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The Canadian Press

Bad reputation dogs young dads

Canadian Press, By MICHELLE MCQUIGGE, November 10, 2008

RELATIONSHIPS: Young fathers lack the same social service supports that moms get

TORONTO -- At the age of 21, Matt Chartrand thought he was ready to become a dad.

He'd spent half his teen years hitchhiking around Canada after fleeing a violent home in Hamilton and had settled down in Ottawa.

He'd fallen in love with a woman he met at a Salvation Army shelter, had found work and wanted to create the sort of close-knit family he had never experienced himself.

But when his son Jason was born, Chartrand realized the new baby wasn't going to be the only one growing up quickly.

During the 10 years of Jason's life, Chartrand and his partner have learned not only the basics of child-rearing and the complexities of raising a family on a limited income, but also how to cope with an autistic child who didn't utter a word for the first five years of his life.

Although he has no regrets about the hardships, Chartrand acknowledges the decision to become a father at such a young age was not wise.

"It was a bit of an immature decision at the time," Chartrand said. "I would never do it over again. I didn't think of the consequences of having a child back then."

Support workers who spend their days with young fathers say the reality check Chartrand experienced is typical of young men thrust into fatherhood.

Less common is Chartrand's decision to seek support from community groups and remain actively involved in his child's life, although the workers add that more dads would follow suit if they enjoyed the same access to social resources as young mothers.

Tim Paquette, chairperson of the Father Involvement Initiative -- Ontario Network, points to a disparity in the quantity and quality of services offered to young parents, saying women have access to a wide range of supports that often shut fathers out.

"We've done a really good job of building a comprehensive system for the young mom, but we're really missing the equivalent for dad," he said. "And that piece is missing for the baby and the developing child."

Paquette believes the stereotype of the youthful dad as a deadbeat is distorted, adding systemic barriers often prevent young men from playing a greater role in their kids' lives.

For example, fathers' names are not required on birth certificates, excluding some dads from the outset. As well, some mothers conceal the presence and identity of a father in order to receive greater financial assistance from the government.

But Paquette feels the lack of services plays the greatest role in deterring young dads from embracing parental responsibilities, reinforcing the notion a father's role is second-ary. "The man that wants to enhance his parenting skills finds a lack of programs and services, which really says a lot about the young man's role, that it really is dispensable."

The Father Involvement Program in Abbotsford, B.C., is touted as a national leader in paternity support.

Program co-ordinator Jeff McLean says many young men are wary of its offerings, but a weekly floor hockey game with staff and peers often breaks the ice. Many dads go on to take classes and get counselling.