Malm K., Murray J. and Geen R.What About the Dads? Child Welfare Agencies’ Efforts to Identify, Locate and Involve Nonresident Fathers. (Washington, D.C.: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, 2006)
Most foster children are not living with their fathers at the time they are removed from their homes. While in foster care these children may experience even less contact with their nonresident fathers. A U.S study, which examined child welfare practices with respect to identifying, locating, and involving fathers of children in foster care, revealed several troubling findings about the extent of father engagement by caseworkers. These findings carry important implications for agencies and caseworkers.
Goals of study
- Examines the extent to which child welfare agencies involve nonresident fathers of foster children in casework and permanency planning;
- Describes the methods used by local agencies to identify fathers of children in foster care, establish paternity, and locate nonresident fathers;
- Identifies challenges to the involvement of nonresident fathers; and
- Identifies practices and initiatives that may increase father involvement.
This study explored casework practices involving nonresident fathers through both qualitative and quantitative research methods. In-depth discussions with 53 local child welfare administrators provide an overview of policies and practices related to fathers.
The study found that nonresident fathers are not often involved in case planning and nearly half were never contacted by the child welfare agency. Compared to both resident and nonresident mothers, nonresident fathers were less inclined to visit their child or express an interest in having their child live with them.
The researchers hypothesise that the lower involvement of nonresident fathers could be due to fathers’ lack of a prior relationship with the child, as well as caseworkers’ lower expectations of fathers as compared to mothers, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy where fathers become less engaged with their children. These hypotheses require further investigation through research.
Implications for Practice
- Search for fathers early in the case. Most successful information gathering about a nonresident father’s identity and location occurs very early in the case either as case investigation or other assessment activities. If a nonresident father’s identity and location are not determined early on, there is a lesser chance he will have contact with the agency.
- Train caseworkers on identifying, locating, and involving fathers. Agencies and courts should make clear what steps caseworkers should consider when mothers do not know or share information about the child’s father. Even when mothers provide information on the child’s father, workers may want to touch base with other individuals (e.g., relatives, former caseworkers) to verify such information. Significant differences were found between workers who reported being trained in terms of father location and involvement and those who did not receive such training. For example, the agency was more likely to have considered placing the child with father in cases involving trained workers.
- Agencies need to examine whether services offered to fathers are designed to engage fathers. The study found that only a small proportion of nonresident fathers who were offered services, complied with all of them. Agencies should consider how caseworkers present service options to nonresident fathers and how societal expectations influence these interactions. Current protocol appears to dictate that caseworkers invest more heavily in managing a resident mother’s problems given that returning the child to the mother’s care is likely to be the permanency goal. However, agencies also offered more services to nonresident mothers than nonresident fathers (79% vs. 59% of cases). Practices that expect little of nonresident fathers may thus discourage this group of fathers from sustained engagement with services.
- Address domestic violence and worker safety concerns. Caseworkers and administrators hesitated to involve some fathers because doing so might reintroduce potential abusers into volatile family situations. Unless safety concerns related to workers as well as the child and mother are addressed through training, efforts to involve fathers are likely to stall.
- Use child support data more consistently. Child support information, including father location, paternity (i.e., the father’s legal relationship to the child), and financial support, can facilitate placements with fathers or determine other ways in which fathers can play a constructive role in their children’s lives. Where casework agencies had a close relationship with agencies maintaining child support information (such as the courts), caseworkers were more likely to seek out this information.
- Develop models for involving fathers constructively. Unless the child has a case plan goal of placement with his/her father or paternal kin, caseworkers are unlikely to know what they should be doing to involve nonresident fathers. Implementation of the following father engagement practices was found to be patchy and requires clearer guidelines. These practices included:
- Sharing the case plan with the father (this was implemented in almost all cases in which the father was contacted but there was no information on whether the case plan is mailed to the father or whether the worker meets with the father to explain the plan);
- Caseworkers offering father-child visitation (this was occasionally done but clear guidelines on when this should be offered were not available);
- Family court decisions that outline clear expectations around father involvement ( practices here varied); and
- Less intensive efforts such as obtaining the father’s medical background (these were rarely implemented).
Engaging fathers of foster children can not only help the child-father relationship (when this relationship does not pose a risk to the child’s safety or well-being), but also be useful for making placement decisions and gaining access to resources for the child. Permanency may be expedited by placing children with their nonresident fathers or paternal kin, or through early relinquishment or termination of the father’s parental rights. Through engaging fathers, agencies may learn important medical information and/or that the child is the recipient of certain benefits, such as health insurance or child support. Apart from the father’s potential as a caregiver, such resources might support a reunification goal and therefore enhance permanency options for the child.
About the Author: The Dads for Life Resource Team comprises local content writers and experts, including psychologists, counsellors, educators and social service professionals, dedicated to developing useful resources for dads.
First published on 11-10-2011.