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Sidestepping baby mama drama: how fathers can navigate through the legal system and successfully co-parent their children.

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We've heard the excuses before: "She won't let me see my child." "I pay too much child support." "If it weren't for that woman, I'd be a good father."

But are these kinds of statements always excuses? Sometimes they actually reflect the reality and frustration that many fathers face.

For men who must deal with these situations and others like them, the result is what has now been deemed as "baby-mama drama." Even as rappers bemoan such scenarios in catchy music lyrics and comedians joke about it in stand-up routines, the bigger issue is fatherlessness--an epidemic in the Black community where more than 70 percent of children are born to unwed parents, according to federal health statistics. Also, the number of cases involving children that end up in family and divorce court is on the rise because many fathers are exercising their legal rights as parents. The challenge for many divorced and never-married fathers is trying to co-parent with an ex-wife or former girlfriend when the relationship is contentious or even hostile.

Such cases are familiar to Alicia M. Crowe, a New York attorney who has helped numerous fathers and mothers fight for their rights in family court. "I've seen cases where the father wants to be a father," says Crowe, the author of Real Dads Stand Up! "He wants to be the best dad he can be. But the mother doesn't want that. She wants more money, more money. Then she disposes of him like a Dixie cup. Often there are feelings of bitterness and abandonment when the relationship breaks up, and it triggers all kinds of emotions. [The mother] uses the children as pawns."

How are Black fathers fating in all of this? It varies. Each of the three men pro-filed here had to confront the issue of fatherhood in different ways. The key to avoiding both emotional and financial pit-falls of single/divorced fatherhood is largely in self-education about one's legal fights as a parent. Also, men must make a conscious effort not to repeat the cycle of fatherlessness that may have existed in their own lives.

BILL STEPHNEY: A FATHER'S LONG FIGHT FOR HIS PARENTAL RIGHTS

During the 1980s, Bill Stephney was a part of the hip-hop movement as a top media executive who worked at Def Jam Records and with the revolutionary group Public Enemy.

There are many, including Stephney, who feel that hip-hop gave youth without fathers or strong male role models a surrogate parent, much in the same way street gangs have served as a substitute for boys who lack a father figure at home.

"The hip-hop generation is for the unparented," Stephney later concluded.

In 1994 Stephney's son Jabari was born during a relationship. After paternity was established, Stephney began to have contact with Jabari during his second year. However, from 1996 to 1998, Stephney lost contact with his son. Jabari's mother moved away and his son's whereabouts were unknown to him. At the time he was paying child support and had established visitation through the court.

During a 10-year court process, Stephney says he spent $70,000 in legal fees. In 1998 Stephney hired Crowe as his lawyer and gained custody of his son, now 14.

His advice to fathers who are facing legal issues with the mothers of their children is to educate yourself. "I bought every law book in the state of New York," says Stephney. "I found a book store that sold textbooks for law schools on family law. It was baptism by fire."

Well-informed fathers make for better clients, according to Stephney, who last year launched the Meeting the Fatherhood Challenge Symposium at the Apollo Theater in New York City. Now married and living in Newark, N.J., his advice for divorced and separated fathers is to try and keep the peace with the child's mother if at all possible.

"Try and encourage a cooperative relationship with the mother of the child. Mommy and daddy living together and raising their children is the best way to raise children," he says. "If it doesn't work out, maintain a cooperative relationship with the mother."

DAVID MANUEL: FROM FATHERLESS BOY TO RESPONSIBLE MAN

David Manuel recalls the event during his childhood that changed everything for him. Manuel was 4 years old when his brother Michael, then 10, died of leukemia. Later his parents divorced and his mother raised him and another brother with the help of his grandmother.

"My father moved away and remarried. He never reached out to us," says Manuel. "One day when I was small, I remember seeing my father at the mall with his new family. I went up to him and shook his hand."

Manuel says that he was not bitter, even though his father and his new family rived in a big house and were prosperous, while his mother struggled to support him and his brother. Later, he wanted to give his father "the opportunity to be a grandfather" to Manuel's son. The two reconnected. His dad was able to meet Manuel's oldest son Branden, 13, but died on the day that his youngest son, Blake, now 10, was born.

