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Fathers are often overwhelmed and intimidated by legal procedures for child custody, child support and visitation. That can be a huge obstacle when men try to stay involved with their children. Cherri Allison worries that the court system intimidates fathers — and sometimes gets in the way — when parents split up and dads want to be involved with their kids. “I know this to be true,” said Allison, an attorney who used to represent women seeking domestic violence restraining orders. Allison said that men duck court appearances, often out of fear or ignorance, and don’t realize that makes it easier for the mother to ask for full custody or cut the father’s visitation rights. The men then end up angry and frustrated, she said. Allison, who now runs the Alameda County, Calif., Bar Association’s volunteer legal services program, is helping to steer an alliance of local outreach groups in the San Francisco Bay area to help young fathers be better parents. Infused with a $700,000 three-year grant from the Hewlett Foundation, the Alameda County lawyers group is helping lay the foundation for the Fatherhood Involvement Council of Alameda County — a network of services for dads. Several organizations provide job training, health services or parenting guidance to young fathers, but the community groups can’t address legal woes that are often lurking in the background, said one council organizer. “It’s a main stressor,” said Barbara Edmiston, who has worked with fathers through Oakland, Calif.’s Midnight Basketball League. Fathers’ feelings of helplessness in dealing with child custody, child support and visitation — and deeply rooted fears about the legal system — can be a huge obstacle when men try to stay involved with their children, council members say. Those problems are intensified when men are unemployed, released from prison, or don’t make enough money to feed themselves and pay child support. So far, the East Bay alliance includes county social service agencies, the county’s Family Support Division and groups that help low-income fathers. The fatherhood council is part of a national and state effort to help men who have been underserved by traditional parenting resources, said Herb Pierrie, a San Mateo County, Calif., health worker who helped organize San Mateo’s Fatherhood Collaborative. That shift is evident in Alameda County as well, which is changing how it deals with families when parents part ways. By next year, the district attorney’s office will no longer handle child support enforcement, said Shawyn Hughes, who handles outreach for noncustodial parents in the county’s Family Support Division. That means that the department can offer more comprehensive programs to parents navigating the legal system, she said. “We are trying to educate [both] parents about what their rights are,” Hughes said. As part of that effort, the noncustodial parent program directs men to family law facilitators who can show them how to fill out legal forms. However, often the men need specific legal advice which facilitators can’t provide, Hughes said. “That piece had been missing from our office” before the bar association’s legal services program stepped in, she said. The volunteer legal services program provides a range of ways to help low-income clients. They include detailed pro per workshops about court documents and, in some cases, locating a pro bono attorney. The Alameda County Bar Association’s partnership with the fatherhood group is already making a difference, said Allison. One dad, who had complied with a domestic violence restraining order, came to volunteer legal services because the mother was hiding their child, Allison said. The man was jobless because his employer fired him after finding out about the restraining order. The lawyer group matched the father with a pro bono attorney, who is working to get the father better visitation. The group also referred him to the East Bay Community Law Center, which helped enroll him in an apprenticeship program at the Port of Oakland. “Now, not only will he get a job, he will get a better paying job,” said Allison. “That is a success story.”

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