Where are the men?



Zenith Isaacs speaks about her life in Sparroway housing complex while her 4-year-old son, D'Angelo Bramble, plays beside her. Zenith's husband was stabbed to death about a year ago.

There's a hidden crisis in this city. Single moms speak out about the scary struggle to raise children who don't expect to survive past the age of 25
Aug 19, 2007 04:30 AM

Staff Reporter

"Dads Wake Up!!!"

It's a message Jeff Renford underscores with three exclamation marks at his seminar on the importance of fathers in raising confident and successful children.

A burly man with a Jamaican lilt, he's on a mission to save kids from drugs and gangs in our city. On a summer night at a public housing complex at Leslie St. and Finch Ave. E. in North York, his power-packed performance is a hit with the small, mostly black, crowd of about 30 parents.

There is only one problem: no dads.

Where are the men?

"That's what I want to know," says Michelle Smith, who, like everyone else in the room at the Sparroway complex tonight, is a single mother.

Most like Smith, 36, with three children by different fathers received no help from the men. A few have, including Zenith Isaacs, 35, who was helped by Julian Hinckson, 41, the father of her two youngest, until he was stabbed to death in June near their Sparroway home.

Throughout the city, single mothers are raising children on little money, often in public housing where kids are exposed to greater risks, because it's all they can afford. Too often, they live with fear and violence.

Their stories reveal a hidden crisis in this city of strong single mothers who endure no matter what. They are the flip side of the problem of absent fathers that Renford sees in public housing in Toronto.

They struggle to put bread on the table, often working two and three jobs while their kids are exposed to guns, gangs and violence on a scale so large that Toronto student and poet Natashia Fearon, 21, sees "a generation being brought up in a world where they are being desensitized to death."

To talk to single mothers, the Toronto Star visited public housing complexes in the Driftwood area of Jane St. and Finch Ave. W., Sparroway and Jamestown and other housing developments in Rexdale, as well as churches and community groups with outreach programs. We also spoke to women from Mississauga to Scarborough.

Overwhelmingly, single mothers we interviewed were black. Statistics show black children are more likely to live in single-parent families in Canada. The 2001 census says almost half of black children 14 and under live with only one parent, compared with about one-fifth of other children. As well, the census shows that 44 per cent of black children live in low-income households, compared to 19 per cent of other children.

The statistics don't prove single-parent families are headed by women. But anecdotal evidence suggests they are shouldering far more than their share of the parenting burden. Al Bowen, pastor at the Abundant Life Assembly in Etobicoke, estimates 90 per cent of the families he visits in public housing have one parent, usually the mother.

The theme of single mothers runs like a backbeat through reports about murder victims who grew up fatherless or were "baby fathers" themselves. A man shot dead behind a public housing complex two years ago left seven children with several women. Another found guilty of murder was the second child of a single mother of seven who had her first baby at 17.

Moreover, the scores of single mothers who shared their stories with the Star are themselves evidence of the absent-dad syndrome. Men seem to whistle through their lives like night trains, leaving babies and smashed self-esteem in their wake.

Women talk about "men-children" or fathers who are "in and out" of their children's lives on a whim. They are full of excuses. No money, or they forgot.

"Where black women are concerned, I feel they don't think that we are probably deserving of marriage," says Andrea Reid, 36, a single mother of two in the Driftwood area. "It's okay to be with us, to have kids with us, but not to really commit."

Adds Reid: "Sometimes I think they are sucking the blood out of our veins ... What more can they take?"

Her children's father, now deceased, lived in Jamaica. He may have been already married; he may have been more interested in immigrating to Canada than in her. She'll never know.

There's another bleak potential in their lives: could their own children become criminals?

Explains Faye Stoddart of the West Indian Volunteer Community Support Services at Jamestown: "It's hard. Mom goes to work and she can't afford a babysitter, kids are unsupervised and they get into trouble with gangs."

Kids, especially boys, seek moral guidance from their fathers, and a myriad of studies have shown fatherless youths turn to crime. A seminal report, presented nine years ago at an American Sociological Association convention, tracked 6,000 males, ages 14-22, from 1978 to 1993 to reveal that when fathers aren't present in the home, youths are twice as likely to end up in jail.

In speaking with single mothers, we didn't go looking for stories of violence, but they came to us anyway.

