2005 Jordan Institute
11, No. 1
Father Involvement in Child Welfare
This article is adapted from material that first appeared in Best Practice/Next Practice (Summer 2002), the newsletter of the National Child Welfare Resource Center for Family-Centered Practice. We encourage interested readers to obtain this excellent, 40-page publication at <http://www.hunter.cuny.edu/socwork/nrcfcpp/downloads/newsletter/BPNPSummer02.pdf>
On almost every indicator of child well-being, children today fare worse than their counterparts did just a generation ago.
The reason proposed by some is the dramatic rise, over the last 30 years, in the number of children living in fatherless households. In 1960, less than 8 million children were living in families where the father was absent. In 2002 it was 24 million. Where are the fathers?
Divorce, single unwed motherhood, child support and welfare policies, and incarceration are the prime suspects in their disappearance.
Couple this with the pervasive attitude, from school systems and human services to the media, that “Dads don’t matter. Men are inept parents.”
Even those men who wish to be involved with their children, regardless of their marital or financial status, have often been overlooked or marginalized.
Yet research shows that children growing up without fathers are more likely to fail at school or to drop out, engage in early sexual activity, develop drug and alcohol problems, and experience or perpetrate violence.
The Importance of Fathers
Healthy child development. This includes physical and mental health habits, success in school, self-respect and self-esteem, respect for others and for appropriate authority, constructive social and peer activities, as well as the avoidance of substance abuse, delinquency, and other forms of high-risk behaviors.
Gender identity. An appropriate male role model is believed to help boys seeking to create and understand their place in the world, and girls formulating the terms of respectful and happy relationships with the opposite sex.
Responsible sexuality. Understanding the emotional and social prerequisites and the consequences of sexual activity depends on a father’s involvement. Programs to reduce teen pregnancy are a significant focus of father involvement initiatives.
Emotional and social commitment. The invisible bonds of affection and protection are strengthened in children through the demonstration of these bonds in day-to-day father involvement.
Financial security. Family self-sufficiency is greatly enhanced, even in poorly paid sectors of the economy, where father involvement is strong.
Programs to help men be better fathers, understand their roles and responsibilities of rearing a child, learn about child development, find out alternative disciplinary options, and, in some cases, how to be a man, are emerging nationwide. For example, Virginia had 15 programs for father involvement in 1997; in 2002 they had more than 80. Head Start programs, community-based initiatives such as the National Fatherhood Initiative, and programs for incarcerated fathers are developing and showing results.
But what about involving fathers and other males in child welfare?
Fathers and Child Welfare
While research shows father involvement benefits children’s well-being, the child welfare system seems to contradict this in its practice at all levels of the continuum—in child protective services, foster care, kinship care, adoption, and family preservation.
In focus groups of fathers and child welfare workers the issues facing fathers in child welfare elicited some sharp responses. Overall, focus group participants who worked in child welfare admitted that it was easier to work with families made up of single mothers and children.
Another said, “If the mother says the father is dead, we stop right there. It quite simply is easier than trying to locate the father, especially if we feel the mom will not be cooperative.”
Clearly, from this discussion, mothers are the gate keepers to the father’s participation. Mothers have to believe that the family will benefit from the father’s participation. Furthermore, this discussion implies a systemic bias for excluding fathers. It is easier to manage the ongoing interactions over the course of a case by working only with one parent, the mother. In frontline practice, the potential for a compliant relationship with the mother takes precedence over a comprehensive working relationship with all the family.
Fatherhood is fragile. Nonresidential fathers in child welfare are at very high risk for noninvolvement with their children. All child welfare professionals need to recognize the many possible reasons for this, and not view it as either a father’s lack of interest in the children, the removal of a “risk factor,” or a means to streamline case planning. Instead, we need to shore up these fragile relationships.
Legal paternity and child support payments create the critical institutional supports for constructive father involvement. But they also raise many issues. Policies requiring TANF/Work First reimbursement with child support dollars hearken back to earlier policies that punished two-parent involvement and created incentives for single-parent families. An implication is that difficulties arising in poor families as a result of legal paternity and child support do not necessarily disqualify a man from involvement with his children.
Father involvement is closely connected to the relationship to the mother. The father’s relationship with the mother is the single greatest determinant of successful father involvement. Mothers exercise disproportionate control over parenting. Because of this, they need to understand and participate in a family system that is more open to male involvement, but in ways that does not threaten their own roles. Mediation and negotiation to promote the advantages of a father’s involvement needs to be a standing and ongoing opportunity.
We have learned, however, that one-sided advocacy for fathers’ rights is likely to increase polarization and exacerbate existing tensions between parents. A negotiation approach is also critical as domestic violence services grow and confront the difficult practice challenges of assuring family safety and well-being.
Grandparents and extended family influence father involvement. The mother’s parents and kin influence access to children. The mother’s parents’ acceptance or rejection of the father can be critical to sustaining, rebuilding, or eliminating a father’s role. Fathers’ parents and kin are a resource for developing a new father’s identity, especially if he is a young or teenaged father. The older generation can also be a force for maintaining conventional, and sometimes unproductive, gender roles.
We need to understand the dynamics of the intergenerational families and see their strengths. Social network service models, such as child and family team meetings, need to incorporate the knowledge and skills necessary to work with intergenerational dynamics to help fathers gain and maintain access to their children.
Father involvement requires understanding and transitions. Many fathers have difficulty sustaining emotional ties and social commitments when they experience risk factors such as substance abuse, poverty, mental health issues, and unemployment. To keep them involved requires understanding and emphasizing life transitions. We need to give both residential and nonresidential fathers opportunities to understand the changing roles that accompany major milestones such as pregnancy, birth, and rearing a child.
Increasing their ability to provide familiar, stable, daily routines will help create important resources in a child’s life. Fathers’ participation during birthdays, holidays, school graduations, and other rituals are the building blocks of their engagement.
Not surprisingly, men may need help in transitions from married or residential fatherhood to divorced or nonresidential fatherhood. More intense services, monitoring, supervision, and support are needed to help fathers build continuity in the relationships that become fragile at these times. Divorce or separation within foster families is also important to consider.
Assessments, case planning, and case reviews should not be seen as opportunities to confirm a father’s problems and deficiencies, but to promote responsible fathering. Protocols and standards for locating fathers, for engaging fathers through appropriate outreach activities, and for making them a part of child welfare case plans need to be included. “Reasonable efforts” to locate and involve fathers need to be part of child welfare casework practice.
Father involvement relies on integrating an employment dimension into child welfare. Successful father involvement depends on a practice based on a solid understanding of the difficulties and challenges of balancing work and family, especially within the economically distressed circumstances prevalent in child welfare.
Father involvement requires assistance in building relationships with community systems. Fathers whose families are involved with child welfare have the additional burdens of meeting the terms and complying with many community systems: the courts, child support agencies, child welfare, social/health/mental health services, and schools. Without adequate community-based resources for coaching, brokering, advocating, and supporting fathers, adding these tasks to a father’s everyday life can be highly stressful. This stress affects a father’s relationship within the family.
Father involvement depends on fathers working with fathers. In the literature and program review on which these recommendations are based, peer support—fathers working with fathers—is the glue holding programs together. Child welfare workers who are male and have the knowledge and skills can make a big difference. “Support fathers,” used as a component of safety planning, can make a difference. Father-to-father support within community-based partnerships works.