By Ed Brock
Father's Day is just a little more special for Sheldon Thomas than others.
For three years he didn't get to see his 7-year-old son Darius Marquez Thomas who was in the custody of his ex-wife after a nasty divorce. He did have to pay $500 a month in child support.
"I was paying it but I still wasn't able to see my child," said Thomas, 36, of Jonesboro. "It ended up she was trying to keep my child away from me."
Things have changed for Thomas, thanks in part to the Georgia Fatherhood Program. He's made a truce with his ex-wife and now Darius gets to stay with him this entire weekend. But for many of the over 200 other fathers in the program, this Sunday will be far more gloomy, said Lee Hayden, coordinator of the Fatherhood Program at Griffin Technical College.
"Some of them are feeling bad that they're not able to do for their children like they're supposed to," Hayden said.
The fathers in Hayden's program have cases with the Georgia Department of Human Resources Office of Child Support Enforcement and are usually referred to the program to avoid other penalties for falling behind in their child support payments. The Griffin Tech office serves eight counties, including Clayton and Henry counties.
There are three points to the program, Hayden said, get the men jobs, get them paying their child support and get them more involved with their children.
A majority of the men in the program were never married to the mother of their children, are in their early 30s and have no high school diploma or GED. Some 50 percent of them have criminal records and many others have suspended driver's licenses, two factors that make it hard for them to find work.
"We're talking about the people who are getting left behind in our society for whatever reason," Hayden said.
In Thomas' case he was laid off from his job, at which point he received a notice from the Office of Child Support Enforcement about his delinquency. That's how he found out about the Fatherhood Program.
"Every state should have this program," Thomas said. "It makes you feel like there's somebody out there who supports you."
And Thomas and Hayden both said many fathers in the system feel like it favors the mother. For example, men who father a child in Georgia are obligated to pay child support but are not guaranteed visitation rights.
"The way the system works is every man who comes in there is labeled as a dead beat dad," Thomas said.
Some of the men in the Fatherhood Program are as devoted to their children as Thomas, and others don't seem to care about them since they are the products of fleeting relationships. Others just don't want to see their children because they're too embarrassed by their inability to provide for them. Hayden recently had such a case that, like many others, led to a touching moment.
"When he was unemployed he didn't want to see (his children) because he couldn't bring them presents," Hayden said about that father. "They told him 'We just want to see you, Daddy, we don't care about the money.'"
A father of six himself, Hayden has plenty of advice for fathers in his program.
Always try to stay on good terms with the child's mother and don't take another woman with you when you go to pick up the child.
"That's like throwing gasoline on a fire," Hayden said.
Always spend time with your children, encourage them to stay in school and always be dependable for them.
"If you say you'll pick them up at noon, be there at noon," Hayden said.