Most people would agree that it benefits kids to have both parents involved in their lives. Yet too often, fathers, particularly non-custodial Black fathers, encounter barriers to accessing visitation with their children.

Community Legal Aid’s Parenthood Project, led by Managing Attorney John Petit, is on a mission to change this. The Parenthood Project reframes the narrative around non-custodial parents, views the problem through a racial justice lens, and establishes a new way to deploy civil legal services to benefit and stabilize families.

“When fathers are more involved with their kids, they’re much more apt to pay child support and to try to be financially responsible,” Petit said. “Getting fathers involved seems to have a ripple effect on promoting family stability.”

In Ohio, an unwed father cannot co-parent his child unless the child’s mother agrees or a court grants him that privilege. “Right away, that puts the emphasis on access to the court system for fathers,” Petit said.

Through a collaboration with the Stark County Fatherhood Coalition, the Parenthood Project initially launched its services by serving clients in Stark County. While the project focuses on helping fathers (70% are fathers), it also serves mothers who have lost custody and want to establish visitation with their children.

The Parenthood Project, through Community Legal Aid lawyers, represents some parents in court. It also helps non-custodial parents with forms and through a monthly online parenthood workshop. Community Legal Aid additionally developed a parenthood toolkit that parents can access anytime.

After its initial success in Stark County, the Parenthood Project has since expanded to Columbiana and Trumbull counties, garnering support from funders like the Ohio Access to Justice Foundation and from statewide groups such as the Ohio Commission on Fatherhood.

The Parenthood Project presents a new approach to legal aid’s repertoire of legal services.

“It’s a different way of thinking, but I think it’s very consistent with the mission of legal aid and certainly access to justice and access to our court system,” Petit said. “It’s a racial justice issue and a very important service we can provide.”

The Parenthood Project has successfully helped more than 100 parents gain the opportunity to be with and co-parent their children.

“We work with a lot of Black fathers who come to us, and they have a real animosity toward and distrust of the justice system,” Petit said. “And to see [the justice system] work in their favor, that it can actually be helpful; that has been really rewarding.”

The Ohio Access to Justice Foundation is the largest funder of civil legal services in Ohio. A gift to the Foundation supports access to justice and Ohio’s legal aids.