Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Forgotten Man


The Forgotten Man

Every since Barack Obama's Father's Day Speech, there's been an ongoing debate about the need for more Black fathers to step up to the plate. But as usual, there's a forgotten man in this discussion, and admittedly, we've been remiss in giving him his due. I'm speaking of the millions of Black men across this country who literally relish their role as father. Too often we forget these men, and the many hardships they often endure in carrying out their responsibility.

After the discussion on deadbeat dads, I was literally deluged with horror stories from Black men who have made every effort to do the right thing only to be confronted by a cold, heartless, and dehumanizing system that seems to work overtime to frustrate them at every turn. I may have been remiss, but I want to assure you that I'm fully aware of this situation--in fact, one of the most unconscionable of these scenarios is currently playing out in my own family:

I met Jeffery Whitmore when he was about twelve years old. He's my late wife's younger brother. Even when he was a child, in spite of the fact that he grew up in the middle of the 'hood, and I still viewed the world through the eyes of a gangster, it wasn't lost on me that this young man was on the right track. And even then, I understood why–because he was being raised by people who were dead serious about raising their kids. Parenting wasn't a hobby with them.

His father, Broadis, wasn't a highly educated man, but he had that old-school character, and was flawless in his role as a father. In fact, while I didn't know it at the time, later he would served as a role model that I would emulate while raising my own children. Jeff's mother, Katie, was also of good character, but of a different sort-- highly intellectual, loved children, and absolutely fixated on education. I would have put her up against any professional in the field when it came to childhood development. So it wasn't his own dysfunction, but a background of excellence that put Jeffery Whitmore on a collision course with a highly dysfunctional system.

After Katie's own kids had grown up and left the nest, she decided to become a foster parent. She was semi-retired, and according to Jeff, "she needed fulfillment in her life." Jeff warned her not to become too attached to the kids, because "you'll try to adopt everyone you care for." According to Jeff, she assured him that she had it under control, but shortly thereafter, ended up adopting two of the four children that she cared for.

Shortly after she adopted the youngest child she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and her health began to rapidly deteriorate. About two years later she had to be placed in a convalescent home, so Jeff, and his sister, Kathy, stepped forward to care for the children, and therein begins a story about the other side of Black manhood.

Prior to all of this taking place, Jeff had gone on to graduate from USC, then obtained a Master's degree from the University of LaVerne. He was living the American dream–a handsome young man, single, highly educated, a good job (Revenue Manager for the City of Los Angeles) and plenty of security. He'd paid all of the necessary dues, so no one could have blamed him if he just drove around in his sports car and chased women for the rest of his life. But being true to his character, he put much of that on hold, and yield to the call of responsibility when the future of these two children came into jeopardy. But it wasn't long before he was smacked in the face by an unyielding, and irresponsible bureaucracy.

Since he wasn't the kids' legal guardian, there was the problem of obtaining healthcare and enrolling them in school, so he consulted an attorney. He was advised that he would first have to have his mother declared incompetent, requiring a hearing, which would cost approximately $5,000. Then he would have to go to court again to actually adopt the children. That would cost an additional $6,000. That seemed prohibitively expensive, especially since all he was trying to do was step up to the plate, so he decided to explore other options.

So he went to the Department of Children and Family Services at 3075 Wilshire Blvd., in Los Angeles. He related his story and was told that there was nothing they could do. The matter needed to be resolved through the courts. Eventually he wrote a letter to the California Superior Court, but they suggested that he resolve the matter with the county before proceeding. Then in 2004 Jeff was contacted by Medi-Cal, advising him that the childrens' primary medical care was being provided through his mother's healthcare provider. That's effectively left the children without healthcare insurance for the past four years.

After his mother's death in 2007, he informed the county and requested post-adoption assistance be transferred over to him, as per his mother's living trust. He was then transferred to Post Adoptive Services, where he was advised that adoptive assistance was not transferable. He was then informed that he would need to file for legal custody of the children, and also advised that he would probably owe the county for payments made to his mother.

So he filed for custody, but since he made too much money for court fees to be waved, he found himself in the position of paying, to put it in his words, "$1,040 for the privilege of caring for children I did not sire." In addition, he ended up returning eight un-cashed checks, totaling $4, 368, along with a personal check in the amount of $2,184 to cover funds the county claimed that he wasn't entitled to.

In a letter that Jeff wrote the county he pointed out that bureaucrats are always mouthing what's "in the best interest of the children", while acting in direct contravention to that end. He points out the following:

"If I'd decided I simply didn't want to assume this responsibility, I could [have] just called the county and you'd literally come to my house and pick the boys up. You'd likely place them in a group home and pay the group home thousands of dollars a month vs. the $546 my mother received for continuing support, and that I no longer receive; and you certainly would have restored their Medi-Cal coverage IMMEDIATELY!"

He went on to say, "Yes, I could have played the game and let you pick them up. [But] you and I know that as the closest relative, you would have [soon] been begging me to take them back, and would have paid me far more than $546 a month. But in my mind, it was not 'in the best interest of the children' to move them unnecessarily." 'The best interest of the children'--"See, I remembered!"

So yes, we do have irresponsible Black men in the community, and it's quite appropriate for us to demand that they step up to the plate; but it's just as appropriate to demand that our government be proactive in acting with competence, dispatch, and deliberate purpose in support of the many responsible Black men who do.

This matter has been referred to Supervisor Yvonne Braithwaite-Burke. Let us hope she can bring some sanity to this situation.

Eric L. Wattree

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