July 12, 2017


Dan’s son called them “angry outbursts.”

Too often, Dan’s anger would boil over when the stress and commotion that comes with being a separated father became too much to handle. Too often, Dan would get frustrated while simultaneously preparing dinner, trying to coax his daughter to do her homework and racing against the clock to get his son to a Cub Scout meeting. Once, that frustration and anger led to him flipping the kitchen table in front of his children. Once, he threw something across the room.

“My children would say, ‘Don’t be mad, dad,’” Dan said. “And then that turned into, ‘Be the glad dad, not (the) mad dad.’”

After separating from his wife, a visit from Social Services and a run-in with the law, Dan was mandated to attend Strong Fathers meetings in Durham, a free 20-week parenting and relationship skills program for fathers working to remove anger and violence from their homes. Sessions cover child development, domestic violence, managing thoughts and feelings, managing children’s behavior, co-parenting, and repairing relationships.

Strong Fathers, a 5-year-old Durham program, received a $4,200 Community Care Fund grant in 2016. The grant-making program is funded by Duke employee donations to the annual Doing Good in the Neighborhood campaign, and Strong Fathers is using the grant to translate its workshop materials and 200-page facilitator manual into Spanish, pay for a bilingual facilitator, and extend its services to Latino fathers, calling the new program “Padres Fuertes.”

“We get requests for Spanish-speaking classes pretty frequently,” said Katie Bauman, Strong Fathers’ executive director. “It just made sense to use this money to make this a possibility.”

Strong Fathers is collaborating with El Futuro, which provides mental health and substance abuse services to North Carolina’s Latino families, to host and facilitate Padres Fuertes. Karla Siu, a clinical program director with El Futuro, said there was a need to hold culturally relevant group parenting conversations specifically for Latino fathers.

“We’re bringing men together so that they might realize they’re not alone,” Siu said. “Sometimes it’s just a very powerful setting, to have a group process like that.”

At a recent Strong Fathers meeting in Durham, eight fathers ate Papa John’s pizza quietly as they filled out a weekly parenting log. These were the prompts:

“This week, the one thing I felt best about as a father was…”

“Three ways I was a good role model to my children this week were…”

“This week, my biggest struggle as a father was…”

Going around the room, the fathers shared their triumphs and challenges. One father talked about how he was proud to buy his daughter a PAW Patrol bathing suit for summertime. Another father talked about parenting arguments he had with his ex-partner.

The fathers participated in an exercise about when to praise a child, provide constructive directions, give warnings and consequences, and actively ignore annoying behaviors.

“All we’re doing is sharing information. What you’re doing is implementing it and applying it, so pat yourselves on the back,” said Sam Clayborn, a Strong Fathers facilitator. “Part of this process is trying new tools that make you uncomfortable. It’s a new tool to add to your toolbox.”

Strong Fathers just graduated its seventeenth class of fathers in April. Many of the participants have weekly, supervised visits with their children and Durham County Social Services. Others haven’t seen their children in months due to unhealthy family dynamics.

Fathers are sent to the Strong Fathers program by the Durham County court system, attorneys, Social Services, churches and family members, and recently, Strong Fathers has seen referrals skyrocket while they run on a shoestring budget.

“We’d love to be able to expand a little bit more to support our participants even more,” said Maureen Pleil, a Strong Fathers program coordinator and facilitator. “Fathers are just really important…We also want people to be empowered with as much knowledge as they can when they are parenting their children.”

Dan, whose last name won’t be disclosed due to the nature of this story, is now a Strong Fathers graduate. During the program, he joined about 10 other Durham fathers and two Strong Fathers facilitators, twice a week, to share their histories, talk through parenting situations and develop new tools to bring into interactions they have with their children.

While Dan attended Strong Fathers, he also went to individual and family counseling. He said certain Strong Fathers topics stuck with him – that anger and violence in the home can negatively affect children as young as infancy, and that praising children can strengthen relationships.

Dan now gets to have unsupervised visits with his son and daughter. He said he doesn’t feel angry anymore.

“Strong Fathers fills a support gap of friends and family,” Dan added.It certainly did for me at a super critical point in my recovery in life – my emotional, psychological recovery.”

To learn more about Strong Fathers’ services and volunteer opportunities, visit its website. To support community programs like this one, Duke employees can make a donation to the Doing Good in the Neighborhood Community Care Fund year-round.

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