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One of the most difficult, stunning and defining experiences of my entire life was when I went through the child support system. My daughter was born when I was an 18-year old freshman in college, and although I didn’t want her mother to leave me for another man, I still knew that I had a responsibility when it came to taking care of my kids. So, I did what I was supposed to do, signed the papers where necessary and paid tens of thousands of dollars in child support over the next 18 years, even when it emptied out my bank account.

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What surprised the heck out of me was that while the courts were always quick to threaten me with jail time if I’d chosen not to pay my child support, they showed almost no concern regarding whether or not I had the right to see my daughter. There was also no accountability regarding where my money was going and if those funds were being used to manage the needs of my child. I found myself increasingly frustrated by both my experience and also the broader perception of all black male non-custodial parents as dead beat dads. The truth is that while there are far too many dead beats, there are also fathers who’ve been victimized by parental alienation or an overzealous mother who feels that she can dictate every dimension of the father/child relationship. The mere implication that black males love their children any less than other people is a clear and stereotypical insult to our humanity.

Eric Legette works to help fathers restore their rights. He reminds all of us that black men love our children and want to see them just like everyone else. His story also lets us know that if we are going to solve problems regarding the breakdown of the black family in America, we must all be honest about the role we’ve individually played in the process. It is for that reason that Eric Legette is today’s Dr. Boyce Watkins Spotlight on AOL Black Voices:

1) What is your name and what do you do?

My name is Eric Legette and I am the President/Founder of Fathers With Voices (FWV). My program’s mission is to increase the involvement of fathers in the lives of their children. The goal is to educate, support and provide much needed information and resources to these fathers.

2) What led you to create your organization and what in your background helps fathers to solve family and legal problems?

A childhood friend of mine was being denied access to his son. He navigated the legal system to obtain his visitation rights and the mother still denied his visitation. After filing several violations of visitation orders and receiving no assistance from the court system to rectify the problem so he could see his son, he decided to walk away. I thought, “What a terrible loss for both father and child.” Little did I know that I would later come in contact with hundreds of men experiencing the same problem. The next step was to research to see if there were any programs that would assist someone like my friend and at that time (1996) in New York City there were no fatherhood programs that helped fathers to succeed within the legal system. I have a BA in Sociology and over a decade of experience working within the social service field in various capacities which includes mental health. I have training in verbal de-escalation, crisis prevention and intervention, casework techniques and interviewing techniques. However, I truly believe a very important and key strength of my program is, I have experienced many of the struggles and hardships my clients face. Borrowing a line from an old commercial, “I am not only the President/Founder (of Fathers With Voices); I am also a client.” Two months after founding FWV, I began experiencing challenges with my daughter’s mother and took my concerns to family court. It was a very difficult process. Had I not gone through the frustrations of navigating the legal system myself, I could not stand boldly and share with fathers the actions I used to overcome my obstacles.

3) What are the misconceptions of the black father in America?

One primary misconception is that we are all “dead beats” and uncaring fathers. I truly believe part of the reason the legal system is so biased against fathers is largely due to this misconception. However, the term “dead beat” is a term people should investigate a little bit more before passing judgment. A study was done several years ago in Baltimore, Maryland regarding the issue of fathers’ failure to pay child support. The conclusion of the study was, fathers in that area were not dead beat fathers but “dead broke.” The city of Baltimore was given a grant that taught fathers job readiness skills and strategies to prepare them for the workplace. What people don’t realize is that many of the child support orders issued include amounts that far exceed the amount of money the men earn. I’ve had cases where as much as eighty percent of a father’s earnings were being garnished and he was responsible for one child. My program has helped fathers get money back from child support due to “clerical errors.” One of the true blessings of helping fathers during this journey is speaking to literally thousands of fathers (most of them African-American) who truly love their children. I’ve had fathers so distraught over being denied access to their children after a separation or divorce they contemplated suicide. A little unknown fact is that the world has lost countless numbers of fathers to suicide due to their struggles within the legal system, ongoing challenges with the mother of their children and being denied access to their children.

