Father Imperfect



ON a cold night in mid-November, seven men sat in a tight circle in a spare classroom in East Harlem to learn about fatherhood. One was Javier Sanchez, a baby-faced Puerto Rican in an oversize white T-shirt.He had left his only child four years before, two and a half weeks after his birth, and now he wanted him back.

     "What qualities does a man have to have in order to be a good father?" asked the caseworker leading the session. The men called out answers, and the caseworker wrote them down on the white board at the front of the room: educated, decent job, clean, good heart, honest, wealthy, strong.

 Wealth, it was decided, was an unrealistic thing to ask of a man. In fact, the list turned out to be largely theoretical, as most of the men were not speaking of their own fathers or even of themselves. They were speaking of an idea called Dad, recognizable from television and the movies, but rarely witnessed in their own living rooms. 

"How many of you grew up with your dad?" the caseworker asked.

Two of the seven raised their hands. Mr. Sanchez did not.

The class is run by Strive, an East Harlem nonprofit group, with city money. Each man is allowed to miss one of the eight weekly sessions and is paid $125 if he completes the course, which has been held three times since August. Many of the students are ex-convicts, were drug users, or were on welfare or homeless.

Mr. Sanchez, 33, has experience with all of the above. It was in prison that he decided he wanted to be a real father to his son, Javier Nikko Sanchez, known as Javi. "I said to myself, my son has went through enough," he said. "It is about time he knows who I am. It's time I take responsibility for my son."

Mr. Sanchez's road to fatherhood will be long and rough. He is unemployed, he is struggling against his past, and his present affairs are dizzyingly tangled. Javi is in foster care, and a hearing is to be held Wednesday in a bitter custody battle involving Mr. Sanchez and the child's mother, Inette Baez. The two are not married, and just last month Mr. Sanchez married another woman, a longtime girlfriend named Sol Rodriguez. Both women have children by men other than Mr. Sanchez. Added to this long list of family members is a supporting cast of foster parents, parole officers, caseworkers and lawyers.

Mr. Sanchez's weapon against the long odds: resolute optimism. "I'm feeling very confident," he said during a visit with Javi in early January. "Faith. Faith in Christ. That's what gives me confidence."


Father of the Man

Mr. Sanchez says his own father left their home on the Lower East Side when Mr. Sanchez was 4. He remembers his father as a man who liked to watch wrestling and drink Budweiser.

"He abandoned me," Mr. Sanchez said. "My mother taught me a lot about being a male, what are our roles and responsibilities. She taught me manners, respect, hygiene, family values."

Those lessons, he said, did not stop him from making bad decisions. He dropped out of Seward Park High School in the 11th grade because, he said, "I only had maybe three pairs of jeans."

"I would see everybody stylin' and I wanted to style, too."

As Mr. Sanchez tells it, he started using cocaine and LSD when he was 14 and began dealing at 16. He sublet an apartment on Avenue D as a hangout. Once, after staying up all night doing cocaine, one of his friends pulled out a gun. "Then another person took out a gun," he continued. "They looked at each other. It was a chain reaction. There were nine of us pointing guns at each other. If one person would have shot, everyone would. It was a loving and crazy family."

He added: "I was always eager to find out what was on the dark side. My No. 1 movie was 'Scarface."'

Since 1995, according to state records, Mr. Sanchez has been convicted of selling drugs three times, twice on school grounds, and of other, lesser offenses. Since his last sentence ended, in August 1999, he has violated parole several times.

He has held a series of low-level jobs -- mailroom clerk, messenger, host at a pizzeria restaurant -- but left most of them within a year. And although he lives with Ms. Rodriguez in her apartment in the Baruch Houses on the Lower East Side, he recently spent two months in homeless shelters.


Becoming a Father

Mr. Sanchez met Ms. Baez in 1995. She was 17, her mother had recently died of AIDS, and she was in a tailspin.

Ms. Baez said Mr. Sanchez fed her, clothed her and took care of her. Both say that they did drugs together and sold drugs together. At one point in the mid-90's, she said, she was convicted of selling drugs.

Their son, Javi, who has a round face, with his father's wide forehead and long lashes, was born on Dec. 22, 1999. But soon after he was born, Mr. Sanchez left him and Ms. Baez, and moved in with Ms. Rodriguez.

"It was too dramatic for me," he said. "Dealing with the stress and anger, I probably would have found myself hurting her."

At one point, Mr. Sanchez won the right to visit Javi, but, he said, he soon stopped visiting because he had violated parole and was on the run. He said he briefly paid $50 a month in child support, but stopped because he was jailed. (As of December, he said, he was about $1,450 behind in support payments.)

