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The Importance of Fathers in the Healthy Development of Children
Office on Child Abuse and Neglect, U.S. Children's Bureau Rosenberg, Jeffrey., Wilcox, W. Bradford.|
|Year Published: 2006|
6. Fathers and Case Planning
Historically, child protective services (CPS) casework and policies, as well as academic research, typically overlooked the role that fathers played in the dynamics of child abuse and neglect, other than as the alleged offenders.68 Barriers to involving fathers in case planning included custody issues, unemployment, child support payment and collection, domestic violence, and incarceration.69 Heavy caseloads also made it harder to track down a nonresidential father; it is often seen as easier to manage the ongoing interactions over the course of the case by working with just one parent, usually the mother, and the children. Fathers often had to demonstrate their connection to the child, whereas the mothers' connection was taken for granted.70 While it may take extra effort to involve a nonresidential father, it is usually in the child's best interest to do so.
This chapter focuses on working directly with fathers in the case planning process. The chapter first highlights the importance of demonstrating empathy, respect, and genuineness in interactions with a father. It continues with a discussion of two specific issues of particular concern in working with fathers: child support and discipline. The chapter then looks at the challenges of bringing in fathers who do not live with the child. Recognizing that not all relationships are the same, the chapter also explores issues relevant to fathers in different situations.
Demonstrating Empathy, Respect, and Genuineness
Researchers have defined three core conditions that are essential to the helping relationship:
"A caseworker's ability to communicate these three core conditions will strongly influence whether they will build a relationship with the children and family that is characterized by cooperation or a relationship that is hostile and distrustful."71 Each of these conditions is discussed below in the context of working with fathers.
Empathy is the ability to perceive and communicate with sensitivity the feelings and experiences of another person.72 Developing empathy is not easy. It can be especially difficult with men and fathers. Whether or not the father is the perpetrator, the entire intake, assessment, and case planning process is experienced by the father, to some degree, as a threat. The very fact that his family is involved with CPS is testimony, at least in his mind, that he has failed in his role as protector. Some fathers will be able to accept and verbalize these feelings; others will defensively shunt them aside. Regardless, the caseworker must understand the feelings the father is experiencing to effectively engage him in the process.
Child Protective Services: A Guide for Caseworkers describes case planning in this way:
The case plan that a child protective services (CPS) caseworker develops with a family is their road map to successful intervention. The outcomes identify the destination, the goals provide the direction, and the tasks outline the specific steps necessary to reach the final destination. The purposes of case planning are to:
The primary decisions during this stage are guided by the following questions:
Respect has special meaning to men and fathers. An entire popular language has developed around respect and disrespect in the male-dominated worlds of sports and hip-hop, for example. Communicating respect throughout the case planning process is an important way to get and to keep the father engaged. This is not to suggest that despite the caseworker's best efforts, the father will never feel disrespected during the case planning process. Likely, things will be said and feelings will be exposed that may make him feel disrespected. It is important that the father not be given reason to accurately conclude he is being disrespected by the caseworker. Transient feelings can be dealt with and overcome. A genuine belief that the caseworker disrespects the father, however, can poison the relationship, making it much harder to reach the ultimate goal of safety and permanency for the child.
Genuineness refers to "caseworkers being themselves. This means simply that caseworkers are consistent in what they say and do, non-defensive, and authentic."74 Genuineness is important in working with fathers, as it is with all members of the family.
Discussing Child Support
As discussed earlier, child support can mean "walking a tightrope" in the CPS context. When working with a father who does not live with his child, child support may be an issue of contention between the mother and father, an issue that could indeed stand in the way of a mother and father working together in any meaningful fashion. For example, among families where the father is not living in the home, the rate of current child support collection rose from 54 percent in 2000 to 59 percent in 2004. The percentage of arrears cases, however, has remained around 60 percent.75 Not surprisingly, children in homes where they receive no financial support from their fathers are much more likely to be poor.
Underemployment and unemployment can be experienced by the father as a direct insult to his self-perception as a man and father. The same can be true when a man is unable to pay child support. Many men who owe child support are hesitant about approaching any government office, particularly CPS. It would be a mistake for the caseworker to be perceived by a father as an agent for child support enforcement. At the same time, the caseworker would be remiss by not addressing questions of child support when dealing with a nonresidential father and trying to bring this father into the equation to ensure the child is living in a safe environment.
