NORTH CHARLESTON — La’Tristan Grimes was working at a nutrition club in Ladson when he stumbled upon the flyer for Father to Father, advertising the nonprofit’s services for becoming a better-equipped dad.
Grimes, 24, joined the six-month program in early spring, hoping it would teach him skills to effectively co-parent his 2-year-old daughter Aria.
“There’s no guidebook on how to be a parent, or a perfect parent at that,” Grimes said of his decision. “So I’m always a person who’s interested in learning new things.”
Father to Father Inc. was founded in North Charleston in 1998 under the umbrella of the faith-based South Carolina Center for Fathers and Families. It receives local donations along with state and federal funding to provide free programming specifically geared toward low-income, noncustodial fathers. Mothers are welcomed, too.
In the Charleston area, Father to Father has offices in North Charleston and Moncks Corner. The nonprofit has spread throughout the Lowcountry since its launch, now serving Allendale, Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper counties, in addition to Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester.
Each participant is paired with an “intervention specialist” — employees of the organization who lead the weekly sessions and act as mentors, along with sometimes playing the role of therapist, Grimes said.
“(My specialist) was always there for me to talk to if I had questions or if situations happened to where I wanted to get another point of view,” he said. “I talked to him about it, and he always gave me good advice.”
The intervention specialists also present each enrollee with a “One Man Plan,” which asks participants about their goals as a both person and as a father. The result is a sort of roadmap for your life, featuring steps for how to grow and achieve those goals.
Grimes, for instance, hopes to one day open his own counseling practice. While the 24-year-old has always been interested in psychology — it was his major in college — the Father to Father curriculum further opened his eyes to mental health struggles, particularly those of men, he said.
While Grimes voluntarily signed up for Father to Father, many participants don’t, said Sandino Moses, outreach coordinator for the North Charleston chapter. Some parents are mandated to attend by South Carolina’s family courts.
Instead of giving jail time for not paying child support, family court judges could order defendants to participate in Father to Father’s six-month program — a result of years spent cultivating strong relationships with the local courts, Moses said.
The alternative, called Jobs Not Jail, applies to parents facing incarceration only due to nonpayment of child support; no other charges can be pending. The parent must have also been unable to work during the period of missed child-support payments, be considered low-income and be older than 18, according to the nonprofit’s website.
Jobs Not Jail participants must attend all weekly fatherhood peer-support classes, follow recommendations for finding employment and consistently pay child support throughout the 24-week class period. Father to Father does not pay those costs, according to its website.
When considering whether a defendant is a good candidate for the Father to Father program, Family Court Judge Michèle Patrão Forsythe looks to see whether they have the best intentions for their child, and the desire to find meaningful employment to help make child-support payments, she said.
Father to Father’s holistic approach helps noncustodial parents navigate resumé building and the interview process in addition to better understanding their parenting responsibilities, Forsythe said.
Sometimes people forget their duties as parents, but “incarceration is not the answer to that moral problem,” she said.
Forsythe has been aware of the court’s involvement with Father to Father since being elected to South Carolina’s 9th Judicial Circuit Family Court in 2016. She’s seen how this alternative to incarceration can help children have a better relationship with their parents, and know they are provided for.
“There are many kids in our system who know that the parent … is not holding up their end of the bargain. Which is sad, and really detrimental to the child,” Forsythe said.
Several studies have found that parents who are more involved have children with higher IQs and better social connections, and who are less likely to get in trouble.
Jobs Not Jail is an “amazing” alternative for men and women, Grimes said. He mentioned how, during a year marred by the coronavirus pandemic, many peoples’ financial situations shifted.
“Especially with COVID going on right now, some people may have lost their jobs and fell behind on their payments,” he said. “So having that option and being able to be a part of the program not only is going to help them in that … situation but also improve them as a parent overall.”
When defendants appear before a family court judge, the judge must decide whether the noncustodial parent acted in willful disobedience of the court order requiring them to pay child support.
“What happens if somebody just lost their job, was injured on the job?” Forsythe said. “There are a myriad of reasons why you could come in front of the judge. That’s when the judge considers, is incarceration for willful disobedience appropriate here?”
And some defendants may appear before a family court judge after having just been released from the state prison system. Sending someone back to prison because they couldn’t pay child support while behind bars isn’t a helpful punishment, Forsythe said.
“That’s not meaningful. That doesn’t give this person the opportunity to … work and provide for their child,” she said.
A 2009 study in South Carolina found that 13.2 percent of county jail inmates were locked up for civil contempt relating to nonpayment of child support, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Jobs Not Jail has had a big impact over the years, not only on participants’ lives but also for local taxpayers, whether they realize it or not.
Father to Father in 2020 saved Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties more than $493,000. According to the nonprofit, the three counties would’ve had to pay that much to incarcerate Jobs Not Jail participants, had defendants not found Father to Father and a willing family court judge.
Last year, Father to Father had 199 enrollees and helped 61 people find a job. Participants who were previously unemployed saw an average increase of $299 in their monthly incomes, according to the nonprofit.
Grimes, who was already employed when he joined, said participating in the program helped him learn more about how to make smart financial decisions, such as saving money and practicing money patience. “Don’t just spend all your money right when you get it,” he learned.
Grimes carried this theme with him through each of the course’s components. After graduating from Father to Father in August, Grimes said practicing patience was the most important skill he walked away with.
Patience applies not only to your financial situation but also to your co-parenting relationship, said Grimes, who is no longer with Aria’s mother. In a healthy relationship, patience means not getting upset or blowing the situation out of proportion if a disagreement arises, he said.
And, perhaps most importantly, Grimes learned how practicing patience is key to raising Aria.
“She’s already a little fireball, but I guess that flame is even more now,” Grimes said, reflecting on the ways Father to Father affected his daughter, and helped grow their relationship.
In fact, Aria, who is not yet 3 years old, already knows how to make her favorite shake at the nutrition shop Grimes and his fiancée now co-own.
“I definitely say there’s no way that you can walk out of that program and not feel inspired, not come out with a different mindset and come out eager to do new things with your child,” he said.