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“Mother of the Fatherhood Initiative”

Representative Patricia Pheanious-WilsonIt was a woman who had struggled as a young single mom who became the mother of Connecticut’s fatherhood initiative. Rep. Pat Wilson Pheanious (D-53), during her tenure as the Commissioner of Social Services, found ways to reform a welfare system in which people can feel trapped and confused. However, a chance meeting between a new commissioner and a veteran legislator led to a new initiative that would alter the way state agencies would begin dealing with fathers looking for a way back into their children’s lives.

In the early 70’s, Pat Wilson was a sophomore at UConn with a college sweetheart, Eddie Coker.  She planned to look for a job and spend the summer with Eddie and his family in New Haven. Before he could join them, tragedy struck.  Attacked in his home, Eddie killed a man in self-defense. That same day, Pat learned she was pregnant. Eventually Eddie was found guilty of having used excessive force in his defense. He received a 2-4 year prison sentence. 

Reflecting back on that time, Pat said, “I often think back to that split second, when he decided to use a gun. It changed everything forever. It ended one life and killed the dreams of so many others.” 

That bad decision began a 5-year saga where Pat would learn to deal with the difficulties of being a single mom, struggling to work, finish school, find child-care and transportation while navigating the state’s welfare system and a tangle of complex resources.  

Pat and Eddie married just prior to his incarceration.  Pat started living in the Hamilton St. Projects with her mother-in-law.  She had grown up in a secure, middle class family in Ashford that left her unprepared for this new life. How quickly unexpected events can lead a family to need state assistance!  

“I was shocked to learn that there was help for women with kids——as long as there was no father in the home.   I had never known anybody who relied on welfare and I’d never needed help before.  When I learned I could sign up and get help paying for an apartment, furnishings and medical assistance it sounded like the answer to a prayer.”   

She would ask Eddie’s mother to watch her son, Cheo, when she took the bus to the local welfare office to meet with a caseworker. Pat recalls, “It wasn’t long before I began to see some of the problems inherent in the system. Crowded waiting rooms that weren’t uniformly clean and were never private. Dozens of questions that seemed like nobody else’s business, with built in suspicion that I wasn’t being truthful or that I might be found undeserving.”

Pat learned that programs designed to help people get back on their feet sometimes work against those they were meant to serve. Stigma, self-doubt and dependency can come with the help. On the bus ride back home, Pat began to understand the downside of needing to seek assistance. 

 “The act of becoming officially dependent was like a weight hanging around my neck. It took a while for me to grasp why I was unable to look other passengers on the bus in the eye. I vowed that Cheo would never have that experience or even see the inside of a welfare office. He never did. Application day marked my first adult experience with shame.” 

Eddie’s release from prison months later didn’t make things any better. His incarceration, along with remorse for killing a man, was demoralizing. The family couldn’t live together without losing the state check that supported Pat and Cheo.  Now with a criminal record, Eddie couldn’t find work. Almost immediately, child support enforcement was after him to pay and repay the money spent on his family while he was in jail. He began to drink, became depressed and angry. Pat witnessed the system break her husband down and denigrate the paternal relationship.  Eddie’s became undependable and his relationship with his son deteriorated. He was angry at child support and blamed Pat because he thought somehow that she could “call them off”.  Of course, she couldn’t. When his anger turned to violence, Pat saw no option and filed for divorce.

Eddie lived in terror of being arrested as a deadbeat and sent back to prison.   He left Connecticut to escape demands for child support that he couldn’t meet.   Unfortunately, this led to a near complete severing of his relationship with his son.  Pat recalls, “Cheo’s dad didn’t feel like he had any value…like presence in his son’s life wasn’t important enough by itself. He didn’t understand that his role was more than financial.  He thought he had nothing to give but in reality he only needed to give of himself.”

Having struggled with work and school part-time, Pat knew what the odds would be for her and Cheo unless she went back to school full time. She made amends with her parents and moved back home with her son. When she completed her undergraduate degree, she got off welfare. She went on to earn graduate degrees from UConn in social work and law.  She became an attorney in 1981.  Looking back on those days, she said, “Even as I was leaving the welfare system I felt as though I had to fight my way off. My caseworker— with the best intentions begged me to stay on assistance. How would I afford to live and stay in school without the check? What if I didn’t succeed? What about my son’s medical coverage?   Was leaving welfare really in the best interests of my son?”  