It may be advisable to speak with the local child support enforcement agency about the services available in the community prior to broaching the subject with the family. Over the past several years, the child support movement has come to not only recognize but also actively support the notion that fathers provide much more to the child than financial support. It is now understood that a nonresidential father, even if he is only able to provide minimal child support, is much more likely to help support the child financially over the years if he is involved in his child's life than if he is not emotionally connected to his child.
The topic of discipline may be the most important discussion a caseworker will have with a father, whether or not the father is the perpetrator of the maltreatment. Every father needs to understand how to discipline a child properly, not only because it can help ensure that a child is not maltreated but also because it is one of the most important tools for teaching children. Discipline is not simply about punishment or correction of misbehavior. More broadly, discipline is also about teaching a child to exercise self-control and to obey legitimate authority.
Fathers can learn strategies for controlling their anger, such as recognizing their own physical and emotional cues that suggest they are too angry to deal with a situation at that moment and learning to walk away from a situation until they have reached a calmer emotional state. Sometimes a father's anger may be grounded in very personal issues, such as his own experiences with his father when he was a boy. In such cases the caseworker may find it valuable to connect the father with a psychologist or clinical social worker.
A father's anger may grow out of the dynamics in the family or from his relationship with the child's mother, issues that may reveal themselves to the caseworker in individual interviews and family meetings. In such cases, the caseworker may wish to bring a family therapist into the process.
There are a variety of ways to help fathers better manage their anger. Some can be addressed directly by the caseworker, while others may require additional professional intervention. One role the caseworker can assume is that of teacher, educating the father on how to discipline appropriately. Again, this may need to begin by changing the father's view of what is appropriate discipline. The caseworker should find out how he currently disciplines his children and how he was disciplined as a child.
For starters, fathers (and mothers) must set clear and consistent limits. Rules serve two purposes. First, they help maintain household order, generally creating a home environment that allows each member to feel comfortable, respected, and safe. A chaotic family situation not only hinders healthy child development, it also makes for a stressful place to live. Second, rules help set the boundaries for children's behavior so that they remain safe. Children do not have the judgment of adults—rules take the place of more mature judgment by clearly telling children this is what they can do and this is what they cannot do.
Good discipline also requires that fathers respond with consistent and reasonable consequences to the misbehavior or carelessness of their children. Fathers should not punish rude behavior by a 6-year-old on one occasion with a time-out and ignore or laugh it off on another. They also should tailor the punishment to fit the crime. When a 3-year-old carelessly spills milk it should not be dealt with the same way as when that child slaps his 1-year-old sister. Fathers must recognize they have a number of negative consequences at their disposal: a verbal warning, a time-out, or taking away a privilege. Fathers can use natural consequences. For example, if a child throws a stuffed animal at a sibling, the stuffed animal gets taken away. Or, another example, if horseplay by the child results in spilling a drink all over the kitchen floor, the child is not allowed to play or to do anything else until he cleans up the mess.
The keys to good discipline are:
- Set clear rules and enforce them.
- Be consistent.
- Never give into a tantrum. This will only teach children that tantrums work, and will encourage more and louder tantrums in the future.
- Keep anger out of discipline. This also helps the parent refrain from either inappropriate or excessive discipline.
- Do not confuse bad behavior with a bad child. Parents need to verbalize to children that it's the bad behavior they don't like, not the child.
- Use time-outs and other appropriate consequences.
- Praise good behavior.
- Combine rules and limit setting with explanations. Telling children why rules are what they are, and why they are being punished helps them learn what is and is not acceptable behavior.76
During the case planning process, caseworkers should work with fathers to set appropriate goals relevant to identified discipline issues. In addition, caseworkers should help identify the specific tasks and services needed to achieve these goals.
Caseworkers can help a father learn a simple evaluation method, so that the father can look back at his own disciplinary measures and determine if they were appropriate. Here are four simple questions a father can ask himself as he reviews his own response:
Bringing in Fathers Who Do Not Live with the Child
This manual has discussed the importance of involving nonresidential fathers. They can be a source of support to the mother of their child, both financially and emotionally; are an irreplaceable figure in the lives of their children; and can be a supportive presence as the family deals with the problems that contributed to the maltreatment. If it is determined that the family is not a safe place for the child, the nonresidential father is a placement option that should be considered.
Of course, there may be times when involving the nonresidential father in the case planning process is impossible or ill-advised. Examples include when the father is involved in illegal activities, such as substance abuse or criminal behavior. More often than not, however, the nonresidential father can play a useful role. Bringing him into the process, though, may require some skilled negotiating on the part of the caseworker.
