Chad Meyer has never met his teenage son. He's never been allowed the opportunity.
The 34-year-old from Bellevue worries about what his boy thinks of him, if the boy knows anything about him beyond the fact he's woefully behind on child support payments.
"I'm not a dead beat dad," said Meyer, who noted that he has a family and he used to own a home before the Great Recession knocked it all away.
"I'm trying to work. It's just the circumstances didn't work out for me."
Meyer is among the first wave of dads to join a ground-breaking pilot program in Brown County aiding parents — mostly dads — who don't have custody of their children.
It's run out of the county's child support office and staff there say it's a revolutionary approach that has the potential to impact everything from the economy — by helping men find work — to child safety — by teaching them to become better parents.
The program, called Supporting Parents Supporting Kids, known as SPSK, came at a critical time for the county, which is battling the rising volume and complexity of child abuse cases.
"This program changes everything," said Maria Lasecki, director of the Brown County Child Support Agency.
"It asks the question ... what barriers are there for you that we can help you overcome?"
Those barriers can vary almost as much as the number of participants, said case manager Bonnie Defnet, the program's coordinator. Some are sex offenders or felons who have a hard time finding employment. Some were neglected or abused as children and don't know how to parent differently. Others are homeless or just down on their luck.
Meyer said his situation is due to the still-recovering economy and a birth mother who wouldn't allow him to see his son. Meyer said he was ordered by a court to have a paternity test 12 years ago. It was the first he ever heard of the child, who was more than 3 years old at that time.
He said he paid child support until late 2007 when he was laid off from his warehouse job. He ended up losing his home during the housing market crash and could no longer make his child support payments.
Meyer joined the SPSK program earlier this year. The staff helped him update his resume and find a new, stable job. But most importantly, he said, they're helping him work with his son's mom and the court system so that he can have time with his child.
"By the end of the program I had more confidence in myself. I don't know if that's weird, but I did," Meyer said.
Program participants must attend parenting and employment classes for two weeks, and then they receive ongoing case management for five years to help them maintain stable work and build relationships with their kids.
The idea is that a stable job will improve a father's confidence in his ability to provide for his children and hopefully open up doors to improve family relationships, which would result in more stable homes.
The effort is separate, but related to a county initiative aimed at reducing child abuse cases by focusing on preventive programs. Other programs launching this year include Parent Cafes for mothers and fathers to network and support each other as well as a collaboration between service agencies to identify and approach struggling families before abuse or neglect occurs.
"If you have a relationship with your child and you see the importance of providing for your child, (parenting) is going to be second nature," said Terry Wolfgram, a fatherhood education specialist with Family Services who leads the SPSK parenting classes.
The SPSK program is funded by a federal grant that pays $267,000 annually. Kenosha County also received a grant to pilot this program.
As part of the grant requirements, the counties must track the progress of people receiving extra services compared to those who don't. A total of 115 people in both counties are currently receiving extra services, Defnet said.
By the end of the 5-year pilot period, Defnet expects 750 people to have go through the program in both counties.
Lasecki said the changes have been transformative, but it's unclear how it would be sustained or expanded if the federal grant money doesn't continue.
"Some of the success stories are such that it would be difficult to go back to the old way. This has changed the core of what we do and how we do it," Lasecki said.
Jeremy Keyser, 40, said the program was instrumental in helping him find work to make his child support payments.
Keyser said he had a job that required 12 hour days and travel, so he never had time to see his 9- and 5-year-old sons. He eventually burnt out and left for a lower paying job, but then he could no longer afford his $1,000 per month child support payments.
"Being able to pay the child support is a big thing. That's when the arguments happen — when money is due and I can't pay it. Plus being able to earn a living helps me be able to enjoy life with my kids when I do have them because I can afford what they need like food and common things," Keyser said.
"This process has been huge a boost in my own morale as well as my perception of the child support system," he said.
Adam Rodewald, Press-Gazette Media — firstname.lastname@example.org and find him on Twitter @AdamGRodewald and on Facebook at Facebook.com/AdamGRodewald