Welfare recipients can feel locked. Once you stop accepting benefits it’s incredibly difficult to get them again. In Pat’s case it was will and determination…but most especially her ability to go back to the encouragement and support of a stable family that allowed her to escape and bounce back from what might have been a lifetime of dependency. 

Throughout this time, Cheo was growing up without his dad. “Present in absentia,” Pat calls it.  “He was not there, yet he was alive somewhere and ever present in his son’s mind. Disconnected. Eddie viewed himself and his situation as a liability to his son. Unable to provide, he felt helpless and chose to stay away, never realizing how important he remained in the eyes of his child.”

Cheo did have strong men as role models in his life, being mentored by Pat’s father and Cheo’s uncle. But he knew about his father and longed for him. For years Cheo fantasized that one day his dad would return.

Many years passed, and Pat dedicated herself to teaching and helping those in circumstances like what she’d lived through. She taught at St. Joseph college, worked at DCYS, and then at DSS where she administerred the TANF program during welfare reform. Her experiences helped her understand the pain points throughout the system and to put in place reforms that provided staff with training and people with dignity when they sought assistance. Instead of calling out people’s names in the waiting room when it was their turn to be served, she had a DSS regional staff supervisor greet and triage people then call their worker to escort them into the back offices to fill out their paperwork. Her staff worked to create better spaces for children so interviews could be conducted more privately.  She worked with schools and work force development programs to remove barriers for men and women trying to get the help they needed to move their lives forward. Pat’s efforts to humanize service systems when she was the regional administrator impressed Governor John Rowland who appointed her as DSS commissioner in January of 1999.  

After serving as commissioner for just a few months, a New Haven state representative scheduled a meeting with Pat. John Martinez was interested in developing public policy to support fathers. He saw a number of children in his community whose fathers were absent from their lives, many times due to incarceration, substance use or their inability to be a parent. He attended numerous conferences where this topic was discussed. Now, the legislator wanted to pay a visit to the new DSS commissioner.

Pat and John hit it off right away. They discussed their own experiences and those of people they had spoken with. They saw that social services, children and families, corrections, labor and child support enforcement weren’t working together. With state agencies in their own silos, they would be contradicting each other and at odds, leaving fathers in an abyss with no clear direction forward. The half hour meeting lasted all afternoon, and when they finally parted, they had outlined policies that would become the Fatherhood Initiative housed at DSS.

Pat and John examined how to resolve issues such as: connecting state agencies so they can collaborate when a person requires assistance from multiple agencies; have the agencies look at the men as fathers, not convicts or addicts; exploring how child support enforcement could work with welfare to give fathers, and their families, a chance to get out of the hole; recognize that even fathers in bad situations can still have a connection with their children and that should be supported because children want to know their fathers.

They were successful in getting a pilot program passed legislatively. Although it was technically only authorized for one year, Pat knew that once she embedded their philosophy into the policies and practices of her department, they would continue to grow. And she was right. Agencies to this day see fathers from a very different perspective and collaborate in ways that didn’t exist before. The importance of the multifaceted approach to the fatherhood initiative remains evident. Through the work of so many people the concept and perspectives of the initiative continue to expand and grow throughout the multiple state agencies whose missions interconnect. Helping fathers helps families.   

As Pat was rolling out the fatherhood initiative, her son Cheo, then a freshman at Stanford University, received a call from his father. It had been years since they had spoken or seen each other.  Eddie was dying. Even though Cheo was in California, and only recently licensed, he drove across the country to Ohio to spend the last days of Eddie’s life together. Despite the separation for nearly his entire life, the connection between father and son was never completely broken. 

Cheo and Eddie had the chance to reunite at a time when it truly mattered to them both. Years late.  But then, fathers always matter to their sons. Even “in absentia” fatherhood matters.  There may be sad, bad or inconvenient circumstances, but that relationship can still hold special, persistent meaning. 
In closing, Pat offered, “Twenty years ago representative John Martinez and I used our life experience to envision an initiative to bring men who needed help information and support for their role as dads, to grow their understanding of their value in the lives of their kids, and to nourish their capacity in their community to “teach, love and inspire.” John would be so very proud of your progress.  I know that am!”