Depending on the living situation of the nonresidential father, the caseworker will often determine that it is advisable to include him in family meetings. He is potentially an additional resource as the family plans how to ensure the child's safety. Of course, he has a stake in the child's safety and future. Involving the nonresidential father and his family in family meetings may require skilled social work on the part of the caseworkers, requiring that they understand:
- The dynamics of the relationship between the father and the mother;
- How other adult members of the family and adults living in the household view the nonresidential father;
- The dynamics of the relationship, if any, between the nonresidential father and these other adult family members and adults living in the household;
- How the nonresidential father and his child interact;
- How involved the father has been in his child's life.
|Optimizing Family Strengths|
Since the early 1990s, CPS agencies have primarily been using two models—the Family Unity Model and the Family Group Conferencing Model (also known as the Family Group Decision-making Model)—to optimize family strengths in the planning process. These models bring the family, extended family, and others in the family's social support network together to make decisions regarding how to ensure safety and well-being. The demonstrated benefits of these models include:
Family meetings can be powerful events since families often experience caring and concern from family members, relatives, and professionals. Meetings based on the families' strengths can help them develop a sense of hope and vision for the future. The meetings themselves may also improve family functioning by modeling openness in communication and appropriate problem-solving skills.77
There is no straightforward rule or guide for when to bring the nonresidential father into family meetings. Each situation will differ. In some cases, involving the nonresidential father will seem natural and obvious to family members. In other cases, it will be less clear. As with any step that can prove difficult to navigate, the caseworker is advised to consult with a supervisor to determine how and when to proceed.
Working with Different Fathers in Different Situations
Caseworkers need to adapt their approaches to fit fathers in varying circumstances. There is no single model for fatherhood and no single model for being an involved father. While it is clear that a married father is more likely to be involved in his child's life, fathers in other situations can be and are good fathers as well. The following discussion highlights different father situations and explores relevant caseworker issues for each while working with families in the child welfare system.
Married fathers. This is the model most often associated with positive outcomes for children. Child maltreatment may be a sign of a problem in the marriage. At the very least, it signals significant stress upon the marital unit. When working with a family headed by a married mother and father, the caseworker must come to understand the status of the marriage. Is it strong and healthy? Is it troubled and, if so, why and how? The condition of the marriage directly impacts the children. Furthermore, the child maltreatment may have occurred as a result of marital problems that caused misdirected anger, stress, and exhaustion.
Cohabitating parents. A man and a woman living together who have one or more children together present many of the same issues as a married couple. However, the research shows that cohabitation—even and especially when children are involved—is not the same as marriage. For example, one study reveals that when couples marry after cohabiting, they are nearly 50 percent more likely to divorce eventually as compared to couples that did not live together.78
Other research has shown that teenagers being raised by cohabitating parents have more emotional and behavioral problems than peers who are living with married parents.79 Why there is such a difference in outcomes for couples and children alike in a cohabitating arrangement can only be answered by theory and speculation. It may have to do with the view the couple has toward marriage, commitment, and their own relationship. It is theorized that perhaps cohabitating parents, especially men, view the union as more tenuous and perhaps temporary, which suggests that the caseworker determine how the cohabitating mother and father view their own relationship, its strength, and its longevity.80
Incarcerated fathers. More and more programs are working with men in prison not only to prepare them for returning to a productive role in society, but just as importantly to prepare them for being a good father upon their return. Many men who are in prison have never had an opportunity or know how to be good fathers. These programs work with men around issues related to fatherhood not only out of a commitment to connecting men with their children, but also because ensuring that men who leave prison are prepared to take an active role in their family may be one of the best ways to motivate men to avoid the behaviors that got them into prison in the first place. A caseworker working with a family who has a father currently in prison may find it valuable to determine where the father is incarcerated and if one of these programs is currently operating at this facility. Several programs that work with incarcerated fathers are included in Section II.
Multiple fathers. A situation that can be extremely challenging occurs when there are multiple fathers involved in the family. In some families, children are living in the same household, yet have different fathers. There may be different arrangements: the mother is living with children by herself, while the fathers of the children may or may not be involved; the mother may be living with the father of one or more of her children, while the father(s) of her other children may or may not be involved; and the mother may be living with a man who is not the father of any of her children, and the father(s) of her children may or may not be involved. Obviously, any one of these scenarios presents the potential for tension and confusion over roles. Concerns over who is responsible for the safety of the children, who plays the role of the psychological father—the man who acts, in the eyes of the child, as "dad"—and how other adults are portraying the father to his children will come into play. Financial issues are often a source of tension. Issues of trust between and among the adults are almost sure to arise. As one would expect, it is common for one father to be angry at another over who is responsible for a child being maltreated.
