The Integration of Responsible Fatherhood within Foster Care Service Delivery

Stoneleigh Fellow: Rufus Sylvester Lynch, 2012-2016

Project Summary

For a variety of reasons, too many children in America are growing up without the emotional and financial support of both parents. Children raised in single parent households have increased rates of poverty, school dropout, poor health, and abuse and neglect. Dr. Lynch believes that while much attention has been paid to responsible fatherhood in the past 15 years, there remain significant barriers to “engaging” fathers. In his view, this has a great deal to do with the structure and nature of the child welfare system itself. Thus, while there are numerous responsible fatherhood programs that vary in size, setting, population of focus and services, they aren’t integrated into the child welfare system and more often than not these agencies do not include fathers when establishing permanency and service plans for children. In general, little is known about whether engaging fathers enhances the well-being or case outcomes of foster children.

Dr. Lynch proposes to undertake research to address this gap by working with local foster care providers to advance the integration of responsible fatherhood programming within the child and family service system. He will conduct agency assessments, training, and “retrofitting” to increase the participating agencies’ ability to consistently involve fathers in the lives of their children. The ultimate goal is to improve the well-being of children involved with or at risk of involvement with the child welfare system by increasing their engagement with their fathers.

Scope of the Problem

According to the Annie E. Casey Kids Count report (2011), 34% of all children in America live in single parent households. The most recent census reflects that only 15% of these households are headed by a father. The National Fatherhood Initiative, an 18 year old advocacy organization, reports that children in father-absent homes are five times more likely to be poor; twice as likely to drop out of school, and almost twice as likely to suffer physical or emotional abuse and neglect. One significant result of the problem of absent fathers is seen in the number of children, 662,000 nationally, served by the foster care delivery system.

Most child welfare agencies have not included fathers as an integral part of their practice. Instead, kinship family care placement is the prominent practice; typically involving a female grandparent, aunt or cousin. In fact, the Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Administration of Children and Families in the Department of Human Services (ACF-DHHS) testified to such last spring “…social service programs and systems dedicated to meeting children’s needs have not historically been organized to maximize fathers’ contributions to child well-being.”

In Philadelphia, the Department of Human Services (DHS) started to emphasize family decision making and family group conferences only recently. Most providers have not voluntarily incorporated fathers as an integral part of their practice, nor have they been asked to by the systems. This practice doesn’t reflect the important 2006 report, What About the Dads?, which established the importance of engaging fathers (of children in foster care) in making placement decisions and thereby gaining access to resources for the child. It noted that permanency might be expedited by either placing children safely with non-custodial fathers or through quicker relinquishment or termination of their parental rights. Additional benefits such as important medical information and the emotional benefits of establishing relationships with fathers all contribute to the overall goal for any child: strengthening his/her well-being.

Unfortunately, there is no local central information resource on fatherhood and no specific data on father engagement in Philadelphia. Yet, we do know that promising practices such as relationship and parenting education, workforce support services, and changes to child support practices have been identified as improving child well-being. However, more research is clearly needed. In Secretary Hansell’s own words, “our knowledge about what services and interventions can impact these areas is limited.”

Fellowship Project

Dr. Lynch proposes to develop capacity and competency within Child and Family Agencies (CFAs), the contracted providers of services to prevent abuse and neglect of children. In particular, he will work with some two dozen agencies to explore the integration of responsible fatherhood programming within foster care service delivery in the City of Philadelphia. As a rule, the CFAs do not currently offer this programming as a component of their service delivery plans.

Promoting healthy marriages and responsible fatherhood are not new initiatives. Dating back to the mid-1970’s scholars and policymakers have been advancing the issue of responsible fatherhood and strengthening families. Some recent reforms have even encouraged the integration of fatherhood and marriage programs with other community resources. The 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act advanced the issues of case planning, kinship placements and family decision-making. However, programs that serve children are still largely separated from those serving adults. Additionally, in his testimony last year, Deputy Secretary Hansell raised the need to undertake additional research to better understand the best mix and intensity of promising practices to improve outcomes for children. As a city, Philadelphia has defined fatherhood involvement in terms of employment and child support payments.

The one federally funded program in the city, Focus on Fathers, collects data on outcomes of knowledge, confidence and changes in behavior. However, a four year assessment of this program revealed that: a) social workers were not prepared to engage fathers; and, b) once they did, they did not know where to refer them for services. In other words, they not only need to be trained on how to engage fathers, but also on where to refer fathers for best treatment or services. Additionally a recommendation that emerged from this initiative called for increased attention to sharing data across programs and systems.

Dr. Lynch proposes to explore and address some of the barriers to fathers’ involvement with children. While DHS goals of increasing reunification rates, decreasing the time for reunification to occur and establishing permanency sooner for children in foster care are important, meaningful engagement with fathers is more likely to improve outcomes for the well-being of children in care.

During the three-year fellowship Dr. Lynch will:

  1. Explore the value, readiness, and compatibility of integrating father-engagement strategies within the service delivery models of two dozen providers; and
  2. Facilitate the development of small demonstrations to determine if the programming
  • Increases father involvement,
  • Enhances the relationship between father and child, and/or
  • Expedites the process of permanency placement.

Dr. Lynch’s work will involve: “fatherhood friendly” agency assessments as well as fatherhood readiness surveys; the development or adaptation of training for staff and administrators - for which the National Association of Social Workers-PA (NASW-PA) has agreed to provide continuing education credits; assistance with revising policies and procedures; networking and identification of resources to help with retooling/enhancing the integration of fatherhood programming; and, ongoing evaluation and data collection via surveys, observation, focus groups and interviews.

The project has received some 22 letters of support from foster care provider agencies and responsible fatherhood service providers. In addition, letters from the Administrator of the regional office of the ACF-DHHS, DHS Commissioner Ambrose, and the NASW-PA strongly endorse this effort.

In fact, once the initial assessments are completed, Dr. Lynch will work in collaboration with Commissioner Ambrose’ office to identify demonstration sites located in the DHS pilot area for its new delivery system.