Javi lived with his mother until she tested positive for drugs a year ago, and the child was put in foster care. "I was in a party, and I end up sniffing some coke," Ms. Baez said. "I haven't sniffed coke since that party."

Now 25, Ms. Baez is a thin woman with a thick, asthmatic cough. She wants custody of Javi just as Mr. Sanchez does, but she, like him, faces complications and troubles. She has two other sons, each by a different man. One, Edwin, is in foster care, and the other lives with his father's family. Ms. Baez is unemployed, and in September she was sentenced to five years' probation for possession of a stolen vehicle.

Why, she wondered aloud one day, does Mr. Sanchez want to be in his son's life at this moment? "You wasn't in his life for the other four years," she said. "Why now?"

She believes that Javi and Edwin belong with her. "No one is going to do for them like a mother is going to do for them," she said. "I need them and they need me."

Indeed, when foster children are involved, custody goes to the mother "almost automatically," said Luis Lopez, Javi's foster care caseworker from the Salvation Army. Mr. Sanchez is a rarity; of 31 foster children Mr. Lopez oversees, only 2 cases involve men.

"Most men don't own up to their responsibility," Mr. Lopez said. Of the city's nearly 190,000 single-parent households with incomes less than $20,000, only 9.4 percent are headed by men, according to an analysis of 2000 census data by the Queens College sociology department.


A Day at Daddy's

On Nov. 21, the day of Javi's first home visit with his father, Ms. Rodriguez's apartment was spotless. Mr. Sanchez had been freed from prison for a parole violation five weeks earlier.

Like Javi's parents, Ms. Rodriguez, 41, has had her troubles. She has six children, and the two who live with her, preteen girls named Sol and Camila, were in foster care in 1999. "I messed up," explained Ms. Rodriguez, who receives Social Security disability payments for rheumatoid arthritis. "I started smoking crack."

Between February and April 2003, Ms. Rodriguez submitted to four random drug tests, all negative. "I fix my past," she said. "I just look forward to my future."

The Rodriguez living room has white leather sofas, a 62-inch television set and a picture of a waterfall, which, when plugged in, seems to flow. On a dresser in the hallway are a thicket of Virgin Mary statuettes and a Bible.

On the day of the visit, everyone gathered in Sol's room for a face-off between her and Javi on Gran Turismo, a PlayStation auto racing game.

"Wow!" Javi shouted. "Cool! I love playing games!" Although his father gently tried to help him steer, he kept running his car off the road, and Sol won the first round. She giggled, but no one paid attention. It was Javi's show. "I'm going to crash!" he shouted. When he won the next round, everyone applauded.

Then Javi barreled down the hallway on his tricycle. The girls ran after him, yelling, "Daddy!"

"See," Ms. Rodriguez said, smiling. "They call him Daddy."

But Javi's visit soon ended. At 10 after 5, after a two-hour stay, Mr. Sanchez buttoned the boy into his dark blue winter coat. They headed across Houston Street to the Lillian Wald Houses, the project where Mr. Sanchez grew up and where Javi's foster mother, Miladys Rojas, lives.

Ms. Rojas's daughter, Jackie Ramirez, knows Mr. Sanchez from childhood. "He was a good kid," she said. But, she adds, "I just wish he wasn't here in this neighborhood." Drugs are all around, she explained.

Mr. Sanchez scoffs at that concern. "They always say in programs in order to make a change in life, you have to stay away from people, places and things," he said. "Me, personally, I look at that as running away from your problems."


A Cloud Over Custody

On Nov. 25, Javi's foster mother was supposed to take him to the Salvation Army building on 14th Street for a visit with Mr. Sanchez. But she was running late, and as Mr. Lopez talked with his client, he shared a troubling thought.

Mr. Lopez explained that unless a judge decided otherwise, a child was not sent into a home where there had been an incident involving the city's child welfare agency, the Administration for Children's Services. He was referring to the fact that Ms. Rodriguez's daughters had been put in foster care in 1999. Paradoxically, Mr. Sanchez's marriage to Ms. Rodriguez might make it harder for him to gain custody of Javi.

Mr. Sanchez's face tightened when he learned this.

"Daddy!" Javi shouted when he arrived an hour and a half later with his foster mother. His father picked him up and kissed him, then took him downstairs to the "Sesame Street" playroom, where they started drawing. "Let's see you happy," Javi said to his father. Mr. Sanchez stretched his face into a huge smile. Javi drew a happy face on a sheet of paper.

Despite Mr. Sanchez's prison record and lack of a job and the discouraging news from the foster care caseworker, Mr. Sanchez remained optimistic about his chances for winning custody.