When working with a family with multiple fathers involved, it is important for the caseworker to understand the role each man plays in the family dynamic. It is also important to learn how each father views the maltreatment, what led up to it, and who, in his mind, is responsible for the maltreatment occurring. All men living in the household should be part of the process, including family meetings. Whether and when to involve other fathers of children in the household needs to be determined on a case-by-case basis and, like any challenging issue facing a caseworker, the input of a supervisor can be a valuable tool. The goal of the entire process, of course, is to achieve safety and permanency for the child. One or all of the fathers who are connected to the family can prove to be a valuable ally in accomplishing this goal—determining which of the fathers and how he or they will be helpful, and how the caseworker can support them in being helpful, is the task the caseworker faces.
Boyfriends. While he is not the father, a boyfriend may fill the role of father to the child. He may contribute financially to rearing the child. He may be the father of other children in the house, but not of the child who was maltreated. If the father of the child who was maltreated is involved in any way, the father assuredly will have strong feelings about the boyfriend. Much has been written about boyfriends in the house and their role in child maltreatment. Because these men typically do not have the same history of care and nurturing with the child, the same emotional and normative commitment to the child's welfare, and the same institutionalized role as a father figure as do biological fathers in intact families, boyfriends pose a higher risk to children if they spend time alone with them.
These factors help to explain why mothers' boyfriends are much more likely to be involved in physical or sexual abuse of children than a biological father.81 In one study of physical abuse, boyfriends accounted for 64 percent of non-parental abuse, even though boyfriends performed only 2 percent of non-parental care.82 Another study found that the odds of child maltreatment were 2.5 times higher in households with a boyfriend living in the home, compared to households with a biological father.83 The authors of this study concluded that CPS caseworkers should "focus more of their attention on the high-risk relationship between a surrogate father and the children."84
Stepfathers. While research varies, some studies show that stepfathers are more likely to abuse their children physically and sexually.85 A 1997 study of more than 600 families in upstate New York found that children living with stepfathers were more than three times more likely to be sexually abused than children living in intact families.86 Another study found that the presence of a stepfather doubles the risk of sexual abuse for girls—either from the stepfather or another male figure.87 Analyzing reports of fatal child abuse in the United States, one study found that stepfathers were approximately 60 times more likely than biological fathers to kill their preschool children.88 While these studies find that stepfathers often invest less in caring for their stepchildren, others cite many examples of caring behaviors by and close relationships with stepparents, suggesting that paternal investment is not restricted only to biological offspring.89
This is not to suggest that the caseworker should assume the boyfriend or stepfather is a dangerous member of the family. There are, of course, countless stepfathers who step into the role of dad with both competence and caring. And many live-in boyfriends provide both love and structure for the children in the household. It does mean that the caseworker needs to recognize that there are unique issues at play when working with a live-in boyfriend or stepfather. It also may mean that, if the perpetrator is the live-in boyfriend or stepfather, there are additional challenges and issues to consider when assessing the safety of the child.
Addressing Fathers' Abuse of Their Children
There is little literature on the rehabilitation of fathers who have maltreated their children, as well as the role that fathers can play in helping children who have been abused. The following sections should be viewed as preliminary efforts to understand and to help fathers who have abused their children or fathers who are helping their children recover from abuse and neglect.
Fathers who have abused or neglected their children need to:
- Address any factors that may have led up to their perpetration of maltreatment.
- Be honest about the fact that they have a problem and need to take active steps to prevent future acts of maltreatment. Therapists and scholars agree that the crucial first step that abusive parents must take is to acknowledge what they have done.
- Acknowledge that their abuse was wrong and harmful. They should reflect specifically on the harm they have done to their child, which is a crucial step in helping them to desist from further abuse.
- Apologize to their children, either in-person or in writing, both to acknowledge their own culpability and to help their children recover from the abuse. Research suggests that children can benefit when they do not have to hide the fact of their abuse—especially sexual abuse—from people they care about.
- Identify the psychological and situational stressors and stimuli—e.g., loneliness, drug or alcohol use, being alone with their child in the evening—that led to physical or sexual abuse and avoid them at all costs.90
Individual or group treatment is generally incorporated into interventions to help confront patterns of abusive behavior and the psychological issues underlying that behavior. Either through counseling or parenting classes, these fathers need to be taught appropriate disciplinary principles and techniques. Physical abuse is often linked to unrealistic expectations on the part of a parent. By learning about the developmental stages of children, they can develop appropriate rules and expectations.
