'So many barriers': Support for teen dads lags behind help for young moms

Michael Moze was 18 when he learned that he was becoming a father. Five months into the pregnancy, the Edmonton teen decided to quit school, find a job and moved in with his girlfriend.

"I got excited about becoming a dad," Moze says, and he was determined to provide for the family.

"I didn't have custody for the first two years, but I bottle-fed him from the hospital."

Shortly after Moze found out he would become a father, he turned to a centre run by a non-profit organization that helps pregnant teens and teen parents.

"Even when teen fathers are trying to be there and are there for their kids, there are so many barriers," says Moze. "When you have someone with experience to guide you, it is so much easier."

But the support he found as a young dad-to-be, and now father, is far from widespread in Canada. Organizations offering support for young mothers are present in most large Canadian cities, but there is a gap for young fathers.

"Young dads need our support to be the dads their kids need them to be," says Brian Russell, provincial co-ordinator at Dad Central Ontario, a non-profit organization that focuses on promoting fathers' involvement in parenting.

"In general, fatherhood involvement in Canada is improving, but it is status quo with young dads."

Weekly visits

Data from Statistics Canada shows that in 2013, 4,070 Canadian teens ages 15 to 19 became fathers.

While 80 per cent of teen fathers don't live with their child, close to half visit their children on a weekly basis, says the Canadian Pediatric Society.

And when teen dads become involved with their children, it can have a positive effect.

Impacts can range from a 50 per cent reduction in behaviour problems at school to better math and reading scores and a reduction in anxiety and depression rates for mothers, says the Office of Adolescent Health in the U.S.

In Canada, support services for teen fathers are only starting to emerge.

"The U.S. is maybe 15 years ahead of us when it comes to supporting fatherhood," says Russell.

'How do we do this?'

During the Obama years, $150 million was allocated annually by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to projects supporting marriage and fatherhood, many aimed specifically at young fathers.

Initiatives include the Responsible Young Fathers Project in California and Promoting Responsible Fatherhood Projects in various schools and community organizations across the country.

In Canada, Ontario, for example, spends $55,000 a year from its public health budget on fatherhood-related projects, which covers expenses for 20 to 25 community training events and workshops.

But there is an increasing demand and interest for supporting young fathers.

"When Dad Central started in the early 2000s, we had to do a lot of convincing that supporting young fathers was an issue," Russell says.

"Now the question from our public health and community partners is: How do we do this? How do we support young fathers?"

Ujima House for new fathers in Toronto is an example of what is possible. It was created in 2011 by Noah Boakye-Yiadom, an African-American researcher specializing in fatherhood, thanks to a United Way Youth Challenge Fund grant.

Ujima serves African-American fathers ages 15 and above. Services include parenting workshops, discussion groups and one-on-one mentoring for employment and housing.

Becoming more independent

Every year, Ujima House supports more than 50 young and potential fathers.

"A lot of the young men we see are focused on pop culture," says Zakiya Tafari, interim director at Ujima House. "There is a lot of messaging around independence and doing things yourself, but not necessarily on longer-term life issues."

By focusing on masculinity, cultural identity and empowerment, Ujima House encourages fathers no matter how difficult or troubled their past has been to become more independent and more motivated to provide for their children.

Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children has served vulnerable adolescent mothers and their children for more than 20 years.

"If we look at our patient population, there really is a valuable role for fathers," says Gillian Thompson, a nurse practitioner with the hospital's Young Families Program.

She says young mothers often see the father of their baby as an important source of support.

"There is evidence that fathers' involvement has the potential to contribute to the prevention of maternal depression, to increase breastfeeding rates, improve family functioning and promote healthy child development."

Young fathers, she says, can face multiple obstacles: school attendance, work, lack of support, mental health concerns, discomfort with attending health care appointments, the fear of being judged and sometimes incarceration and limitations imposed by child protection services.

'Needs are just as great'

"Many of our patients have had trauma or violence as part of their life, and as a team we need to consider how we can balance and facilitate the best possible care for each individual and family," says Thompson.

"Everything we are doing for the moms, we should be doing for the dads when possible. The needs are just as great, and their potential to do well is also just as great."

In Edmonton, the Terra Centre has run a program for teen dads since 2000. Last year, it served 103 young fathers, nearly half of them under the age of 20.

"We were seeing lots of dads coming and dropping kids off at our early learning centre for young moms and thought: 'OK, there is another piece here,' " says executive director Karen Mottershead.

At first, the centre offered similar services and approaches that had worked for many years with teen mothers, but it became obvious that dads had very different needs.

"Over the years, we really learned what works for them. We knew right from the start that we needed men working with men," says Mottershead.  

Basic necessities

Terra staff soon discovered that basic necessities were a concrete way for dads to get involved.

"Dads want to be able to provide for their children,'' says Mottershead. "Bus tickets, diapers, infant clothing … that is a way for dads to walk into our agency, check it out and see if they can trust us."

By working under the premise that all dads who seek services are there to help, the Young Fathers program focuses on promoting a healthy life-long relationship between father and child.

Moze, now 24 years old, lives with his fiancée, his five-year-old son Treyson and his daughter Selena, who was born in February. 

He enjoys hip hop music, volunteers and works full-time to support his family. He has been using services at the Terra Centre every week for six years.

Mottershead says the centre sees "something positive in every one of the young fathers" who come to it.

"We know that young dads very much feel judged by the community. Our work is to help them engage in parenthood and show them that they can really make a difference in their children's lives."