Barriers to Father Involvement in the Child Welfare System

Although the child welfare system has historically not engaged fathers to the extent it could,  it provides multiple opportunities for fathers to re-engage and remain in their children’s lives. Fatherhood programs have an important role to play in helping fathers navigate the child welfare system to reduce barriers and facilitate involvement with their children.

Fatherhood programs can reduce barriers by coordinating identification, especially if a father does not live with the mother of his child and he is not regularly involved with the child. Fatherhood programs can help child welfare professionals incorporate effective strategies for locating and engaging fathers. Programs may be likely to encounter challenging situations, such as if the father does not want to be formally identified, or if a mother is unwilling to yield rights to the father.

Fatherhood programs can also work with dads to coordinate multiple child support arrangements, communicate with the child’s mother, outline contributions to a child’s service plan, and establish parental rights. This can be especially helpful for fathers who may be supporting other children or another family. Even if circumstances prevent him from being the child’s main caretaker, he has a presumptive right and responsibility to co-parent with the mother or another caregiving family member.

Finally, fatherhood programs can collaborate with local child welfare agencies, including explaining the benefits of father involvement to children. Programs should consider opportunities to contract with child welfare agencies to provide direct services for fathers with children involved in the child welfare system.

Tips & Best Practices

  • Sometimes, practitioners must navigate child welfare in situations with a history of domestic abuse. Mothers may be reluctant to talk about their children’s fathers if they have a difficult relationship or there has been a history of domestic violence. In some cases, a mother may have a court order preventing a father from seeing his child. As an expert in the field of domestic violence, Juan Carlos Areán cautions that some women work hard to separate from fathers who have been violent in the past. He stresses that child welfare workers should fully assess the situation and be clear that men who have been violent must change their behaviors. At minimum, they should complete an intervention program for abusers.
  • Being objective is important, as is remaining open to hearing multiple sides of the same story. Occasionally, child welfare professionals observe that mothers may provide false information to discourage program staff from contacting a child’s father. While there may be valid reasons for this tendency, and mothers may have the child’s best interest in mind, it is still important for practitioners to attempt to locate and speak with the father, if possible.
  • Providing fatherhood workshops for fathers can help them to better understand the child welfare system, develop parenting skills, meet other fathers, and promote awareness about the importance of parenting. Fatherhood programs can help promote father involvement by offering hands-on workshops to the local community including partnering with local child welfare offices.
Spotlight On
Engaging Fathers

Fathers and Families Center

The Engaging Fathers project was a collaboration between the Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS) and the Fathers and Families Center (FFC) in Indianapolis. The project was one of four funded by the National Quality Improvement Center on Non-Resident Fathers and the Child Welfare System (QIC NRF) to explore models for systemic collaboration between fatherhood programs and the child welfare system. FFC had a full-time staff person onsite at the Marion County DCS office to serve as the initial contact for non-resident fathers, help them navigate the child welfare and court systems, and provide training and support to DCS staff about father engagement.

Participating fathers attended a 20-week peer support group that used the Bringing Back the Dads curriculum developed by QIC NRF. The support groups provided information about parenting skills, the child welfare system, and other legal issues. Fathers were eligible for other FFC services, such as job assistance, GED preparation, relationship counseling, and transportation.


What are some barriers to a father’s involvement in the child welfare system?

Potential barriers faced may include difficulty identifying or locating fathers, a lack of interest by fathers, a father’s inability to establish paternity, or difficulty knowing how to get fathers more involved. A father may also struggle with financial insecurity, substance abuse, incarceration, a bad relationship with the child’s mother, or a lack of confidence in parenting skills. Institutionally, barriers may include negative stereotypes about fathers, lack of staff capacity and time, and lack of resources to refer fathers for help. In these instances, fatherhood programs can helpby training child welfare staff, directly accepting referrals, encouraging father involvement, and assisting fathers with specific issues.

How can programs reduce a father’s barriers to involvement?

While every case is different, there are numerous strategies fatherhood programs can take to provide support and resources for fathers. Programs can help by addressing legal barriers to involvement through partnering with local child welfare offices, or by hiring dedicated child support enforcement case managers. Job placement services, training opportunities, and other referral services—including substance abuse counselling—are important.  Additionally, program staff should encourage co-parenting, which can open the door for more communication and involvement.

How can program staff support incarcerated fathers in child welfare cases?

There are several actions practitioners can take in these cases, outlined in this checklist (pg. 135). Program staff should work with the child welfare agency to involve the father in permanency planning and should work with the father to establish realistic and measurable goals. In some instances, these can be developed by taking part in programming while at the correctional facility. Programs should familiarize themselves with the laws regarding a father’s rights to participate in hearings and visitation, the Adoption and Safe Families Act timeframes, and permanency options for his child if reunification is not possible. Finally, staff should ensure that a father is able to schedule visitation with his child or children.

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