Prevention & Support
Nonprofits Work with Men, Youth to Stop the Violence Before it Starts
BY KARA SCHWEISS
The Omaha area offers multiple, excellent resources that provide assistance and support for women experiencing domestic violence, and awareness programs targeting girls and women abound. But how do we teach the boys and men in our community to recognize signs of potentially abusive behavior in themselves? And what are we doing to help them learn the skills they need to be good partners and fathers?
One community program making great strides in reaching and educating a male audience is Fathers for a Lifetime, a program of Omaha Healthy Start (which is an initiative of Charles Drew Health Center, Inc., a federally qualified community health center).
“In our program, we offer a 13-week session that allows men to engage and address issues such as child support, fathers’ rights and communication, men’s health, financial management, divorce and other issues; and healthy relationships is one of the topics they cover during the session,” says Gail Ross, project director for Omaha Healthy Start. “To date (since 2002), we’ve had 1,500 men attend and graduate from our 13-week session. The program works with custodial as well as noncustodial fathers, fathers who are expecting children, fathers who are incarcerated, and also young men who are planning to become fathers.”
Participants learn from each other as well as from the various facilitators, Ross says. “It’s very important to note that Fathers for a Lifetime was created for men by men. The mission of Fathers for a Lifetime is to promote and create greater public awareness of responsible fatherhood and give fathers the resources they need to support them and to become even better fathers.”
“When you look at the long-term effects of support on lives, when you start looking at cycles of poverty and generational poverty—there’s no manual on how to be a good father. To have this program in place that can help craft and support men, and when you have this type of structure and this environment that’s still somewhat flexible, it makes the men a lot better,” says Kenny McMorris, Charles Drew Health Center CEO and father of two young children. “We know that a father engaged in a child’s life increases the likelihood that that young person is going to be successful.”
“There is no such substitute for a father’s relationship with the child, so one of the things we’ve realized is that without fathers in the picture, children are more likely to drop out of school, commit crimes, abuse drugs and possibly even end up in domestic violence relationships,” Ross adds. “We find that good fathering skills are important for men because fathers, for one, provide a lot of identity for children and the family; they provide a lot of structure for the children and the family whether the mother and father are together or not. They provide a lot of support and a lot of stability…It’s very important and very crucial, from our position, to try to keep or get fathers engaged in that child’s life from day one, around the pregnancy and delivery and when that child is growing up.”
The program has added four-week sessions that specifically talk about and focus on domestic violence.
“Domestic violence is something that unfortunately plagues our community greatly,” Ross says. “By recognizing the value of men that come in the doors because of this issue, we wanted to address this issue through awareness, education and training and not just providing a one-night event. And that’s how we started providing those intense four-week sessions for our men through Fathers for a Lifetime. We were very fortunate to receive a grant from the Women’s Fund to assist with providing these classes. The stipulation was to consult the Domestic Violence Council, for their approval on the lessons, and we did that. We started holding our domestic violence classes in fall 2014. They have been highly attended and we believe they are having an impact on our community.”
McMorris says Fathers for a Lifetime emphasizes a positive, forward-looking approach.
“Unfortunately, you may have grown up in a challenging situation, but today can be the first step in the right direction as it relates to being an excellent man and being a great father to your family. So this program allows an opportunity for other men to do that amongst each other in a safe environment,” he explains. “Typically a lot of the services that (the community has) available are not coming from that perspective, it’s more from the perspective of ‘Why did you do this?’ versus ‘What has happened to you?’ That’s one of the benefits of being part of this program.”
He adds that the program makes the entire community stronger. “This community is far better because we have a group of men who’ve made this commitment, no matter where they’ve been in their life, to say ‘I want to be better. I just need an extra little push, a nudge to help me get there.’ So we provide that for them and a great environment that’s structured but still flexible to meet them where they are.”
The program originated to meet what was seen as a gap in services for the community, Ross says. “One of the things we found through the Omaha Healthy Start program was that there needed to be a program for men to complement and provide the support services that were being provided for our women and our children through our Omaha Healthy Start HealthNet case management program,” she says. “And the other thing we noticed through our medical facilities and Charles Drew Health Center was the fathers were the ones who were bringing the mothers of their children to their doctor’s appointments, their WIC appointments, et cetera.
“We observed that the dads actually had a lot of influence over the mothers. We realized that it was very important that we engaged the fathers. If the fathers were unhappy, if they had employment issues or were stressed, that would translate to having an impact to the mother and pass on to the unborn child and other children they were rearing. So based on our observations and surveys we did, we decided fathers could use a program that was just for them that could give them the training and support we were already providing for the mothers and the children.”