Reid has to rush home from our interview to change for that evening's wake for Ephraim Brown, 11, who was caught in the crossfire of gang warfare last month after a birthday party. Reid's oldest boy was good friends with Ephraim.

Examples of violence are everywhere. Everyone knows somebody, or has had their own life shattered.

Isaacs crosses the courtyard after Renford's Sparroway seminar to tell the reporter and photographer, "I'm the one," because she thinks we want to talk to her about Hinckson's murder.

She says he was a good father who spent time with his two children, 6-month-old Luther and Marlon, 2, as well as with Isaacs' other kids, D'Angelo Bramble, 4, and Zimbert Isaacs, 13. (Neighbours also said Hinckson wasn't involved in criminal activity.)

"The hardest thing for me is that he's not here to help me," says Isaacs. "He was different than other men. He knew you've got to talk to the kids so they know the right from the wrong. They need a father," she adds, tears rolling down her cheeks.

It's brutally clear that single mothers raising children in low-income housing in Toronto live in a far more violent world than denizens of Riverdale, Forest Hill, the Annex, Leaside or other leafy domains in the city and environs.

In this world, Bowen says youths join gangs and "don't think they'll live beyond 25. They expect to die."

As a child in public housing, Fearon regularly witnessed people snorting cocaine in the courtyard and once even saw a person being stabbed to death in a pool of blood at her front door. "It looked like something a child shouldn't be growing up in like a war zone."

She lost a close friend this summer when Jose Hierro-Saez, 19, was shot and killed in a driveby near Jamestown public housing in Rexdale. She was at the scene. Kids have turned into killers who "make a conscious decision to kill," she says. "That's why you keep having brazen shootings in the middle of the day. That's their mentality. They don't care."

It's a frightening world for single mothers.

Two years ago, Doreth Brown's oldest son, then 22, went to jail on a gun-related charge. She was working two jobs to support three children alone and, although she grasped intellectually that her son's absent father also bore responsibility, she still beat herself up for not spending more time with her son.

"We are single black mothers working two or three jobs to keep bread on the table, and they don't care," says Brown. "The fathers aren't helping and the kids are turning to crime."

Brown, a social services worker at Seaton House men's hostel and a volunteer counsellor at Toronto's Metropolitan United Church, understands there are other reasons for crime among black youth, including poverty, peer pressure, and the character of the kids themselves.

"But fathers make a big difference," says Brown, 45. "I hear the kids and they're always talking about their fathers, and how they're not there. That's what these fathers have to realize. They must step up to the plate. They must. Because when they're not there, they're replaced by other factors like gangs.

"Kids need role models, not deadbeat dads," says Brown, who pleads with fathers to be there to protect their children and share in the parenting.

Sashey Jones, 15, knows the value of two parents at home. His mother, a doctor, and father, an auto mechanic, were there for him when he had problems at school. "They made me change. They told me, `Don't keep bad company and stay out of trouble. Do the right thing, boy!'"

His friend isn't so lucky.

"My friend, he doesn't go to school," says Sashey, at a summer program at Bowen's church. Sashey is a fragile-looking kid in an oversized Tupac T-shirt and chunky fake diamond studs in his ears. He slumps in his chair, speaking almost in a whisper. His friend actually lives with his stepfather, but Sashey says the older man "doesn't care about him.

"He just stays on the block. He just smokes all day and begs for money. He's 15."

He's worried his friend will O.D. on crack or die some other way in the streets, and he plans to ask his parents if he can move in with them (and Sashey's seven siblings). He figures it's his friend's only chance to survive. Brown, whose son, now 24, enrolled Tuesday at Humber College, protested publicly against gun violence in 2005 with Larry Heath.

Heath's son, Shaquan Cadougan, 5, was shot in the foot in a drive-by shooting, and he blamed fathers as well as black youth in gangs.

"I believe fathers are not really spending time teaching their children what is right and wrong," he told the Star in 2005. "What happened to my son is an example of what happens when people don't know right from wrong." He added: "God has kept my son alive to wake up this city."

That was about a month before the 2005 murder of Jamal Hemmings, 17, and the even more shocking slaying of his friend, Amon Beckles, 18, cut down on the church steps at his friend's funeral.

Beckles was the son of a single mother with five children.

In the foyer of the Abundant Life Assembly, a dignified woman steps out of the office where she works as an administrator. Angela Beckles is Amon's grandmother and was at the Toronto Seventh Day Adventist Church when Amon died there. She stood on those same steps in black coat and hat, wailing in pain.

