COLUMBIA — Facing a third, one-year stint in jail for missing child support payments, Frederick Hogsett Jr. received a lifeline from the judge instead.
Rather than going back to jail — or getting a second sentence to wear an ankle bracelet monitor — Hogsett was ordered to participate in a program that works to get fathers involved in their children's lives through job training, free legal help, counseling, parental classes, and even mediation with the mom if needed.
That was 12 years ago. Now a daughter he didn't see for 14 years calls him for budgeting advice.
"I see my children regularly," said Hogsett, a Columbia father of three who still pays $1,000 monthly in child support.
Once deemed a deadbeat dad on Lexington County's 10-most-wanted list, Hogsett is helping other dads connect with their children as an intervention specialist for the Midlands Fatherhood Coalition. It is one of six regional fatherhood programs part of the South Carolina Center for Fathers and Families, which is seeking its own lifeline from legislators.
The nonprofit needs $1.6 million to make up for an expected funding cut from the Department of Social Services, which has provided $4 million annually — half of the center's total budget — since 2016. A DSS spokeswoman did not immediately respond to questions. The Cabinet agency, which has lacked a director since last summer, faces its own budget crunch as it struggles to make changes in its foster care division necessary to comply with a 2016 settlement in federal court over its care of abused and neglected children.
Officials with the fatherhood initiative plan to ask senators for help as they craft their state budget plan for the fiscal year starting July 1. Officials say they didn't know about the DSS cut before the House's budget-writing committee put together its proposal, which the full House will debate later this month.
"Dads do make a difference," said Pat Littlejohn, the center's president.
Since 2010, the initiative has expanded from 11 counties, primarily in the Midlands, to all 46 counties.
Last year, 3,245 previously absent fathers statewide participated in the program, impacting the lives of nearly 7,400 children — not only through their collective $1.86 million in child support payments but by being a present dad, said Tim Arnold, chairman of the center's board and president of Colonial Life.
"When fathers are present, families are stronger and communities thrive," he said.
Seventy percent of the fathers who went through the center's five-day job training "boot camp" got a job, Arnold said.
Participants learn networking, resume-writing and interview skills — what to wear, what to say and how to say it. Lessons include how to tie a tie and proper behavior on social media, participants said.
"They line up interviews out the ying-yang," said Scott Arthmann of Columbia, a father of one. "Most of us have never gone to a legitimate interview and don't know how to answer questions."
After graduating from the program, Arthmann said he not only got a job as a metal fabricator, he quickly got promoted to the purchasing department because of the way he dressed and talked.
"They teach you to dress for the job you want," he said.
If the nonprofit loses the $1.6 million, some of the center's 20 locations will have to close, hitting the rural counties hardest. It will mean fewer fathers served, fewer children impacted and taxpayers paying more to put people in jail who could be working and contributing to state coffers as well as paying child support, Littlejohn said.
About half of the participants come to the program through family court orders, she said.
Those who voluntarily enrolled include Tim Dawson of Columbia, who considers it a godsend that he ran into someone in 2017 who told him about the program.
He didn't know what to do when his daughter's mother moved to Florida — exactly where, he didn't even know.
"I almost closed the doors and gave up my rights," he said. "They told me what to do and what not to do."
Now he sees his 7-year-old daughter daily.
"This organization is a vessel to reconciliation for fathers," Dawson said.