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Pandemic Has 'Huge' Impact On Black Fathers, Support Center Founder Says

Trevon Robinson, 25, photographed Jan. 11, 2021 with his 6 month old daughter Zaria, is a recent graduate of the Fathers & Families Support Center
Wiley Price
St. Louis American
Trevon Robinson, 25, photographed with his 6 month old daughter Zaria, is a recent graduate of the Fathers & Families Support Center

It’s obvious that Halbert Sullivan, 69, founder and CEO of Fathers & Families Support Center, is proud of his nonprofit’s growth.

Just beyond the foyer, Sullivan points to the suite of classrooms where fathers learn to address relationship violence, improve their parenting skills, communicate better with their children’s mothers and much more.

The agency moved last year into its $4.5 million, refurbished headquarters at 1601 Olive St, in downtown St. Louis.

Behind a spiral staircase, affirming quotes are attached to the oval-shaped “Wall of Wisdom.” There, quotes like, “A family that prays together stays together,” complement Sullivan’s oratory about the agency’s evolution from the Father’s Support Center to its current incarnation.

“For the past four years, we’ve been working with moms. We also started a youth program back in 2002,” Sullivan said. “Since we’ve been working with the entire family, it made sense to change the name.”

How has the coronavirus pandemic effected his clientele? Sullivan laced his fingers and spoke solemnly.

“The pandemic has had a huge, negative impact on Black fathers. Our demographic, for the most part, are employed in lower-economic jobs. They don’t have jobs where you can use technology and work from home. Most have to be there.”

Because African Americans disproportionately comprise the number of “essential workers” in frontline industries such as grocery stores, restaurants and warehouses, to “be there” means some fathers stay away from their children to avoid the risk of spreading the virus.

Then there’s the economic downturn that has robbed many of their incomes.

“Losing jobs causes negatives for the father’s family because there’s one less piece of money coming into the home,” Sullivan said. Many of his clients, he added, are the ones in need of rental or utility assistance.

Because of unemployment and court systems that have been altered by shelter-in-place orders, some fathers find themselves unable to comply with custodial arrangements, which brings more stress on families.

The center has had to adapt to help fathers meet the virtual requirements of family courts. The center also moved from face-to-face classes to offering the six-week curriculum virtually.

Fathers who don’t have a computer or smartphone are given tablets so they can attend classes and court sessions through applications like Zoom.

Still, Sullivan said his job, even in a pandemic, “is a joy.”

Since last March, the center has helped almost 200 fathers find jobs, he said. The same enthusiasm displayed when talking about his rehabbed headquarters is evident when he spoke of the renovated lives of the fathers he works with. It’s a transformation Sullivan has experienced first-hand.

“I got caught up in them streets,” he said, detailing his years-long battles with crack cocaine. In 1993, he decided to combat his addiction by enrolling in a local drug rehabilitation center. He’s been drug free for some 27 years now, Sullivan said, proudly.

Another quote on the oval wall, “An education can serve you well,” underscores how Sullivan defeated his addiction with schooling.

After rehab, he enrolled in community college, then Fontbonne University, before going on to earn his master’s degree from the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University.

Having been an absent dad himself, Sullivan said the Brown School helped him home in on the plight of missing Black fathers.

“I learned that children who grow up without fathers are all in the 70% range of those who will go to jail. These are just some of the negatives that result from not having a responsible male figure in the home.”

Sullivan and three board members incorporated the Father’s Support Center in 1997. A year later, the organization began recruiting fathers for classes.

Since its inception, Sullivan said more than 17,000 fathers have used the center’s services. More than $1 million has been collected in child support and 42,000 children now have a more “responsible father” in their lives, he added.

Sullivan introduced one of his recent graduates, Trevon Robinson, 25, a machinist with a local industrial processing equipment company and first-time father of a 6-month-old daughter.

It seems Robinson fit the description of a “responsible dad” even before joining the center. He has a decent-paying job, his daughter and her mother’s toddler son live with him. At this point, Robinson is responsible for the children’s upbringing.

At first, Robinson thought he didn’t need the services offered by Sullivan’s agency. He decided to try it anyway and was influenced by the stories and struggles of men who were much older and in more desperate situations than him. Those stories helped him understand that his upbringing in Pine Lawn made him vulnerable to their outcomes.

“I related to them. I was raised around all of that; I’ve seen all of that,” Robinson said. “Because of these classes, I’ve gotten confidence. I got the fear of being a bad father out of my mind.”

Cleansing the mind of negative habits and making deliberate choices is the start to becoming a responsible father, Sullivan said.

“At the age of 43, I decided to stop doing drugs and enroll in college. Sure, there were bumps in the road. But if I can change, anybody can change,” Sullivan said. “It’s choices, man. It’s choices.”

Sylvester Brown Jr. is a reporter for the St. Louis American, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.