“We know from a health perspective—we’re in the business of keeping people healthy and promoting healthy lifestyles—that a lot of the challenges that are health-related are because of the social determinants, those things that impact people’s healthy behaviors that have nothing to do with their current healthcare status,” Mc Morris adds. “So the programmatic model and the intervention model we have here, we try to be more upstream.” “The participants leave changed—they may not be the same as far as their knowledge, aspiration and mindset,” Ross says. McMorris concurs, adding that Fathers for a Lifetime is helping to create better relationships within families, and that ultimately has an even larger effect. “One of the early participants is currently a family practice physician here at Charles Drew Health Center. We talk about coming full circle; this individual went through the program, recognized and owned the fact that there were some things he wanted to do to improve. And now he’s here as a family practice doctor taking care of people and making them healthy.
“When you talk about the impact of this program, that’s what it’s all about,” he says. “The ability to change a path from where we were and where men may be is saying ‘I’m going to be better for my family for the long haul’—it’s vastly important to this community. One of the easiest ways to get people out of poverty is to keep men actively involved and engaged and supporting and uplifting them. We’ll have a better community and a better commitment to our women, a better commitment to our city, and a better commitment to our state.”
More information on the program is available at www.fathersforalifetime.org or 402-453-5300, and sessions are available year-round.
Another local program, RESPECT, reaches audiences as young as preschool, teaching both girls and boys about healthy relationships and addressing bullying and dating violence, which can be precursors to domestic violence in adult relationships. RESPECT pairs educational theater presentations with panel or group discussions led by community professionals and actor-educators.
“Theater is an educational tool and it’s a psychological tool,” says Patricia Newman, Ph.D., executive director of RESPECT. She is also a clinical child psychologist and nationally certified school psychologist. “Our mission is to work with a community collaboration—we’re always a team player —and to work with youth to help them develop healthy relationships using theater techniques. So we have programs from preschool through college and through the workplace.”
According to the Douglas County Health Department Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted in 2012, more than 10 percent of high school students reported being hit or physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend. And more than eight percent of students surveyed reported being physically forced to have sexual intercourse when they did not want to.
It’s never too early to talk about healthy relationships, Newman says. “These are the things that we don’t teach children…we just kind of think that they’re just going to figure it out.” She adds that the RESPECT program recognizes the connection between early behaviors and domestic violence.
“They’re interrelated because we’re talking about power and control. Research shows that even preschool children who don’t get feedback about inappropriate behavioral skills and use power and control in the wrong way will continue to use those in their other relationships. What can be a behavior problem in preschool and bullying in elementary school can turn into teen dating violence. It cycles through because you are using your relationship skills in all your relationships,” she explains. “That might be how you discipline your children and it might be how you work in your workplace and it might be how you are with your spouse and with your pets. The longitudinal research shows that if we can’t break this chain of behavior and teach something new, this behavior may continue.”
Young people may recognize something of themselves in the antagonist role in the educational play rather than the victim or bystander characters, Newman says, and that can lead to self-awareness that facilitates a learning experience.
“Kids have role models at home and we don’t know what they’re being exposed to, either in the media or in their home environment or in their community environment. If we don’t give children different information and ways to see things—we can call it cognitive flexibility, a way to see their world— and empathy, they will continue because that’s all they know,” she says. “We’re giving them opportunities to develop their empathy and opportunities to develop flexibility in how they think so there’s not just one way to behave in every situation.”
A community advisory committee made up of professionals from a variety of disciplines helps craft the RESPECT programs, Newman says. A student advisory committee offers input as well on how to keep the program content relevant and engaging. The actor-educators, who also serve as moderators, not only receive academic training, but all of them have professional or community theater experience. Their acting ability ensures that scenes come across as genuine and relatable for their youthful audiences. For instance, two of the actors in “Cracked, But Not Broken,” a play focusing on teen dating violence, portray a high school couple in a dating relationship, and their emotional expression and physical interaction must clearly suggest unhealthy elements to their relationship:
(teenage girl) We worked late on our project that night because we hadn’t worked on it at all. It’s 20 percent of our grade…Nothing happened, okay?
(teenage boy) I told you to switch partners!
(teenage girl) Mr. Whitman wouldn’t let me!
(teenage boy) You expect me to believe that you sat up until midnight working on some science project? I’m not stupid Chels, what’s up? You need to take this ring off. I don’t want someone I can’t trust having something so important.
(teenage girl) Jess, please, you’re really hurting me!
(teenage boy) I’m sorry, but I just get so jealous when I see you with other guys. Look, that’s how people are when they’re in love; don’t you know that by now? Great, now you made me late for practice.
“We only get an hour with these kids and 20 to 25 minutes is the program (play), so it has to be fabulous. Somebody who’s a professional is going to do that better and in a lot more meaningful way,” Newman explains. During the post-play discussion, the audience is offered the opportunity to ask questions anonymously via notecard, and provided with information on how to access local resources for help.
“Not only are we giving them information like they might get in a book or handout or in class, we’re giving them opportunities to observe and to feel and then to interact and question and to practice, and to learn with our actor-educators and also to learn from each other,” Newman says.
For more information on RESPECT, visit respect2all.org or call 402-965-1425.