Present, absent or anonymous fathers – does it matter? Who cares and why?

By | June 15, 2012

I for one care! I believe the presence of fathers matter, not only to their children, but their families, and communities as well. In that regard, I am committed to formal family formation by men wanting to start families by having children, and the reunification of men who are already fathers but have been estranged from their children and families. In either situation, I do have one major proviso to family formation that the presence of these men must contribute to the mental and physical health of the children, the family’s social and economic well-being, and the safety and sustainability of the community or communities in which they all live.

I begin this blog post by seeking the opinions of others regarding “Men within Families” as a fluctuating concept, with changing expectations of society regarding fathers and the well-being of their children.

Some of us still share a 20th century perception of the role of fathers as the head of  household, still expected to be the primary breadwinner for his family, and protector of his children. Thus, for a few and counting, this justifies leaving the care of the children to the mother.

The problem is society no longer accepts or supports this patriarchal form of family dominance. While Frederick Engels, 19th century social scientist and philosopher, is often cited for his work showing the concept of human family history, The Origin of the FamilyPrivate Property, and the State, Engels was strongly influenced by the five books of Moses, which supports the patriarchal form of family. A more current report by the Pew Research Center summarizes the results of a nationwide survey that reveals the decline of the traditional form of marriage, how this differs by class, age, and race, and identifies the rise of new family structures that are not necessarily male dominated.

The point made here is that the role of men, as well as women, in families has undergone many diverse demographic, socio-economic, and cultural transformations impacting the formation, stability, and overall well-being of family-marriage structure, with children sometimes not receiving the emotional and financial support needed from both parents.

Current statistics provided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Report in 2011 reveals that over 24 million children live apart from their biological fathers: one out of every three children in America. This situation is dramatically worse for African American children, 66% who live in father-absent homes. If we compare the above figures to 1960 figures where only 11% of children lived in father-absent homes and drew a conclusion, it would be safe to say that America is experiencing a father-absent crisis.

The impact of this change is most evident in its connection to the rising number of children in the child welfare and/or the juvenile justice systems. The National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI), 2009 U.S. Census Bureau data indicates that children who live absent their biological fathers are, on average, at least two to three times more likely to be poor; to use drugs; to experience educational, health, emotional and behavioral problems; to be victims of child abuse; and, to be more frequently engage in criminal behavior than their peers who live with their married, biological (or adoptive) parents.

In Philadelphia, the Department of Human Services (DHS) has the responsibility and mission to provide and promote safety, permanency, and well-being for children and youth at risk of abuse, neglect, and delinquency. DHS’s challenge, by its own admission, is to increase the involvement of fathers and paternal family members as integrated participants in all stages of family assessment and service delivery. Most child and family agencies, engaged in foster care service delivery Philadelphia have not included fathers as an integral part of their service practice. Instead, placement is usually limited to a female grandparent, aunt, or cousin ignoring an often cited 2006 report titled “What about the Dads?” This report established that engaging fathers of foster children can be important not only for the potential benefit of the child-father relationship (when such a relationship does not pose a risk to the child’s safety or well-being), but also for making placement decisions and gaining access to resources for the child.

Historically, child welfare agencies have not been effective in involving fathers in the family work that is needed to achieve safety, permanency, and well-being for the children in their care.  In fact in 2011, then Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for HHS/ACF reported to Congress that for 15 years, the ACF has been actively engaged in promoting father participation in its service delivery model through grants, policies, and promotion of best practices to meet the needs of children. This was necessary because social service programs and systems dedicated to meeting the needs of children are not designed or organized to maximize fathers’ contributions to their child’s well-being.

With this knowledge in mind, the genesis for my project took form and parallels Stoneleigh’s philosophy that when children and youth are engaged in systems of care; our collective goal should be to ensure that these systems effectively meet the needs of those being served, as well as advance their well-being into adulthood as healthy contributors to society. During the course of my multi-faceted initiative, I hope to achieve four overarching goals with multiple outcomes that are listed on my fellows’ page. These include agency assessments, retraining and revising protocols when needed, evaluating the changes in youth and father engagement outcomes, and developing replicable models.  I believe the realization of these goals and anticipated outcomes will potentially reduce the number of children from father-absent homes that enter or remain in the child welfare, and thus, improve the life outcomes for those who benefit from this new practice.