Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

Fathers Fighting to See Their Kids

Jeffery Waller, 36, will be back in court next week fighting for time with his son.

It’s a familiar scene after a bitter, two-year custody battle. He says he’s probably been to 40 hearings since he and his ex-wife split up after five years of marriage.

It’s drained him financially and emotionally.

He remembers hitting a low point in an unemployment office nearly two years ago. He was in between jobs. His family lives five hours away in Tennessee. There were times when he wouldn’t be able to see his son for months at a stretch. He noticed a flyer for the St. Louis Crisis Nursery, and out of sheer desperation, he called the hotline.

“Hey, I’m a dad,” he said to the woman who answered the phone. “I’m not being allowed to see my child. I don’t know where to turn. I don’t know where to go. I need some help. Can you help me out in some way?”

The social worker on the line listened to his story. She offered to help him and suggested he also contact the Fathers’ Support Center in St. Louis. Waller had never heard of the group, but decided he needed to take whatever help he could get.

He called at 4:30 p.m. on a Friday. The center was closing in half an hour, the staff told him, but they had a parenting course starting on Monday. Waller jumped in his car and drove 30 minutes to the FSC office, where the staff stayed late to enroll him in the six-week program.

Waller was initially skeptical. He imagined a group of discouraged men sitting around in a circle telling their sad stories. He wanted no part of anything like that, and didn’t see any value in a support group. Talking about his troubles wouldn’t actually fix anything, he thought.

The program turned out to be nothing like what he had expected.

The faculty and staff had one question for all the participants: Are you here to be the best parent you can be, regardless of what the other parent is going to do? If so, the FSC would help them get there. Waller spent six weeks taking classes on effective parenting skills and child nutrition, and receiving credit counseling, legal counseling and employment counseling to help place him in a solid job. The center provides lunch several times a week, plus bus passes or gas money for transportation. And there’s always a counselor on hand to talk to when life gets too stressful.

“They make sure you have no excuse not to be there,” he said. He was amazed by the support, education and attention he received.

“I’ve never seen in my life so many people focused on creating a cohesive family,” he said.

Once he completed the six-week course in December of 2017, they helped provide some legal resources. The course made him a better father, and it gave him hope.

He learned never to disparage his ex-wife or refer to her as a “baby mama.” He appreciated that most of the faculty had been through the program themselves and had lived through many of the struggles he was experiencing.

“They brought a realism and honesty to the subject that is completely ignored,” he said, referring to the societal lack of support for fathers. He’s started speaking on behalf of the group to raise awareness of the resources available and to share his story. He gets a little emotional when he talks about his hopes and dreams for his 5-year-old son.

“The thing I wish the most for him, even after all the terrible things he’s experienced, is that he gets to see his mother and I in a positive light. ... I want him to see, even though things are not ideal, they can still work,” he said.

It’s a dream he refuses to give up on -- regardless of how many times he ends up in court.