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An era of single dads

Legal and societal changes may explain a rise in the number of single fathers in the state and on the Suncoast.


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 4, 2001

Legal and societal changes may explain a rise in the number of single fathers in the state and on the Suncoast.

Their days wash into each other with an easy rhythm: summer camp, work, grandma's house, then home.

It is a life that dad and daughter wear comfortably. Together. Alone.

Dave Goodwin is a single father. Several years ago, he divorced his wife and retained custody of daughter Tara. She is 8 years old now.

When Goodwin is not at work cleaning pools, he is taking Tara to tae kwon do, Brownies or her school, Northside Christian.

"I don't really do much without her," said Goodwin, 33, of St. Petersburg.

Goodwin is part of a wave of social change reflected in recent census numbers: During the past decade, the number of single fathers has shot up more than 71 percent in Florida and even more dramatically in several Tampa Bay area counties.

While single fathers are increasing rapidly, their raw numbers remain low in comparison to single mothers and families headed by married parents, which remain the majority.

The rise in single fathers, say those who work in the courts and social services, is a reflection of a couple of trends: the willingness of divorce courts to award custody to the fittest parent regardless of gender and the increasing involvement of fathers in children's lives.

"Men are becoming more recognized as being capable of being nurturing parents," said Charles Peters, chairman of Florida's Commission on Responsible Fatherhood. "The judiciary is becoming much more willing to award custody to men than it has ever been."

The word from the front lines bolsters that assessment.

Hernando County Circuit Judge Daniel Merritt Sr., who hears a quarter of the county's divorce cases, said that when he started practicing law 30 years ago, a father getting custody of the children was virtually unheard of.

Not only does Florida law put both parents on equal legal ground, but men also have become more willing to see themselves as head chauffeur, nose wiper and lunch maker.

"A lot of it probably has to do with a shift in society's attitudes," said Merritt, who specialized in family law before becoming a judge. "There has just been a general change in attitudes about what is a traditional family structure."

As to why the Suncoast counties of Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough, Hernando and Citrus are experiencing higher-than-average percentage increases in numbers of single fathers, no one is quite sure. In some of the less populated counties, it may have to do with the relatively small numbers at issue. While Citrus, a county of 118,085 people, saw its single fathers increase 107 percent since 1990, the actual number went from 429 to 887.

Roxanna Torre, a New Port Richey woman who has a state grant to work with at-risk families, said single parents often tell the same story. They lived up north, had family or job troubles and came to Florida to make a fresh start or perhaps be near relatives.

But they brought with them the very difficulties they tried to leave behind. Then comes the divorce and the single parent situation.

"They get these ideas to move to Florida and everything will be all right," Torre said.

Frequently, it isn't. But Torre hastened to add that single parent does not necessarily mean incapable parent.

"That doesn't automatically translate into problems," she said. "I applaud those parents who are able to keep it together. It's tough."

Those who walk that path can tell you that being a single parent, particularly a single father, is an experience that comes with its off-balance moments.

Jerry Smith of Tallahassee remembers the call well. The teacher needed cookies, preferably a couple dozen, for a class function. When the teacher learned there was only a father in the Smith household, she hesitated.

"I said, "I can do that,' " recalled Smith, a program specialist for the state Fatherhood Commission. "If I can't bake them, I'll buy them."

There was a time, Smith said, when he was the only single father he knew. For 10 years, he raised two boys alone after a divorce. His children grew up and he remarried, but he holds the experiences close in developing programs designed to help other fathers.

"People don't know how to deal with us," he said. "It was just awkwardness. Folks didn't know what to say."

Within the last five years, the people who run Pinellas County Head Start began a discussion group for men who are raising their children alone, said Juanita Heinzen, director of family services for Pinellas Head Start.

The evolution has been interesting to watch, Heinzen said. It wasn't too long ago that the teachers at Head Start typically didn't see the fathers at all. Then they started showing up, but mostly sat on the hoods of their cars as they waited outside for their children.

Now not only at the dads coming into the classrooms, a growing number of them have sole responsibility for raising their children.

"The picture has changed significantly," Heinzen said.

Carl Washington of Clearwater is one of those men changing the look of the typical family. He is 37 and works in a factory making and testing electrical wire. He is raising his 5-year-old son, Dominic.

His relationship with Dominic's mother was relatively new when she became pregnant. They made the decision that he would be the better person to raise Dominic.

"I took Dominic on from birth," Washington said. "I always kept the relationship open for her to be there, too. But I feel I'm the best parent to keep my son."

Often, he finds himself juggling factory shifts so he is home when his son's classes at Head Start are finished. Exhaustion is a constant companion, but he still finds the energy to do one of the little things Dominic likes best: race. They run to the mail box, to the park -- wherever.

"It's not easy, but it's worth it," he said.

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