4) You mention, “Closing the Curtain on baby mama drama” What do you mean by that? How do you help to close that door?

Closing the Curtain on Baby Mama Drama is actually the name of my book which is still available at BarnesandNoble.com. I wanted to name my book something that symbolized my victory over the drama and my transformation. The term means or meant that I no longer was bound by the drama. My awakening, which occurred in the year 2000, caused me to realize that it was not the actions or “games” played by my ex-mate that was the problem; the actual problem was my reactions to the game and allowing it to affect my entire life. I experienced periods of deep depression, anxiety attacks and high blood pressure all because of trying to figure out “Why?” As I share with fathers even today, closing the door/curtain on baby mama drama is a process. That process includes my “P’s” for success, which includes prayer (a whole lot of it), patience, persistence, perseverance and a positive outlook.

This is the year for EMPOWERMENT where I am challenging fathers to allow our program to work with them throughout the year to help them regain control of their lives for the sake of their children. I have been free since the year 2000 and I want fathers to experience that same sense of freedom…but they must do the work!

5) Have financial hurdles made it more difficult for families to stay together or for parents to get along? If so, how?

Quite the opposite, families are being forced in some cases to stay together due to the economy. My professional experiences has caused me to believe or feel that child support and the manner in which it is ordered and collected is designed to put a wedge between parents and keep them at odds. Many fathers I work with could really care less about having to pay child support. Their issue is, as child support enforcement is making sure he is paying his child support, many of these fathers rights are not protected in terms of seeing their children. There is a significant number of men who have child support garnished from their paychecks but they have no idea where their children live. Why? Their ex-spouse/mate relocated without providing a forwarding address to the father, but made sure to start the child support proceedings before they left. The system allows fathers’ visitation rights to be violated because they do very little in terms of protecting fathers’ rights from repeated acts of parental alienation. In other words, ensuring that a father interacts with his child is not a priority of the system. On the other hand, they are very aggressive in collecting child support in the form of paycheck garnishments, income tax garnishments, etc. In my professional opinion, the system’s main focus is to ensure the child is receiving child support. I am not stating that child support is not important. However, they really do not care if these children have their father–a human being, a teacher, a supporter–in their lives and that to me is really sad!

6) What services do you offer and how can people get access to them?

FWV conducts research, provides information, resources, referrals, advice and insight on whatever type of case fathers are involved in, such as child support, visitation, custody and establishing paternity. You can find my program at www.fatherswithvoices.info. You can also follow me on Twitter-www.twitter.com/esay32 and Blog Talk Radio every Wednesday night at 8:00 p.m-www.blogtalkradio.com/eric-legette. I encourage people to follow my show because I am trying to provide a consistent venue where people can go to vent but also receive solutions to their issues. The “drama” is a major, major issue, particularly within the African-American community and we have to find a way to address it.

7) Is there anything else you’d like to share with our  audience?

Yes, for all of the women out there that are supporting their mates experiencing the drama and the drama is bringing stress in your marriages/relationships, I have a new e-book available on my website entitled The Couples ABC Guide-How to Face Conflicts With an Ex-spouse Together. I wrote this e-book because so many women call and e-mail my program and share with me how much the drama is adversely affecting their marriages and relationships. I am providing words that inspire, educate, and encourage couples to fight for their relationship together. I don’t want couples to allow the “drama” to destroy their marriages or relationships. The first 200 people who purchase the e-book will have an opportunity to win vacation packages sponsored by my program. I state throughout my e-book the need for couples impacted by the drama to spend more time with each other to strengthen the relationship. The more couples who purchase the e-book the more vacation packages we will sponsor.

Second, this is the year of EMPOWERMENT for fathers. We want fathers to commit to our program for six months to a year. We have received hundreds of calls and e-mails from fathers complaining about investing thousands of dollars in legal fees but not seeing any progress in their cases. This is the absolute best time for fathers to realize and understand that if they do not invest in educating and empowering themselves, the drama will continue to overwhelm them. Men are paying Trump Plaza prices in legal fees but receiving Motel 6 services. When men register for the program, they are going to receive a wealth of information including constant support and follow-up.