Hershel K. Swinger dies at 72; founded a program to aid urban fathers
Hershel K. Swinger, a children's advocate who was nationally recognized for his work helping disadvantaged fathers develop better parenting skills, died May 23 at his Baldwin Hills home. He was 72 and had emphysema and congestive heart failure, his family said.

His death was announced by Children's Institute Inc., a children's services organization in Los Angeles where Swinger conceived the program Project Fatherhood in 1996.

Swinger, a clinical psychologist, was a senior vice president of Children's Institute who taught counselor education and directed a state-funded child abuse prevention center at Cal State L.A. for many years.

He was the founder and senior director of Project Fatherhood, a program that has provided therapy, support and training for more than 7,000 low-income urban fathers since its inception 15 years ago. Under Swinger's leadership, it received a $7.5-million federal grant in 2006 to replicate the program in 50 agencies in Los Angeles County. It was recognized as a model program by the Obama administration last year.

Familiar with studies showing that children with absent fathers are far more likely to be poor, abuse drugs, drop out of school and enter the criminal justice system, Swinger believed that focusing on the fathers was a crucial part of the solution.

"This was an important, overlooked issue in our child welfare and juvenile justice system," Judge Michael Nash, presiding judge of the Los Angeles County Superior Court's juvenile division, said in an interview last week. "There were lots of fathers out there who we were giving up on that we shouldn't give up on. Hershel was the one who helped bring it to the forefront."

According to statistics cited by the institute, the program has had dramatic success. Nearly 95% of the fathers participating in Project Fatherhood have regular contact with their children. In addition, only 2% of the children of the participating fathers re-enter the child protective services system.

Project Fatherhood participants begin with an in-depth interview to find out why they have been absent fathers. Swinger said he often found that the men cared about their children but did not know how to show their love or were afraid their children would turn out to be like them. Sometimes the fathers kept their distance because they had been unable to pay child support.

"Men, I think, are stereotyped in the child welfare system as perpetrators and batterers," he told National Public Radio in 2007. "My inspiration came from the way my father was and the way most of the African American men I knew were about their children. They loved them, they cared for them, and when fathers weren't involved, I assumed that there was some complex reason why this wasn't so … and so I developed a program."

The son of a barber, Swinger was born April 16, 1939, in Parsons, Kan., and moved to California after graduating from high school. After two years at Los Angeles City College, he earned a bachelor's degree in psychology in 1966 and a master's in rehabilitative counseling in 1968 from Cal State L.A. He earned a doctorate in clinical psychology from USC in 1978. He taught at Cal State L.A. for 30 years.

He organized a number of major conferences on child welfare and educating fathers, including the Fatherhood Solution Conference sponsored by Children's Institute, which will open June 17 at the Wilshire Grand Los Angeles hotel with a tribute to Swinger.

Swinger is survived by two children, Robbin Swinger Otey and Hershel Jr.; two brothers; two sisters; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. His wife, Sandra, died in 1996.

elaine.woo@latimes.com