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To help overcome his own fatherlessness issue and to become a good father to his own sons, Manuel says he took examples of strong fathers from watching television. He grew up watching Good Times and paid special attention to the John Amos character, who portrayed a strong alpha male who dominated the fictional Evans household. While watching The Cosby Show, he noted that Bill Cosby's Dr. Cliff Huxtable was able to communicate effectively with all of his children.

"I looked for strong male role models," says Manuel, who wrote I Am A Father, a collection of essays from the children of men he considered to be good fathers. They include writings by Sidney Poitier's daughter, Beverly Poitier-Henderson, and Morgana Freeman, the daughter of actor Morgan Freeman.

It took Manuel three years to put the book together, which he self-published and promoted himself. "I wanted to touch people on a different level," says Manuel, who is extremely close to his two sons and has been married to his wife, Lori, for 15 years.

Manuel made a conscious decision to avoid the drama that many men who grow up without fathers in their lives often repeat in their own relationships. "Over 70 percent of children are without fathers in their lives," he says. "That's a crisis."

ERIC LEGETTE: HELPING FATHERS TO BE HEARD IN THE LEGAL SYSTEM

Twelve years ago, Eric Legette founded Fathers With Voices, a program to help men become more successful in the family court system and to stay connected with their children. He witnessed the baby-mama drama that one of his childhood friends was experiencing and wanted to help him and other men who were without the proper resources or education to face the courts.

Then in 1996, Legette found himself in court concerning his daughter, Alexis, now 13. She was only 2 at the time. He was not married to Alexis' mother and a seven-month battle over visitation ensued. He describes that time as the "most traumatic experience of my life" and the courtroom experience as "a place that is used as a revenge tool."

He joins many fathers who feel that their children's mothers use the family court system to get back at men, often out of anger and frustration because the relationship didn't work out. "Every time I went to court I paid $500 to the attorney," says Legette. "She had a public defender and wanted [my] visits [with my daughter] to be supervised for one year."

A counselor who works with at-risk youth in Jamestown, N.C., Legette says that when Alexis' maternal grandmother became ill, he was able to spend time with his daughter more often than his court-approved, specified visits, which were to take place every other weekend. During those extended visits, he became concerned about some health and school-related issues.

Although his personal situation was frustrating at times, Legette didn't give up fighting for his rights as a father.

Because he played by the court's rules and didn't walk away from the situation, he was able to gain custody of Alexis when she was 8 years old. He makes sure that his daughter sees her mother on a regular basis and calls her every day. His experiences have led to his writing the book Closing the Curtain on Baby Mama Drama: A Guide to Fathers Fighting for Their Children Inside and Outside of Family Court. "I've seen the damage that baby-mama and [baby-]daddy drama has done in the African-American community," he says, recounting instances of men and women who have murdered one another, kidnapping cases and even attempts at suicide. Legette provides the men he works with spiritual encouragement through gospel music and scripture, which he says helped him through his ordeal.

Legette, like many other fathers, feels that the court system favors women. "If [men] have money, they can work with [the legal system]," he says. "If you are a common man, your rights are violated."

5 things fathers should know before they go to court

1. Educate yourself about the family court process in your state. Each state publishes a handbook that explains the process. Any father who is going to family court should request a copy from the family court system in his state. Also, read as many books on the subject as you can.

2. Research online. A wealth of information exists today, especially online, for fathers who are going through cases of child support, visitation, etc. Go to Goggle and type in the keywords: family law.

3. If you cannot afford a lawyer, ask for a court-appointed attorney. You may qualify.

4. Remember that paying child support is different from obtaining visitation rights. A different court handles each issue, and fathers generally have to file for court-approved visitation.

5. Join a father's network group in your area or attend a conference or workshop that educates and assists men who are dealing with legal issues.
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Title Annotation:PARENTING
Author:Henderson, Shirley
Publication:Ebony
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2008
Words:1679
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