James Murrell easily could have been a deadbeat dad, but instead the Tulsa man told a legislative panel Tuesday of the struggles he has made to stay in touch with his daughter after his ex-wife took her with her when she moved to another state.
Murrell, 46, who grew up in Oklahoma City, said he was blindsided when his wife of two years filed for divorce about a year after their daughter's birth. His parents have been married for more than 50 years, and he didn't know anything about divorce court or child support arrangements. After his divorce, he was ordered to pay child support and half the cost of sending their child to a Tulsa day care, a fee he still pays, he said, even though his daughter now lives in Texas with his ex-wife.
Calvin Williams, director of fatherhood services for Public Strategies, an Oklahoma City firm that provides technical assistance to clients in several human services sectors, said effective fathers need good relationship and financial skills.
Children growing up fatherless is a growing trend in Oklahoma and in the nation, he told members of the House of Representatives Human Services Committee during an interim study.
“It increases when you have the economic downturns like we do because when a father has the inability to provide for his child, his absence is the guilt and shame,” Williams said. “Mom becomes an impediment at that point — you can't provide; you're not going to see your kid.”
The growing problem of fatherlessness isn't isolated to unmarried fathers, he said.
“We have plenty of children living in homes with their fathers, but those fathers are emotionally absent and distant,” Williams said.
The problem can't be stereotyped: It involves fathers in rural and urban areas, all races and different income levels, he said.
“Men aren't equipped, men aren't taught, men aren't shepherded,” Williams said. “It's just an event that occurs in a variety of ways. Families are formed in a variety of ways and men find themselves as fathers.”
Many men don't have the community support to learn to be good fathers, he said.
He said it would be helpful if the state had a fatherhood network to help men prepare for the emotional and financial stress of being a father as well as honing relationship skills with their child and also the child's mother.
Laws should be changed so fathers are allowed to have a salary equal to at least the poverty level before child support payments are determined, he said.
“At least let him have some gas in the car, an apartment and a little food,” Williams said.
Leon Skillens III, a fatherhood program coordinator with the Tulsa Health Department, said one out of three children in the U.S., or 24 million children, live in a home without a father.
Children growing up without a father are nearly five times more likely to commit suicide, 24 times more likely to run away from home, 6 times more likely to drop out of school and 15 times more likely to end up in jail or prison while still a teenager.
Children in fatherless homes also are five times more likely to be poor, Skillens said.