She can barely talk about Amon or his mother, her daughter Nadia, but stresses: "She had strong family support from us. And the different dads were all there for her too, I know that." She doesn't want to say more about Nadia's personal life.

Still, Beckles, in her 50s and married to a retired military man, believes her generation took better care of the children. She sees too many young women pregnant at 15 today, forced to cope alone. Says Beckles: "Fathers should be there for their children."

Asked why they aren't, she says she doesn't know.

"I suppose if they want to be bothered, they will be, and if they don't want to be bothered, they won't be .. Men are men," and she trails off.


NATASHA DOWNEY, 33, raises her four children, ages 10 to 16, alone at Sparroway. Their father was shot in the abdomen and head in two different incidents a decade ago, and doesn't work. He was involved in questionable activity at Regent Park; she doesn't elaborate.

"When I was younger, it was that whole bad rebel, go-against-the-grain thing. I never had a father. I was 14 when I met him, and he was my first and only love. We thought we were going to get married and have kids and be together forever."

Now, she tells her kids: "He's your father and you respect him, but at the end of the day, he's not a role model."

Downey's mother had three children with three men. She met her father once. For five minutes. She was 10 and still wonders what went wrong.

"That's what I want to find out myself," says Downey. She'd like to say to him: "I guess I'm just wondering what was wrong with me that you never took the time to want to be with me."

What was wrong with me?

Maybe the real question is why so many resourceful women keep having babies with men who move on.

Thing is, these aren't wilting-violet women. They don't come off as victims or ask for sympathy. They're tough and brave, with intelligent faces and feet planted firmly in the earth. They bend, but don't break, and stay with their kids when they feel like running away.

During a long-ago rough patch, Michelle Smith considered suicide but thought: "Who's going to raise my children?"

Smith arrived from Jamaica as a teen and was pregnant at 16. Of her kids' three fathers, she says the first didn't acknowledge his son, the second abused her and the third threatened to walk unless she had an abortion. Only later did she discover he was already married with a child.

She tries to answer the question. "This is it most of us did not grow up with fathers. Not fathers who were there all the time. Some were abused. So you try to find that love."

It's a vicious circle.

"We didn't have that other half that we needed and so we try to find that love with men who didn't have fathers to teach them the family side of things either."

Everybody agrees. "Uh-huh ... yeah ... that's right," say the Sparroway women.

From the women's perspective, reasons are complex. Certainly, reasons for low self-esteem seem clear enough in some cases.

The full stories of some women notably their raw accounts of abuse can't be told for legal reasons. Charges were never laid, and there's no way of proving truth. Still, there appears to be a sickening pattern of abuse in the childhood of women who end up being badly treated as adults, whether physically, emotionally, or both.

Said one: "Because my father abused me, I thought any guy could abuse me."

Surely the childhood abuse couldn't have been that frequent, a reporter suggests to the Sparroway women, telling them several women in other interviews had spoken of being abused by fathers absent from their lives except for that.

"Oh, it happens all the time," replies Smith, almost casually. "It's just that in the culture we come from, we're taught to keep our mouths closed."

But what about the men?

At a summer sports planning program at Bowen's church, Dayne Pilgrim, 23, who's studying at Centennial College and planning to be a police officer, says "there are good men out there who step up to the plate, but a lot of bad ones don't. They don't care." Around the table, others jump in. Joh Neil, 16, says "they see their friends having kids, and they think it's great, they'll do it too."

It's all about being seen as virile, says community volunteer Stoddart at Jamestown. "Some of these guys think that by going around having babies, they can call themselves kings."

Her comment echoes what Toronto Deputy Police Chief Keith Forde, the force's highest-ranking black officer, told a Toronto newspaper two years ago. He said boys were telling 13- and 14-year-old girls in Rexdale: "If you want to be my girlfriend you have to get pregnant for me."


AT SPARROWAY, where being a single mother is the norm, women insist this multi-generational problem is going to end with them. They say they're hopeful.

But as twilight engulfs the courtyard and they gather up their children, they make a final observation. It would be great, they conclude, if men could go to seminars like Jeff Renford's.

But they could have.

"FREE and open to all parents and adults who have an interest in children," said the flyers that went around Sparroway before the first seminar on July 31.