By now, very well-known is the woeful plight of Alabama’s prison system. Although our overall state population has only risen 23 percent since 1977, our state prison population has exploded by 840 percent and prisons are now at double their capacity. Understaffing, abuses and neglect plague the system. So dire is the situation, Alabama’s prison system is in jeopardy of being taken over by the federal government if many of the systemic issues aren’t rectified.

But while I, like others, am saddened and alarmed by this grim and dark picture of our penal system, I feel that something else which is even more pressing gets lost in this discussion: fatherlessness.

Fatherlessness is an acute problem affecting not just Alabama, but the entire nation. The Department of Justice estimates more than 7.3 million children under 18 have a parent who is in prison, jail, on probation or on parole. Alabama has more than 30,000 imprisoned adults, leaving thousands of the state’s children with an incarcerated parent. The majority of inmates across the nation and in our state are males. Wed this with data put forth by the Department of Human Services which concludes, “children with involved, loving fathers are significantly more likely to do well in school, have a healthy self-esteem, exhibit empathy and pro-social behavior compared to children who have uninvolved fathers” and you see it as a pressing social issue.

It’s an economic issue as well. The federal government maintains it spends on average $100 billion a year on programs such as child support enforcement and anti-poverty efforts to support father absent homes. So you see, the lack of involved fathers is not an isolated social problem for our nation and us as a community, but also one that impacts us from a monetary standpoint. Getting dads to be dads is an economic priority.

As someone who works in education, I have come to see that the issue of uninvolved fathers cuts across racial and socioeconomic lines. It’s not just the children of the incarcerated or poor who deal with fatherlessness. I’ve interacted with many suburban kids who painfully relate the lack of an involved dad and the emotional distress it causes, along with the financial pressures and strain it places on their mom or the care-giver they reside with. The absence of a father matters, regardless of the socioeconomic conditions a child is raised in.

With this very prevalent and painful problem in our midst, I was very encouraged when I was recently introduced to a national, statewide and local initiative to counter the problem. It’s called the Fatherhood Initiative.

The National Fatherhood Initiative’s stated intent is to “improve the well-being of children by increasing the proportion of children with involved, responsible and committed fathers in their lives.” It takes a multi-faceted approach to accomplishing this objective, aligning and working in partnership with various agencies, entities and corporate sponsors to “connect fathers with their children – heart to heart.”

The Fatherhood Initiative is being implemented locally as churches and various organizations are able to administer a six-week course aimed at fathers ages 16 to 24. With funding from a grant obtained by the Mobile County Health Department, the course is geared to teach young males fathering skills, life skills and assist them with educational opportunities and job acquisition. Basically it’s a holistic approach to breaking a cycle of young men who have fathered children, but have never been shown or known what it means to be a father.

Believe it or not, there are critics of the Fatherhood Initiative movement who have labeled it as sexist or anti-women. The role and presence of mothers can never be undervalued or dismissed and I don’t believe any clear thinking person would ever attempt to do so. Far from being misogynistic, I see it as complimentary and affirming to women. No mother should have to “go it alone” or carry the load of being a mother and a father. For this and myriad other reasons, our nation and community desperately needs this initiative to be successful.

This is personal and very real to me because my son’s mom and I are not together. But I see my involvement in his life as my highest priority. My physical, emotional and financial involvement in his life, to me, is a must. As I spend time with my son and interact with him, the joys of my presence in his life become very apparent to me. It is my hope and desire that all fathers will feel the same way about the children they help bring into this world.

Successful parenting is a must for a healthy community and by extension, a healthy and productive nation. Ideally we want parents to be together, but we are imperfect people, living in an imperfect world. What is most important is that we promote a mindset that when you’re blessed to bring life into this world, you eagerly, joyfully and responsibly embrace your obligation to nourish and support that life as it develops toward maturity. There is no higher or more noble calling.