures of the previous plays, or wearing technologically advanced headsets to listen to advice from their coaches. They sit on the sidelines looking dejected, confused and isolated, just like controversial Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler during the NFC Championship game this year.

But there is a demonstrated, effective and innovative way to level the playing field in child welfare. It’s called family group decision making (FGDM). In more than 20 nations, champions and leaders are recognizing the power, wisdom and expertise of family groups and inviting them to partner in decision making about their children. A home team of supporters is assembled for each child, with moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, cousins, community members, neighbors, friends and others with connections to the family, gathering together to create plans to keep the children safe and stable. Leveling the playing field — and giving families a voice in what happens to their children through FGDM — is making a positive difference for children. The results are impressive.

As the nation celebrates this Super Bowl and many more to come, American Humane Association will continue to advocate for reform that creates a fair, understandable playing field for children and families who come to the attention of child welfare agencies. We figure that if a level playing field is essential for a football game, then it should be an absolute requirement for our social policies — that is, if we value families as much as or more than we honor sports competitions.

Finding ‘Daddy’ — My Journey Begins

By Karen Jenkins, Director of Public Child Welfare Initiatives

Finding ‘Daddy’ -- One Woman’s JourneyAs I was growing up, I experienced fleeting moments of thought about what my life would be like if I knew my dad. Those thoughts were briefly replaced with my anger and resentment and fear of rejection. After all, if he really thought or cared about me, he’d contact me, right? I told myself I really didn’t care, nor did I need to have “that man” in my life. After all, I had wonderful grandparents who loved me and a mother I adored.

As the years went by and I continued to have those confusing and contradictory thoughts, they turned more toward my dad’s family — I didn’t know them either. My mom never talked about my dad or her life with him before I was born. I didn’t approach the subject because I didn’t want to seem disloyal or ungrateful for all the sacrifices she made for me. I did learn, however, that my dad may have two sons. Even though that piqued my curiosity, I continued to live my life. After all, “life happens,” right? And soon I was so busy, at least I thought, to give it much attention.

Fast forward… In 2006 I accepted a job at American Humane Association to work on — now this is ironic: the National Quality Improvement Center on Non-Resident Fathers and the Child Welfare System. Well, wasn’t that the perfect fit! After all, I dedicated my professional life to child welfare and I had a “non-resident father” (a father who doesn’t live with his children). I thought I knew all about why dads stay away and don’t get involved: they’re just uncaring jerks….

Unfortunately I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I made so many assumptions based on the perceptions of my family and others who believe in all the social stereotypes about men and why they make certain decisions, such as not making that important effort to see their child. During my involvement at American Humane Association and the work on the fatherhood grant, I learned many things that helped me to better understand why my dad didn’t make the effort to see me. The tipping point was an article I read about Kevin Campbell’s “Family Finding” work and the importance of understanding your family connections. I was struck by the numerous stories of children reunified with kin, and knew that I needed to take responsibility for making the “first move.” I didn’t have anything to lose and much to gain. So one evening while I was watching my favorite crime show, I decided to Google what little information I had. In a matter of about five minutes I located a name and address I was sure was his.

Several days later, I called and spoke to a very nice lady, who I later found out was my stepmother. Yes, after all that time, I actually found my dad.

My story has a sad but happy ending. During the week after that first phone call, I had spoken to my dad twice and went to visit him. I felt like I was 5 again. All the confusing feelings came back to me — but saying, for the first time in my life, “Daddy” was the greatest moment I have ever or will ever experience.

I visited with him for three days, talking for hours about him, his life, and his regret for never calling. I learned that he never stopped thinking about me or loving me. Oh, by the way, I do have two brothers — I’m a big sister too! I learned I am so much like my dad and my brothers, and I have a strong family resemblance, especially in our eyes.

I had learned before that visit that my dad was in the last stages of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), and three weeks after my visit, he passed away. I was so lucky to have this gift and to discover I have two brothers. You might think that my journey ends here, but it doesn’t end — it’s just beginning.

Learn more about the National Quality Improvement Center on Non-Resident Fathers and the Child Welfare System.

Celebrating National Adoption Month: One Family’s Legacy

Tiffany and TyMarionBy Tiffany Mitchell, manager, public and private child welfare initiatives

Not flesh of my flesh, nor bone of my bone — but still miraculously my own. Never forget for a single minute — you didn’t grow under my heart, but in it!” –Author Unknown

My son TyMarion is 5 years old. I named him after a special family member whom I have always been in awe of — my grandfather. Initially, my grandfather scoffed at the idea of someone being named after him, since the name “Marion” is unusual for a man. But I was determined to carry on his legacy.

