father-engagement-child-welfare

The Importance of Engaging Fathers in Child Welfare

There’s a meaningful difference in child well-being between a disengaged father and one who may have passed away or who his children never knew. Disengaged fathers often initially build close relationships with their children, only to become minimally involved or absent later. A particular pain and set of negative effects are present in children when they know who their father is and realize he has withdrawn from their life. When children know and care about their father, they internalize his distance or inconsistent involvement, believing they did something wrong and are now unlovable by this man who is so important to them.

The Emotional Effects of a Disengaged Father

The emotional toll that a disengaged father has on his children can lead to difficulty in almost every area we’ve studied, including physical health, psychological wellbeing, academic success and postponing child bearing. Sometimes, of course, there are circumstances in which a father is so dysfunctional that a child, or the child’s mother, would be put at risk if there were close contact. But these situations are the exception.

As we seek to understand how a father’s presence, or lack-there-of, can have long-term effects on the well-being of his children, it’s important to also understand why a father might become disengaged. This can happen for any number of reasons. Fundamental roadblocks from child welfare agencies are one. Long-established gender stereotypes and their role in what a fatherthinks he can bring to the table for his children are another.

Working with Child Welfare Agencies

Child welfare and courts agencies have a long-standing tendency to side with mothers when it comes to distributing parental rights and privileges. Institutional practices lead professionals to contact the mother with problems or major events in the child’s life such as an invitation to a pre-school graduation. Of course, sometimes non-residential fathers can be hard to reach. And because the mother is often the gatekeeper between the father and his child, if the relationship between the mother and father is broken, the agency may run the risk of offending the mother by relating regularly with the father.

While these challenges have been around for decades, the past 20 years have seen noticeable progress in child welfare agencies as they grow to understand the importance of a father’s role in the lives of his children. Openness and desire to involve fathers is becoming more common in a culture that has been mother-child focused. Child welfare agencies are increasingly more aware of the pain and hardship children experience when disengaged from their father, and are starting to understand that men need help and support to stay involved and reconnect when they have drifted away.

Moving Past the Breadwinner Litmus Test

The breadwinner role is deeply embedded in the consciousness of both men and women. Fathers often feel demoralized and useless, both as fathers and partners, if they are not contributing financially. They then withdraw. But fathers and mothers alike need to understand something that we readily apply to mothers: a parent’s love and nurturance are invaluable, even if there’s financial stress and lack of employment checks.

A low-income father may not be able to offer the material items he feels he should provide, but he can always offer emotional support. Children still need love, nurturance and steady involvement, even if, for now, the father’s financial contributions are not significant. Children want to be played with, read bedtime stories and have their bumps and bruises cared for. In whatever form they can get it, children want love and support from their fathers. It’s up to all of us to believe that men can be good fathers even if they are struggling to bring home the bacon.



Bill Doherty

Professor and Director of the Citizen Professional Center
Department of Family Social Science
College of Education and Human Development
University of Minnesota

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