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Sue Lani Madsen: No replacement for a father’s love

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, will write opinion for the Spokesman-Review on an occasional basis.  Photo taken Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015.  JESSE TINSLEY jesset@spokesman.com (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, will write opinion for the Spokesman-Review on an occasional basis. Photo taken Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. JESSE TINSLEY jesset@spokesman.com (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

It’s called the “father factor.” It’s at the root of every negative cultural measure – children twice as likely to drop out of high school, more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, seven times more likely to become a teen pregnancy statistic.

Addressing the overwhelming consequences of absent fathers was the focus of the Spokane Fatherhood Initiative’s 2018 conference last Saturday. The initiative seeks to build stronger dads and stronger families. “Spokane as the birthplace of Father’s Day is a good place to energize the fatherhood movement,” said Ron Hauenstein, SpoFI chairman.

In 2013, single-mother households made up 20 percent of all households statewide in Washington. Spokane’s rate was 29.3 percent, making absent fathers a critical factor in Spokane Public Schools’ fight to reduce dropout rates.

Statistics define the scope of problems on a population level but tell us nothing about individual children.

Ryan Brown, youth outreach director at Union Gospel Mission, told the compelling story of a boy who grew up without a relationship with his biological father or a responsible stepfather. The boy spiraled into addiction and fathered three children before he was 26 years old, without ever becoming a daddy.

His fourth stepfather bought him a bus ticket to Spokane. His brother-in-law dropped him off at Union Gospel Mission. And the boy who was still not a man realized “this is what the bottom looks like.”

At UGM, three significant incidents turned his life around. Teenagers performing at chapel service reminded him of the teenager he never was and the teenagers his kids would soon be, without him. He threw himself into working around the mission.

And then he heard the most powerful words any person can hear. “I see something valuable in you.” Nobody had ever called him valuable. It led him to a Christ-centered recovery program and regaining a role in his children’s lives, learning to be the father he never had.

Brown, who finally revealed he was telling his own story, credits embracing fatherhood with saving his life, his children’s lives and his grandchildren’s lives. “What was doesn’t matter. What’s after is phenomenal,” he said. Brown was emphatic about the need to avoid another fatherless generation.

The Spokane Regional Health District raised a warning in their “Healthy Families, Better Beginnings” report in 2013. “Fathers who have a good relationship with the mother and are involved in the caring of their children … (are) associated with children who have better verbal skills, perform better academically, are emotionally secure, are confident, have better social connections with peers, and are less likely to get into trouble.”

That’s where Spokane127 comes in, answering the biblical challenge in James 1:27 admonishing Christ followers to “look after widows and orphans in their distress.” Spokane127 is a network of local Christian organizations seeking to walk the talk. “One person can’t do everything. But everyone can do something to help a child,” Hauenstein said.

Three organizations are key partners for action. Safe Families provides temporary emergency care for families in crisis, before they become foster care statistics. Fostering WA aims to fill gaps in the state foster care system by recruiting new state-licensed foster families, plus volunteers to support children pulled into the foster care system. And for children who need forever families, A Child’s Hope is a Spokane-based no-fee adoption agency.

Twenty-seven conference exhibitors handed out literature on opportunities to support pregnant women, struggling fathers and children without positive adult mentors in their lives. Breaking the cycle of absent fathers will take the whole village.

Erin Jones, keynote speaker and 2016 candidate for superintendent of public instruction, described her story of abandonment and adoption. Her own daddy, the man who adopted her and loved her unconditionally, served as her role model.

“God made me black and white, athlete and academic, American but raised in a place where I didn’t have to think about race.” She found her calling in teaching, with a heart for fatherless boys in particular. She regularly brought her husband of 25 years into the classroom as a role model for children missing the father factor in their lives.

The greatest privilege of all is to grow up knowing the love of a father.