Stephanie Corry dresses a doll used during child development classes with Maggie Nygren at Marinette High School. EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard
Stephanie Corry dresses a doll used during child development classes with Maggie Nygren at Marinette High School. EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard
MENOMINEE - Growing up in the same town or even the same home your grandparents did does not mean your life experiences will be the same. Whether you live in Menominee or Manhattan, the world is changing.

According to the Pew Research Center, 40 percent of all households today are primarily supported by mothers. Compare that to just 11 percent in 1960. Most families today are headed by single moms. Of the approximately 13.7 million U.S. households with children under age 18, mothers are the main source of income. Of those, 63 percent are single.

Motherhood and the family dynamic is no longer like "The Waltons" on television. There was a time when children learned about becoming adults and grown-up responsibilities by watching their parents.

In many cases that's simply no longer possible. Both parents may work, there are shift changes, there may only be one parent, etc.

This is why high schools in Menominee and Marinette offer courses to help teens become aware of their responsibilities.

The courses at both schools are elective, meaning they are not required in order to graduate. However, the basic skills that are taught could be invaluable in making wise decisions.

"The reason I became a teacher in this area is because of the decline of the family structure. Somebody's got to teach these kids what it's like and what you've got to do to survive on your own," said Maggie Nygren, a teacher at Marinette High School.

Among other things, Nygren teaches a child development class to juniors and seniors. She said there are times when she senses an entitlement attitude.

"When we were little, we knew we had to work hard for what we got, things weren't expected. We'd have to work for them," she explained. "I think because everything is so disposable now. Everybody thinks, 'Oh, if I break it I'll just get a new one.' They don't think about the consequences or the expense or the responsibility attached to things. I think that's sad, it's frustrating."

Nygren taught a class where her students had to develop a household budget, balancing income and expenses. She said the most-frustrating part for her was when they'd get to the end and say, "Mrs. Nygren aren't there programs for this?"

"I think it's frustrating," she said. "We need to show them that they can do it in a responsible way and use what they have."

This past semester, Nygren led a course that dealt with the responsibilities of parenting. She asked each student to give serious thought to why they want to be parents and what the qualities are of a good parent.

"Generally they say they need a full-time job, they need someone to care for the children, they need to know how much money it's going to take," she said. "They need a nice stable place to live, transportation. They know what it takes, but what they know and what they apply are two different things."

Single-parenting is also a topic that comes up. Nygren said she found it very interesting that many students say they need to have a partner or somebody stable in their life.

Nygren's counterpart across the river in Menominee is Karen Owens, an independent living instructor at Menominee High School. In Owens' class, each student is "given" a job earning local wages and must work within a budget.

"If they were going to work as a sales associate at Kmart, they'd know how much they'd make a week and I'd make them figure out everything they'd need to do to rent an apartment, have insurance on their vehicles, all those types of things."

Like the courses in Marinette, these are also elective and taken primarily by juniors and seniors. This past year, 28 students took part - mostly girls, but some boys.

"We go through things like how to prepare résumés, how to find jobs, how to do taxes, budget, quite a variety of different things to make it easier when they move out on their own," Owens explained. "I think it's beneficial. I don't know if the kids always feel that way, but I have had students come back and say my class was really helpful because they didn't know how to prepare a résumé or whatever."

Owens also teaches health and parenting classes where students learn about relationships, the dynamics of partners, children, etc. Discussions also focus on different stages a child goes through and parental responsibilities. Students also talk about skills their own parents have used. They take that information and try to make better choices for their own children when they have them.

One of the most eye-opening experiences for teens is going through the stages of childbirth with labor and delivery. Each student will then bring a lifelike baby home with them and have to care for it for an entire weekend. They must determine whether it is crying because it wants to eat or be changed, or it may be crying for no reason at all and just needs to be held or rocked.

All the elements are recorded onto a computer chip. Owens then downloads the information and detects all the miscues.

"They're just dragging. Some of them can't even stay at school the next day, they have to take the day off," she said. "It's a real reality check. It makes some people think twice."

Owens said she had a girl in class one time who was thinking about getting pregnant on purpose. After going through the weekend with the lifelike baby, she called her mom in Texas and told her she didn't have to worry about her getting pregnant in high school. She said she just was not ready for that much responsibility.

Single parenthood is also discussed in Menominee. Not all relationships come with a happily-ever-after ending. And usually, it's the child who feels the consequences.

"We talk about all the custodial issues and rights and the responsibilities that the father has, whether they have custody or not," said Owens. "There's always the possibility of paying child support."
EagleHerald news writer

MARINETTE - Paying child support isn't just a moral obligation, it's a legal one as well. And the message from Marinette and Menominee counties' top law enforcement officials is simple - if you don't meet your obligation to your children, we're coming to get you.

Sheriffs Kenny Marks and Jerry Sauve are well aware of the problem, and neither man is sympathetic to those who don't meet their basic parental duties.

In Menominee County there are currently 125 arrest warrants related to delinquent child support; in Marinette County there are 60. 

"They like to hide - they really do - but eventually we'll find them," said Marks. "The judges take this very seriously, because it's about the kids," he added.

Said Sauve, "I sense the judges' frustration with this. It's unconscionable to have children and not support them."

"It all comes down to personal responsibility," Marks said, explaining that the deterioration of the family unit, drug and alcohol abuse, and tough economic times all exacerbate the situation - but there is no excuse for being a deadbeat parent.

"We're not going to forget about you," Marks said, adding that that in some cases deadbeat parents are on the hook for in excess of $60,000 in back child support.

But serving as the final enforcement backbone of child support enforcement, both men said they're well aware that it fixing the problem is a tough nut to crack.

"Some people just aren't going to abide with the system," Sauve admitted. "When we get involved, it's serious."

According to Marks, the problem often lies in the delinquent parents' inability to attain the financial skills necessary to meet their parental obligations. That is where law enforcement does what it can to help, he explained.

"It's a balancing act - if they're not working, there is no money for child support," Marks said. He added that most of those who have been incarcerated in Menominee and have been given an education - and an opportunity to make a living - have been able to keep it on the straight-and-narrow.

Punishment is needed for some, but so is the need to keep to deadbeat parents on the payroll.

"Obviously, if they're sitting in jail they're not making money and not paying child support," Marks said. 

Education is often the key in staying off the warrant list, Sauve explained.

"If they don't have a high school diploma, we can work on getting them a G.E.D.," Sauve said, referring to the many programs available to inmates incarcerated in the Marinette County Jail.

Marks agreed, and credited the educational programs offered in the Menominee County Jail for keeping one-time child support offenders from becoming repeat offenders.

"It all comes down to personal responsibility, but most we've seen that we've given a little education will not come back," Marks said. And that's good news for the justice system, the incarcerated parent, and most importantly - the innocent children hanging in the balance.