Barriers to Father Involvement in the Child Welfare System

Work With Dads

Barriers to Father Involvement in the Child Welfare System

"The most pressing barriers [to effective identification and location] include the endemic structural barrier [faced by] workers who have huge caseloads, which creates pressure on them to deal with the ‘nuts and bolts’ of managing cases, the lack of standards or guidelines for what constitutes a diligent effort to identify and locate non-resident fathers, and the biased view among some workers that engaging non-resident fathers will result in more pain than gain.”[6]


Although fathers’ roles and rights have gained more attention recently, many child welfare agencies still struggle to involve fathers fully. If a father does not live with the mother and is not regularly involved with the child, extra effort may be needed to identify or locate the father. Sometimes, a father may live with the mother or is an active co-parent, but does not want to be formally identified and involved in the child welfare system. The reasons vary: he might be an undocumented resident or providing child support informally, for example. Other times, a mother might want to avoid ceding rights to the father and potentially losing custody or decision-making control.

“An involved responsible fatherhood program can assist dads in seeing themselves as part of a team seeking to create a healthy and safe home or homes for their children.”

Brian Clark, STRONG Fathers


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. Juan Carlos Areán, an expert in the field of domestic violence, 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.[7]

While child welfare staff should assess all situations carefully, identifying the father still can be useful in order to consider his relatives a potential resource. Even if it is determined that a father should not be involved, there could be cases where his relatives might provide a positive alternative to other outcomes, such as a foster home or adoption placement. This may be particularly relevant if the mother has chronic issues or violent tendencies that make reunification especially challenging.

The child welfare process can give a father the chance to re-enter a child’s life. Often, the father of a child involved with the child welfare system may be responsible for taking care of other children or supporting another family. The child welfare system can work with him to outline his contribution to a child’s service plan. Even if his 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. If parental rights are terminated, the father’s involvement may create a relationship with the permanent family that allows the father and child to stay connected.

"Several [child welfare professionals] described how some mothers provided false information about the fathers to discourage staff from trying to engage the fathers. As one respondent stated 'dads aren’t always what the moms make them out to be.’ There are always two sides to a story. Child welfare workers may find a good dad, despite negative stories from a mom. Or they may work with fathers to successfully lessen the safety concerns described by mothers.”[8]

Child welfare professionals report additional barriers to father involvement:

  • Difficulty identifying and locating fathers.
  • Gatekeeping by mothers.
  • Lack of interest by fathers.
  • Lack of paternity establishment.
  • Lack of resources and services to refer fathers to.
  • Difficulty knowing how to get fathers more involved.
  • Lack of staff time.
  • Lack of clear policy on when and how to involve dads.
  • Stereotypes about fathers.[9]

Fatherhood programs can help address most of these barriers- indirectly by encouraging or assisting in child welfare staff training or directly by accepting referrals, encouraging fathers to get more involved, and assisting fathers with specific issues.