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Why Child Welfare Agencies Struggle to Include Dads

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Feb 6, 2024
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Do you serve dads who are involved with your state’s child welfare agency?

If so, you undoubtedly know about the struggle many dads have in navigating that agency effectively. Dads get lost in understanding how to engage with that agency to prevent losing their children or reuniting with them after a forced separation.

The Struggle is Real

The primary reason for this struggle is the lack of proactive inclusion of dads by child welfare agencies. Indeed, a comprehensive review of state child welfare agencies revealed that:

  • Many of their data systems make it difficult to measure whether and how child welfare agencies engage dads and paternal relatives.
  • Caseworkers were more likely to make concerted efforts to identify, locate, inform and evaluate moms and maternal relatives than dads and paternal relatives.
  • Caseworkers were more likely to involve children and moms in case planning than dads.
  • Caseworkers were more likely to encourage moms to participate in their children’s school activities, medical appointments, and after-school programs.
  • Caseworkers were more likely to have sufficient frequency and quality of visits with moms than dads.

Moreover, this lack of proactive inclusion is particularly pronounced when it comes to dads of color. In a study of caseworkers in four states who collectively worked with more than 1,700 children, researchers identified racial-ethnic patterns in initial casework activity with non-resident dads. They found the following factors explained these patterns:

  • Agencies were less likely to identify nonresident dads of Black, Latinx, and Multiracial children relative to those of White children.
  • Among dads whom agencies identified, Black and Latinx dads were less likely to be located.
  • Among dads whom agencies located, Black and Latinx dads were less likely to be contacted. Whereas greater rates of international mobility among Latinx dads explained agencies’ disproportionately low rates of contact, no other factor explained racial-ethnic differentials in contact.

A People or System Challenge?

What might surprise you is there’s been no shortage of efforts at the federal and state levels to address this challenge. Since 2006, National Fatherhood Initiative® (NFI) has helped child welfare agencies address it. We were a partner in a five year federally-funded center that was among the first efforts to examine this challenge in-depth. We not only examined the challenge, but conducted research, created tools, and funded pilot projects in several states to meet it.

And, yet, we’re still here. Dads are still struggling to navigate child welfare agencies effectively. What we’ve learned is the foundation of this struggle is a system challenge rather than a people challenge. There’s no shortage of intention among child welfare workers to include dads. Their challenge is they work in agencies with cultures that are mom-centric. As a result, workers lack the tools and other incentives to turn their intention into action. (Click here for an infographic that further illustrates the challenge in expanding organizational cultures that are mom-centric to include dads.)

Fortunately, we’re now seeing more consistent, concerted culture-expansion* efforts in state child welfare agencies. (Click here for a comprehensive review.) These efforts are supported by an ongoing federal effort that’s helping legitimize and inform those solutions. This federal effort is also creating tools for states to use, such as the father-inclusion resources created by the federally-funded Child Welfare Information Gateway.

Patience Plus Urgency

Expanding mom-centric cultures to embrace fathers takes time. And as the aforementioned review of state agencies’ efforts makes clear, there’s a lot of work to do. Creating this “whole-family” culture also requires an urgency that’s clearly communicated by the leaders of child welfare agencies and supported by these pillars:

  • An ongoing commitment from staff at all levels to be proactive around including dads.
  • Creating the nuts and bolts that support culture expansion (e.g., policies).
  • Training staff in father inclusion.
  • Providing staff with father-inclusion tools (e.g., print materials and curricula).

The good news is NFI has the resources child welfare agencies need to create and maintain a whole-family culture that embraces father inclusion. Check out our partnership with the Father Engagement Unit in Fairfax County, VA, for an example of a child welfare agency’s commitment to father inclusion.

Would you like more research on how the inclusion of dads in child welfare systems affects their involvement with their children? Look no further than the just-released ninth edition of Father Facts™! Pre-order the Print version today and take advantage of a discount during the pre-order period. And consider the Enterprise Use version for use agency-wide.

Do you want to help a child welfare agency become more father inclusive? Start by assessing the agency using NFI’s free Father Friendly Check-Up™.

Looking for a resource that will help staff in discussions with dads and moms about the importance of fathers? Check out these Vital Topics Guides.

* I use “culture expansion” rather than “culture change” to communicate that addressing this challenge involves a “both-and” rather than an “either-or” solution. Agencies must maintain a focus on moms while they expand to include dads! 


Learn more about the Father Engagement Academy by National Fatherhood Initiative

Topics: fatherhood parenting, involved father, Featured, General Fatherhood Program Resources, NFI-Specific Programs & Resources, General Fatherhood Research & Studies

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