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Teaching Dads and Couples to be Proud
Facilitators for the Proud Fathers Program stand with dad Steve Wilson as he holds his daughter Emily on graduation day. Photo courtesy of the Proud Fathers Program.
Duane Wilson can clearly remember how the Michigan's Proud Fathers Program brought one particular father closer to his children.
On a family fun night sponsored by the program, a single father arrived with his three children marching obediently behind him. When it came time for everyone to sit on the floor and interact with their children during an activity, Wilson observed this father, who tended to be strict with his children, still standing with his family. So Wilson, a Coordinator for the Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood Initiatives run by the Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS), invited the man's children to get down on the floor and get involved with the activity. The father took Wilson's lead, got down, and began to engage with his children.
"At the end of the night, when he walked out the door, those kids were hanging on him," Wilson recalls. "I really think it was the first time that man had ever gotten on the floor and played with his children--what a gift we were able to provide to those children through that activity night."
The Department of Human Services began the Proud Fathers program, as well as a Proud Parents program, in 2005 under the auspices of the Michigan Healthy Marriages and Responsible Fatherhood Initiatives, developed in response to the federal push to promote healthy marriages and fatherhood. Both programs stress the importance of nurturing relationships between parents and their children, as well as family self-sufficiency.
Proud Fathers is a 14-week group program for fathers or other male caregivers of children who are eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF); Proud Parents is a 10-week group program for married and unmarried couples with children--or expecting to parent in the future--who are TANF-eligible. Both programs have served about 300 participants in Michigan each year.
Wilson says one only has to attend the graduation ceremonies at the end of each program cycle to witness how they are helping families--the graduation rate for each program is nearly 60%. Each participant presents a statement of purpose to his or her family during the ceremony; the statement begins, "The father I choose to be..." or "The partner and parent I choose to be..." The families and children, in turn, are also invited to speak.
"What I just love is hearing from the families themselves the changes they've seen in these men throughout their participation in the program," Wilson says. "In the Proud Parents program, we are getting the same type of response. People are very happy with it."
Michigan adapted the program from the Nurturing Fathers Program and the Marriage and Parenting Program developed by Mark Perlman, a trainer with the Center for Growth and Development in Sarasota, Florida.
Fathers of all types attend Michigan's Proud Fathers Program, Wilson says, including single and married fathers, foster fathers, adoptive fathers, grandfathers, and fathers planning to parent. Most of the sessions take place in a classroom setting and are designed to enhance the men's attitudes and skills for male nurturance and educate them about the important of fathering.
Topics covered include the roots of fathering, how to nurture oneself and one's children, fathering sons versus daughters, disciplining without violence, how to play with children, managing anger and resolving conflict, working as a team with a spouse or partner, career-building and accessing employment resources, balancing work and fatherhood, communicating and problem-solving, cultural influences on fathering, and dealing with feelings.
The Proud Parents curriculum focuses on strengthening couples' relationships through exploring their parenting attitudes and skills together. Topics for these sessions include becoming a couple and parents, the roots of marriage and parenting, family leadership, sharing power, discipline and teamwork, communication and resolving conflict, and family life schedules.
Both programs are designed to reinforce one another. "These dads want more at the end of the Proud Fathers Program," Wilson explains, "and the next natural step is to get them with their partners to move into the Proud Parents program."
In 2005, Michigan DHS provided grants to community organizations in six counties to conduct Proud Fathers-Proud Parents services. In 2006, 19 counties received funding for the programs; 22 counties are involved in 2007, and Wilson says Michigan hopes to increase that to 40 by the end of the year. The state is also planning to add a Proud Mothers Program.
Supporting Tribal Reconnections
"My spirit is Indian, even though for a long time I did not know what that meant," says Sandy White Hawk, Executive Director of the First Nations Orphan Association (FNOA). "The songs, ceremonies, and medicines healed me and brought me home to myself."
Sandy White Hawk is helping other Indian adoptees like herself reconnect with their roots. Photo courtesy of Sandy White Hawk
White Hawk cofounded FNOA in 2001 to help fellow Indian adoptees apply for tribal enrollment, access their rights and benefits as enrolled tribal members, search for relatives, and find post-reunion support. She believes Indian adoptees and foster children can overcome pain from separation and isolation by reconnecting with their roots.
In the 1950s, when White Hawk was 18 months old, a white missionary family in South Dakota adopted her through the Indian Adoption Project--a Bureau of Indian Affairs program that removed thousands of Indian children from their families and placed them with non-Indian adoptive or foster families between the 1950s and 1970s. The project, in which CWLA was involved, was driven by a study estimating 1,000 children were in foster care or informal kinship care on reservations racked by poverty and destitution.
[See "CWLA Expresses Regret for Removal of Native American Children," Children's Voice, July 2001, p. 34.--Ed.]
In her 30s, White Hawk reunited with her brothers and sisters and other Indian relatives at the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, and her life changed for the better. Today, she has overcome divorce and alcohol addiction and confronted her feelings about the verbal, physical, and sexual abuse she endured as a child.
"There was a time when I felt that my feelings of isolation, confusion, and shame were solely a result of the abuse." White Hawk says. "I now know that they were a result of not being connected to that spiritual center as an Indian woman."
FNOA estimates that between 1941 and 1978, 68% of Indian children were either placed in orphanages or with white adoptive or foster families under the Indian Adoption Project. The Indian Child Welfare Act, passed in 1978, restored tribal authority over the adoption of Indian children.
White Hawk is developing a database of people she is helping reconnect with their roots, and she communicates with hundreds of adoptees nationwide about how to begin looking for their loved ones. She also provides emotional support during their search.
FNOA's efforts also include a support group, led by White Hawk, for adoptees and fostered individuals in the Minneapolis area, where White Hawk lives. The group has opened the circle to include adoptive parents, birth relatives who have lost relatives to adoption or foster care, and older youth currently in foster care.
"First Nations Orphan Association believes that in order to walk in balance, everyone needs to be able to answer four essential questions in life: Who am I? Where do I come from? What am I doing? Which direction am I going?" White Hawk says. "Through being reunited with our heritage and knowing that we come from a spiritually rich family, these wounds can be addressed and healed."
As part of the healing process, FNOA's community forums and pow wows conclude with a Wiping of Tears ceremony so adoptees and fostered individuals and their families can heal from the grief caused by the years of separation from their culture and relatives. During the ceremony, everyone gathers in a circle around a buffalo skull, eagle staff, and blanket with ceremonial items. White Hawk tells her story, and the others tell theirs. They share a pipe, water, and food, and then shake hands and hug.
"Everyone walks away with a sense of well-being having brought their sadness, shame, and guilt to the circle and leaving it there to walk in the balance of pride and dignity with a sense of belonging as our ancestors have prayed for us," White Hawk says.
[See also "Coming Home: The Lingering Effects of the Indian Adoption Project," Children's Voice, March 2002.--Ed.]
--Stephanie Robichaux, Children's Voice Contributing Editor
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