"I definitely see where my battle with the legal system will take place," he said. "That's why I'm always constantly going to legal libraries and looking up cases. There's great hopes." If he doesn't win custody, he plans to seek broader visitation rights, "a lot of father-and-son time."


The 'Vations

The evening of Dec. 4, only two men showed up for the fatherhood seminar, an absenteeism rate that Strive managers attributed to the holidays. The topic was communication.

"When you first start dating a girl, everything is clear," said Colin Ransom, a caseworker. "But as the relationship goes on and on and on, what happens is the communication starts to break down."

Hecontinued: "I call it the 'vations. Aggravation. Frustration. Starvation. Humiliation."

Mr. Sanchez, who said he was taking the class in part to strengthen his custody case, looked exhausted. "I was sitting here starting to think about a lot of difficulties in communication in my past," he said. "Communication. When that breaks down, a lot of things come tumbling down with it."

It was the eve of Mr. Sanchez's wedding, and after class, Albert Felipe, the other caseworker, tried to teach Mr. Sanchez how to tie a tie. He wasn't much help. "My father only taught me how to tie a half knot," Mr. Felipe said.

"That's all my brother taught me," Mr. Sanchez replied.

Mr. Ransom quickly knotted two ties, one red, one blue, for Mr. Sanchez, who folded them carefully into a bag. "I don't want to mess them up," he said. He didn't know which he would slip on the next day for his wedding.

Mr. Sanchez and Ms. Rodriguez had spent much of that day running errands. The wedding was fast approaching, and she was jittery. "I don't know whether to laugh or cry," she said as she walked, in large lavender curlers, down Rivington Street with Mr. Sanchez. "It's like a tingling inside."

While Mr. Sanchez bought cigarettes, Ms. Rodriguez stopped by Master Jewelry, a little shop on Clinton Street that is sheathed in bulletproof glass, only to learn that the rings weren't ready. "The wedding is tomorrow!" she cried out in despair.

Finally, the rings were secured, and the next day the couple, along with relatives and two witnesses, went to the city clerk's office at the Municipal Building to be married.


A White Wedding

Eight inches of snow would fall in Manhattan that day. Mr. Sanchez wore a baggy cream-color suit, and Ms. Rodriguez wore a long, sheer white dress and open-toe sandals with high silver heels. As one of the witnesses put it, "She looks like a Cinderella." The ceremony took 70 seconds.

Back in the lobby, a guard told the wedding party they couldn't wait inside, so they stepped into a vaulted courtyard. The snow was blowing sideways. Ms. Rodriguez let out an "Oh, my God!" as the wind hit her and she limped around, trying to avoid the rapidly growing puddles skimmed with ice. It was 30 minutes before an increasingly frustrated Mr. Sanchez, his cellphone in one hand and a wedding cake in the other, could find a cab for his new family.

At home, Mr. Sanchez ordered takeout and acted as host, making sure everyone had enough fried chicken and egg rolls. He refused to sit, and later, as he cleaned up and took out the trash, he explained why. "Last night, when I went to lie down, I started thinking about all the memories," he said. "My past. I got a migraine."

He added: "Staying busy alleviates stress. I've got a little method. So far it's working fine."

In mid-December, Mr. Sanchez said, he started skipping days at his drug rehab program, which meets for one hour five days a week. "It was taking too much of my time," he said. His cellphone service was cut off around Christmas. "We're behind on a lot of bills," he explained. Mostly, the family lives on Ms. Rodriguez's disability payments, food stamps and welfare payments for the children, which total about $1,200 a month.

He also missed the last two sessions of the fatherhood program and did not graduate. Only 2 of the 12 men in the class graduated. Robert Sanchez (no relation to Javier Sanchez), who directs the fatherhood program at Strive, said fear of success can be great for people from his client's background. "Success means having to be more responsible," he said. "Success meanshaving to get up at 7 o'clock in the morning and prepare yourself for work every single day."

Will these forces trip up Javier Sanchez? It's hard to tell.

Whatever happens, the new year has produced some good moments. Mr. Sanchez's last day of parole was Jan. 3. A week ago, Javi made another visit. There was money in the house on this day, and with money came optimism. Ms. Rodriguez baked a chicken, her two daughters drew on a large blackboard their mother had found, and Mr. Sanchez was getting excited about teaching his son things. "I want to teach him mathematics," he said. "I was so good at math."

As he walked Javi back to his foster mother's house, he pointed to a water tower on top of the building he grew up in. When he was younger, he used to hang out there with his friends, drinking beer and pina coladas, talking through the night, waiting for dawn. The hulking gray structure, lighted from below, looked deeply foreboding.

"Can we go up there?" Javi asked. "No," Mr. Sanchez replied. "Why?" Javi asked. "It's dangerous," his father said.