There are many challenges faced by fathers in America, and more specifically, by those who participate in responsible fatherhood programs. But what are they?
The Fatherhood Research and Practice Network (FRPN) has a brief that attempts to answer that question. (National Fatherhood Initiative® President Christopher Brown sits on the FRPN's advisory committee). Answering that question is critical because these challenges may be, as the brief notes, strongly associated with lower levels of father involvement in children's lives and lower quality co-parenting relationships.
FRPN's Dr. Jay Fagan and Rebecca Kaufman interviewed fathers from nine responsible fatherhood programs in five northeast cities serving primarily low-income, unmarried, non-residential fathers about their challenges.
The top five challenges the fathers mentioned in descending order of frequency were:
- Lack of money to buy things for their children
- Inability to pay child support
- Difficulty keeping a job
- Inability to pay bills
The other challenges they mentioned were wide-ranging, from physical health problems to their living situation preventing their children from coming to see them, to drug or alcohol use, to being accused of abusing, neglecting, or abusing their children. These challenges underscore one of the most vital pieces of guidance National Fatherhood Initiative® (NFI) has provided to human service organizations (HSOs) through the years: the importance of helping fathers meet their most immediate, pressing needs as part of or even before enrolling them in a responsible fatherhood program.
Meeting those needs is often the “hook” that encourages fathers to enroll in a responsible fatherhood program and to maintain their participation rather than learning how to be a better father and parent (e.g., through increased knowledge of child development, child discipline, etc.).
Indeed, helping fathers overcome these challenges should be a component of a responsible fatherhood program either through the provision of services (often called "wrap-around services") by the HSO running the program or the HSO's partners. The FRPN's findings are similar to the results of research that Mr. Brown conducted with Dr. Keith Cherry, his long-time colleague and friend, when NFI was part of the National Quality Improvement Center on Non-Resident Fathers and the Child Welfare System (QIC-NRF), a five-year project (2006-2011) funded by the Children's Bureau in the United States (US) Department of Health and Human Services through a contract with the American Humane Association.
That research involved interviews with low-income, nonresident fathers involved in the child welfare system in four communities supplemented by interviews with fatherhood program practitioners who worked with these and other child welfare-involved fathers. Like the fathers interviewed by the FRPN researchers, the fathers whom Dr. Cherry and Mr. Brown interviewed also mentioned financial challenges as their most pressing needs.
Their research (published in the journal Protecting Children) also involved delving deeper into the impact of these fathers' challenges on the fathers and their perceptions so that child welfare workers and fatherhood practitioners within and who work with the child welfare system could better understand these fathers and, as a result, work more effectively with them and develop better strategies to encourage enrollment in fatherhood programs offered by child welfare agencies.
The interviews identified the following themes in the lives of these fathers:
- The financial and emotional devastation caused by their own absence from their children's lives
- The belief that they are constantly extorted by the mother of their children, with their children being bargaining chips in a constant tug-of-war between them and the mother in which the mother has the upper hand
- The loss of control over their lives and hopelessness about the future
- The belief that the judicial/court system fosters poor fatherhood
- This deep understanding of these fathers' lives is critical to effective program delivery
The staff of responsible fatherhood programs must look at fathers' needs and how those needs affect fathers. It is those effects that drive fathers' behavior. Indeed, the most successful programs studied during NFI's participation in the QICNRF were those seen by fathers to meet their needs and care about fathers' welfare.
In a future post, we will look at why evidence-based interventions are key to successful fatherhood programs.