You see, my grandfather and his three younger siblings were dropped off at an orphanage by their mother when my grandfather was 9 years old. His father had left the family, and his mother was overwhelmed and unable to care for her four children on her own. Although his three younger siblings were adopted quickly by three separate families, my grandfather remained in the orphanage until he was able to work. He promptly enlisted and served in World War II.

Due to the numerous trials and life circumstances my grandfather was faced with, I believe he had every excuse to be a disappointing father, husband and grandfather. Instead, he chose to build a family legacy of integrity and resilience. So why wouldn’t I name my son after him? 

It’s easy to explain to my son why he was named after his grandfather; however, it may not be so easy to explain to TyMarion where his father is since I am a single parent who adopted him when he was 2 years old. Before adopting my son, I had been a foster parent. TyMarion was the eighth child I cared for.

Originally, I hesitated to become a foster parent, as I felt I would be doing a disservice to children by not offering a two-parent household. Eventually, I came to the realization that there are so many children who don’t have anyone to love them unconditionally — children like my grandfather. When I became a foster parent, I definitely did not intend to adopt. But perspectives shift when you care for a vulnerable child, whether that child is a sweet little baby, a fun-loving teenager or somewhere in between. For some, there comes a point when you can’t imagine a child with anyone else. I don’t look at TyMarion as my “adopted son”; he is simply my son.

While it absolutely warms my heart when people tell me that TyMarion looks like me and has many of my mannerisms, this past summer another child asked him, “Were you adopted?” My son said no, and then immediately looked to me and expressed how absurd the question was. Then he asked me, “Am I adopted?” I told him yes. While he was slightly puzzled, he also thought it was a cool thing and proceeded to sing, “I’m adopted, I’m adopted!” Later that evening I asked him if he knew what that meant and he replied that he didn’t. I told him it meant that he is my son, and I am his mother. And to me, that’s the best definition of adoption. What’s mine is his, which is a simplified version of the legal terms stated in the adoption decree.

I am not the only person who adopted my son. My entire family has adopted him; he is ours, and we are his.  Our legacy is now his legacy.

Have you ever considered adopting a child? It’s National Adoption Month — the perfect time to learn whether adoption might be right for you and your family!

Bringing Back the Dads…and Applauding the Moms

American Humane recently sent out an email that understandably upset some of you. It discussed the issue of fathers who are disengaged from their children’s lives — and the unfortunate toll this can sometimes take.

In the email, we cited reliable — yet disturbing — statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Fatherhood Initiative:

  • One out of three children (more than 24 million) live in homes without their fathers.
  • Children from father-absent homes are five times more likely to live in poverty, three times more likely to fail in school and three times more likely to commit suicide.

Why bring up these statistics? We intended to highlight the potential significance of father absence, particularly with regard to children in the child protection system.

What we didn’t intend was to alienate those of you who grew up in households with a single mother, two mothers, grandparents or other non-paternal figures — or those of you who raised, or are raising, children without a father in the home. Many of you wrote to point out that some children fare extremely well without their fathers, and that their mothers or those who care for them should be commended. You worried that our email undermined these caretakers’ incredible commitment and love.

I think it’s a valid criticism — and a reminder that statistics never tell the full story. By mentioning trends associated with father-absent homes, American Humane in no way meant to disrespect the hard work so many mothers and other individuals put in to ensure children’s success. We should have made this clear.

At the same time, I don’t believe we can ignore what the statistics mean for those children who could benefit from having fathers in their lives. I often talk about seeing issues in shades of gray rather than in black and white, and this is another example. We acknowledge that the absence of fathers isn’t the only factor that affects children’s success or well-being. And, it’s not that all children need fathers, or that all children don’t. Each child’s circumstances are different. Therefore, we should consider the statistics on father-absent homes and ask ourselves: Which children do these statistics represent, and what can we do to help them?

It is in this spirit that we recently began working with the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law and the National Fatherhood Initiative to create a Quality Improvement Center on Non-Resident Fathers and the Child Welfare System. This research will help us learn more about how fathers who don’t live in the home of their children interact with the child protection system — and with their children — and whether or not more interaction would improve their children’s lives. Once we know more, we and others can do more, not just for children and fathers, but for entire families.