Reconciliation between a father and his child—especially in cases of sexual abuse or multiple incidents of physical abuse—will necessarily be difficult. Indeed, involved family members, CPS caseworkers, and judicial officials will often legitimately decide that a father can no longer live with his children as a consequence of his physical or sexual abuse. Nevertheless, research on restorative justice suggests that some contact, even if it is brief, between the father and his child may be helpful to all concerned parties if the father takes responsibility for his actions, expresses.91 Thus, professionals and family members seeking to address a father's abuse of his child may wish to consider some effort at reconciliation, provided that both the father and the child (along with the mother or guardian) consent to such an effort.
Addressing the Abuse of Their Children By Others
Children who have been maltreated are more likely than children who have not to suffer from a range of psychological problems, to have difficulty relating to others, and to suffer from physical or developmental impairments.92 Research on children who have been abused or neglected indicates that their behavior is quite variable (e.g., one moment they are warm, the next aloof), that they often can be irrationally angry with their caretakers, and that they can be unusually manipulative in their treatment of caretakers. Fathers who are dealing with a child who has been maltreated need to be prepared to be unusually flexible, patient, consistent, and nurturing. This necessitates preparing themselves ahead of time for such difficulties and communicating in both word and deed to their children that their affection and commitment to them is unconditional. The knowledge that most maltreated children will respond quite well to a consistent, affectionate, and disciplined approach to parenting over the long haul should also help fathers prepare to handle erratic or difficult behavior for a year or two.93
Fathers will also have to tailor their parenting style to the specific type of maltreatment that their children have experienced. Children who have been physically abused will need consistent, calm, and nonphysical discipline from their fathers. Children who have been sexually abused will need fathers to respect their privacy—especially in connection with bathing, changing, and toileting—and to display modesty around them. Children who have been neglected will need their fathers to pay particular attention to cultivating a routine that provides them with a sense of security, direction, and regular adult attention.94
Finally, fathers often will have to address feelings of betrayal on the part of a son or daughter who has been maltreated, especially if the mother is the perpetrator. Children often think of fathers as protectors and, consequently, can feel let down by their fathers if abused or neglected. Therapeutic research on children who feel betrayed by their mothers suggest that a father and his child should openly express their concerns or feelings about what transpired, preferably in the presence of a counselor or a member of the clergy. The father should acknowledge, where legitimate, any responsibility for the abuse and any of his child's disappointment, anger, or frustration. However, the overall goal of any encounter over a father's perceived failure to protect his child must be reconciliation between the father and the child, especially since such reconciliation can help the child recover from his or her abuse or neglect.95
Learning From the Child and Family Services Reviews
The 1994 amendments to the Social Security Act mandated the development of regulations to review States' child and family services. In response, the Children's Bureau developed and implemented the Child and Family Services Reviews (CFSRs), a results-oriented, comprehensive monitoring system designed to assist States in improving outcomes for the children and families they serve. The CFSR process assesses States in two areas:
- Outcomes for children and families in the areas of safety, permanency, and child and family well-being. There are seven outcomes; each is measured using a number of indicators. Six national standards have been developed related to these outcomes that set benchmarks for States to achieve.
- Systemic factors that directly impact the States' abilities to deliver services that can achieve the designated outcomes.
There are three phases of the CFSR that each State must undergo. The first is a comprehensive self-assessment using the CFSR tool to assess the safety, permanency, and well-being outcomes for children in the child welfare systems. Following this phase, the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conducts on-site reviews in each State and produces a Final Report identifying the State's performance on each outcome and factor under review. The last phase involves each State developing a Program Improvement Plan (PIP) to address outcomes and factors with which the State was not in conformance. The CFSR findings are important to CPS caseworkers for two key reasons: they are a tool to improve service delivery to families and children and, if these changes are not incorporated, the State and agencies face funding penalties.96
The CFSR findings regarding fathers showed several areas for needed improvement. A common challenge with respect to child well-being was a lack of father involvement in case planning. Findings also show that child welfare systems are often not making adequate efforts to establish contact with fathers, even when fathers are involved with the family. Additionally, agencies were less likely to assess the needs of fathers, to search for paternal relatives as possible placements or for other involvement, or to provide fathers with services than they were with mothers.97 Also, if the mother was not contacted, then the father was also not likely to be contacted. In general, child welfare agencies recognize this lack of involvement and are working to address the issue primarily through initiating changes in policies, protocols, and practice guidelines.
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