Helping program participants talk about their personal experiences and barriers, acknowledge the need for behavioral changes, and develop new life skills are essential steps for programs to be successful. Fatherhood programs should focus on:
- Effective case management to identify and address challenges. Facilitating opportunities in group or one-to-one discussions for fathers to talk about and vent their frustrations and resentments so they can begin to move forward.
- Assistance in understanding and navigating child support and family court systems.
- Dealing with employment barriers and helping dads move toward economic stability.
- Group sessions to build co-parenting, communication, and relationship skills.
- Effectively exploring child development so fathers understand what to expect of their children at different stages. This is especially important for dads who have not had contact with their children for extended periods of time and have not had opportunities to practice parenting skills.
Helping fathers obtain stable housing may be beyond the scope of many fatherhood programs. Some programs maintain an emergency fund to help program participants deal with urgent housing or transportation situations. Other programs connect participants with local service agencies that provide rent assistance or emergency housing. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness offers resources for addressing various housing barriers.
Fatherhood practitioners recommend gradual and ongoing conversations with non-residential fathers about the issues they face so they can better identify root causes and develop strategies to address barriers. For instance, feelings of frustration, anger, or animosity toward the mothers of their children may be related to child support payments that are beyond their immediate ability to pay and perceptions that the mother has “turned them in.” Through education and training, fathers can learn more about the social welfare system and understand that their children’s mother did not turn them in, but simply went through the requirements for them to receive financial benefits. They might also begin to understand the mother’s perspective more and improve their ability to communicate with her without confrontation.
The opportunity to share experiences and reflect with other fathers facing similar situations can be valuable for non-residential dads to improve their economic situation and strengthen relationships with children and co-parents. Practitioners working with dads in these situations advise programs to let fathers air their frustrations—with the court system, child support, or the children’s mother―then help fathers see the situation more objectively. Barry McIntosh of Young Fathers of Santa Fe said, “I help them get away from being wound up by the situation.” Programs can help fathers understand how communication and listening skills can help them establish an effective co-parenting network for their children. Andrew Freeberg of the Goodwill-Easter Seals FATHER Project cites the need to “keep the norms and expectations positive and respectful, in spite of the need to vent frustrations.”
Beyond group and individual case management sessions, some programs cultivate peer support networks of dads who communicate regularly and work together. “Many of these men are in a social network that promotes things that aren’t healthy for them,” one practitioner said. “[Our} fatherhood program seeks to promote a new direction by setting up a series of social events.” Movies, games, and father/child outings are examples of social bonding activities arranged by some programs.
During sessions with individual dads or when facilitating group discussions, experienced practitioners also suggest:
- Talk with dads in a compassionate way about the child support system and note that the child’s mother is not acting punitively, but is looking out for her interests and those of her child.
- Help the dad think about how he might respond to certain issues or situations involving the mother of his child, from financial topics to child-rearing.
- Have ongoing conversations so men can hear from peers and learn how to react to common challenges they may face in the court system.
- Help manage any disappointment a father may feel as a result of child support orders or visitation limits. Help staff keep fathers hopeful when they confront such disappointments.
Some non-residential fathers have informal arrangements to provide financial support on a regular or irregular basis; others have formal child support orders specifying monthly amounts that they pay directly to the mother or through a child support enforcement agency. Fathers who provide informal support can be encouraged to keep receipts for purchases such as baby clothing or diapers. If they provide cash to mothers directly, they might pay with a money order or check so they have documentation of support provided. This may be helpful if a formal support order is ever established.
About half of fathers with formal child support orders fulfill their obligations on a regular basis. Approximately a quarter have the ability to pay, but choose not to do so and are sometimes referred to as deadbeat dads. The other roughly 25 percent have been referred to as “dead broke dads,” who struggle to make ends meet, are unable to meet their obligations, and often build up substantial arrears.4 For many fatherhood programs, dead broke dads are their typical participants. Practitioners report that these fathers generally want to support their children financially, but lack the means. Also, they may have children with multiple mothers, which further complicates their situation. In these cases, the best or most practical approach for fatherhood programs may be to begin with a focus on one child, often the youngest or the one with whom the father has the most contact.
Problems often arise when a child support order is too high relative to a non-residential father’s income and other obligations (such as rent and household expenses or support for another family or child) or because arrearages are accruing interest at high levels. Initial child support order amounts often are set too high relative to income because fathers fail to appear for order adjudication. Amounts may become too high if a father neglects to inform child support of a reduction in income due to a change in employment status or incarceration.
Non-residential fathers might be motivated to participate in a fatherhood program if they believe the program and case manager can help them improve their employment situation and maintain regular child support payments. Programs should explain to fathers that attending hearings is important to ensure that correct employment information and any changes in income are considered. Having a connection with child support agencies can help fathers understand the process for modifying child support orders and ensure they know what forms are needed to notify the child support agency about a change in circumstances. A fatherhood program can help fathers complete the required paper work, which can be cumbersome.
Establishing strong partnerships and maintaining contact with staff at the local child support office or family court, which sets child support orders in some states, can be mutually beneficial for all concerned. Fatherhood programs can help fathers complete necessary forms, obtain employment, and meet their child support obligations. Child support offices and family courts can help fathers understand the child support system, assign staff to work directly with program participants, or help with modification of orders and arrearages. Custodial parents may agree to accept a reduction of arrears owed to them if they know the fatherhood program is helping the other parent with employment and payment plans. Similarly, if arrears are owed to the state, arrangements could be made to reduce arrearages if satisfactory program participation and/or current payments are maintained.
Many fatherhood programs either provide employment services in-house or work in partnership with experienced workforce development programs to help men assess and build their strengths, look for work, receive training, and prepare for employment. Depending on individual situations, programs may stress education and training as prerequisites for a job search or focus on a “jobs first” approach that helps dads find temporary jobs to meet immediate financial obligations while they continue to build their skills for future opportunities. Some programs address financial literacy and help dads learn to deal with child support, housing, and wise use of money.