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January 6, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

In 2015, the Administration for Children and Families (part of the Department of Health and Human Services) began reporting on its analyses of various fatherhood programs. Those are programs whose goal is to teach men from disadvantaged backgrounds how to improve their relationships with their kids, be financially responsible for them and improve their parenting skills.

In the bureaucratic parlance, these are Responsible Fatherhood (RF) programs that are part of Parents and Children Together (PACT). There are hundreds of them in operation around the country receiving federal grants, and the ACF is trying to find out what those programs are doing and to what extent they’re benefitting the men who take part in them.

So the ACF selected four different programs and conducted three different analyses of their offerings. The four programs were:

Successful STEPS at Connections to Success (Kansas City, Kansas and Missouri)

The Family Formation Program at Fathers’ Support Center (St. Louis, Missouri)

The FATHER Project at Goodwill-Easter Seals Minnesota (Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota)

The Center for Fathering at Urban Ventures (Minneapolis, Minnesota)

The evaluation of the programs consists of the following:

a randomized controlled trial that will measure the impact of the RF programs on child and father outcomes; a comprehensive process study that examines program design and operations (including a substudy of programs for Hispanic populations); and, a qualitative, longitudinal series of in-depth interviews with a subset of fathers participating in the PACT RF programs to better understand their lives and experiences, including the complexities and difficulties they face as fathers.

Now, when I hear the words “responsible fatherhood,” my mind translates that to mean “child support.” Across a wide spectrum of governmental programs, media commentary and pop culture, fathers, particularly poor black fathers, are often seen as little but a source of income. In those narratives, it matters little how involved a man is in his child’s life; the bottom line is, well, the bottom line. Does he pay Mom? If not he’s a deadbeat.

So I was alert for any indication that these programs were mostly about finding employment for the men so they could get up to date with their payments. And sure enough, there’s a heavy emphasis on exactly that, albeit not an exclusive one. My take on the programs, from what I can gather from having read two of the three reports, is that the programs seek first and foremost to make these men employable and find them paying work.

All the programs “partner” with local child support agencies. For example, the Center for Fathering offers a workshop entitled “Ready! Set! Work” that features

1. Realistic expectations

2. Skill identification

3. Job applications

4. Resumes and cover letters

5. Job search

6. Interview techniques

7. Positive work attitudes

That of course is no bad thing. The men seemed to want regular work and for the most part eagerly tried to improve their employability. But whereas the focus of the RF programs was mostly child support, the men’s was different; above all, they wanted an improved relationship with their children. For all four of the programs studied, comprising over 4,000 fathers, 60% said their motivation for joining the program was “improve relationship with children,” 35% said “improve job situation” and 5% said “improve relationship with children’s mother.”

These men are overwhelmingly disadvantaged. Few had a father of their own growing up. Eighty-one percent of the men are African-American, 77% had earned less than $500 in the previous month and 73% had been convicted of a crime. On average, they were 35 years old, had 2.6 children and only 27% of them had ever been married to the mother of their children.

In short, they fit the profile of the most marginal of fathers, those most in need of help in connecting with, staying connected with and being a positive influence in the lives of their children.

In addition to my sensitivity to child support as a proxy for parental involvement, I wondered whether the programs assisted the fathers in court. After all, one of the primary impediments to fathers’ involvement with their kids is a family court system that isn’t much inclined to ensure that the parental rights of fathers are respected and enforced. So, if these programs are really about connecting fathers to children, one question is what services they provide for fathers who want custody of their kids or who need a visitation order enforced.

Only one of the programs advertises that it provides legal help and neither of the two reports I’ve read makes any mention of the grantees going to bat for fathers’ rights. Indeed, if there’s even an awareness on anyone’s part that issues of custody and visitation might be important to fathers, no mention is made of it.

And I suspect those issues are real and not to be marginalized. A remarkable 58% of the fathers in the four programs were the subject of child support orders. So someone – either the mother or the state seeking to recoup TANF payments to the mother – had gone to court and gotten a judge to sign an order requiring over half the fathers to pay regularly to the mothers of their children. (Interestingly, that actually exceeds the national average of about 54% as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau.)

That means the men had been legally adjudicated as fathers with legally-enforceable obligations to their kids. That in turn means that they have legally-enforceable parental rights to see their children, but are those child support orders on behalf of the moms coupled with visitation orders on behalf of the dads? There’s no indication anywhere that these men’s parental rights are so protected.

And we know that, when Mom or the state goes to court, neither is empowered to obtain a visitation order on behalf of the dad. That’s his job. And while the mother likely has a state-employed-and-paid lawyer to establish her child support order, Dad has to either obtain the order of visitation himself or hire a lawyer to do it for him.

Needless to say, the huge majority of these men can do neither. Only 69% of them have as much as a high school diploma or a GED. Twenty-eight percent are “at risk for moderate to severe depression.” They could use the help of these Responsible Fatherhood programs, but they receive none.

To me, all that adds up to these ACF-granted programs being mostly about ensuring that the fathers who participated get jobs for the purpose of paying child support. Everything else looks to be secondary. By contrast, the men themselves, while appreciating the help with jobs and training, see the programs first as a way to get more involvement with their children. To them a job and the earnings that come with it, help achieve that goal.

I’ll report more about the dads’ take on their situations and the programs tomorrow.

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National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

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