Working with Non-Residential Fathers
“Many non-resident fathers struggle with various obstacles, such as unemployment, homelessness, incarceration, and physical and mental illness. Additionally, other challenges such as child support arrearage and conflict with children’s mothers can cause personal and child access problems for fathers.” 1
Many of the men who participate in responsible fatherhood programs are not living with their children. Within the responsible fatherhood arena, fathers who are not living with their children are often referred to as non-residential or non-custodial fathers. Non-custodial fathers, however, are fathers who do not have legal or physical custody of children, even if they live with them. Fatherhood practitioners tend to prefer the term non-residential fathers, which avoids the implication that children are objects that a father might seek custody of or access and visitation rights to.
The number of U.S. children living apart from their biological fathers has increased considerably over the last half century. In 1965, about 10 percent of all U.S. children and 25 percent of African American children lived with a single parent; 2 in 2011, these figures were around 28 percent and 51 percent respectively. Although some non-residential parents are mothers, four of every five are fathers. 3
Compared to the 1960s when divorce was the main reason children lived with a single parent, many children today have fathers who have never been married to or even lived with their mothers. Today’s non-residential fathers face diverse circumstances. Young fathers, divorced fathers, and fathers who have no formal relationship with a child’s mother all have different issues that require understanding and attention. The challenges are often compounded, especially for those who have children with more than one mother. Fatherhood programs should be aware of these challenges. On the one hand, divorce agreements may set some parameters, such as specifying child support payments and shared parenting arrangements. On the other hand, for never-married fathers, their role is often more complicated, particularly if they do not take steps to establish paternity. When working with non-residential teen fathers, additional challenges may come in building, maintaining, and navigating a relationship with their child’s maternal grandmother, who may act as a gatekeeper between the mother and father. All non-residential fathers may face a period of redefining what it means to be a good father as they increase their involvement with a fatherhood program.
Some non-residential fathers regularly spend time with their children and are fully involved in their children’s lives. Others have varying degrees of contact. Some children see their fathers rarely or not at all. Others may:
- Live part of the time with each parent on a shared custody schedule.
- Stay with their fathers on weekends or during school vacations.
- Spend time with their fathers on occasional or fluctuating schedules.
- See their fathers according to formal access and visitation court orders or child welfare reunification plans that specify the times and conditions under which fathers have time with their children.
Fathers who have limited or irregular access often find it hard to bond with their children. Many feel resentment toward the child’s mother, the child support system, or the court system because they perceive that individuals and agencies are biased against them. Although some fatherhood practitioners might be tempted to ally with fathers, this perspective can be counterproductive. Some fathers may find it hard to move beyond these feelings, which slows progress toward needed behavioral change.
Other fathers are non-residential because they are incarcerated or away temporarily on military or other work assignments.