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Social Services Innovations: Local Fatherhood Coalition Promotes Equity, Inclusivity
By Kyle Miller, PhD, EdM; Dorothy Davis, BA, MS; Earl Kloppmann, BA, ThM; and Sherry A. Cobbins, BA, MS
Social Work Today
Vol. 20 No. 5 P. 30

In the social work profession, when we say family or parent, we actually mean mother. Typically, parenting programs target mothers, family services focus on mothers, and family policies emphasize the role of mothers.

This is not a large-scale, strategic effort to limit the involvement of fathers. Rather, it is rooted in historic norms and parenting views that have become the status quo for how we operate. Seemingly unintentional, the focus on mothers has created a gender-biased system with consequences for fathers. Men are at a disadvantage in gaining parental rights, qualifying for family services, and being viewed as competent caregivers.

Gender bias has also led to erroneous and unfavorable beliefs that many fathers are absent or uninvolved, especially for fathers from low-income and ethnically diverse backgrounds.

Even as mounting research highlights the important contributions fathers make to children’s development, fathers are consistently overlooked in the design and delivery of services. It is time to disrupt gendered policies and practices that dominate the field and adopt more inclusive and responsive approaches to working with fathers.

This article provides an overview of how a local fatherhood coalition worked toward doing just that. In the process, it changed the narrative about fathers and supported father engagement in a culturally sustaining way. This is the story of how one community addressed the marginalization of fathers through a collaborative, grassroots effort.

The Fatherhood Coalition
The idea for a fatherhood coalition was born from the work of Children’s Home & Aid’s Parents Care & Share Program (PC&S) in central Illinois. It grew organically as the program began its move toward father-friendliness in 2008 with a national grant from the Circle of Parents Responsible Fatherhood Initiative.

As PC&S attempted to engage more fathers in their parenting groups, evaluation of these efforts actually showed a decline in father participation. Troubled by this outcome, PC&S reached out to the director of Circle of Parents for advice. The director shared that the most successful initiatives involved community collaborations, an insight that planted the seed for a unique approach.

As research on fathers continued to grow, it became clear that any sustainable supports for fathers needed to begin as a community collaboration featuring a diverse group of stakeholders. While the state’s budget crisis slowed the process of initiating a fatherhood coalition, a local grant provided the resources necessary to bring the group to fruition in the fall of 2018.

PC&S used its network of contacts to promote coalition membership, which resulted in representation from nonprofit agencies, school districts, a local university, mentoring programs, and faith communities, as well as local fathers. To date, the coalition includes 71 members, with approximately 20 of those regularly attending meetings that involve small group discussions and large group brainstorming (see World Café Model).

The shared goals of the coalition include bringing the community together around fatherhood needs, discovering existing services, increasing members’ knowledge of and skills in effective father-friendly practices, identifying and developing services based on what fathers desire, supporting attachment and parenting skills, and maintaining a shared vision. These goals were pursued through the following activities.

October 2018: First gathering of the coalition to discuss perceived issues for fathers and group goals. Meetings were held every eight weeks.

February 2019: Initiation of a pilot study to gather information from fathers related to their current engagement with children and barriers to quality engagement. Interviews were conducted from March to September; data were routinely shared and discussed at meetings.

May 2019: Screening of the documentary Resilience for coalition members and fathers.

June 2019: A local lawyer provided a presentation for coalition members and fathers titled “Understanding and Helping Fathers Navigate the Legal System.”

June 2019: A father-child event was held at a local baseball game.

October 2019: Facilitated by fathers, a community conversation for fathers took place at a public library. Anyone who identified as a father was invited to participate in a focus group that explored their fatherhood experiences. A large group discussion of recommendations for the community followed.

Community-Based Research
Understanding fathers was critical to our work. To avoid making assumptions about what fathers might want or need from the community, the coalition designed a community-based study to gather data directly from fathers. A faculty member from the local university was able to facilitate the study and train other coalition members to engage in the research process.

The researchers interviewed fathers from different backgrounds about their current involvement with their children, barriers to quality involvement, and recommendations for the community. As more fathers were recruited for individual interviews, community focus groups were held to listen to the group’s collective voice.

The following categories emerged as the most influential to fathers’ engagement.

The Power of Mothers
Fathers most frequently talked about mothers and their ability to promote or limit their engagement. Mothers were essentially the gatekeepers to children. Fathers who reported weak relationships with mothers struggled to gain access to children or develop a consistent parenting philosophy to keep households compatible.

Gender and Racial Bias
Fathers noted that few services or programs target or explicitly include fathers. Furthermore, nonresidential and divorced fathers reported a noticeable bias in social services and the legal system. They believed mothers were favored in the determination of services and parental rights, which often led to restricted rights and a financial burden as they attempted to navigate different systems. This was especially true for Black males.

Building and Maintaining Attachment
Although fathers felt a general pressure to financially provide for their children, their primary goal was to create a strong and meaningful connection with their offspring. They desired to support their children emotionally and respond sensitively to their needs. Fathers also recognized that their relationships with children changed with each new developmental stage, which was challenging at times.

Self-Improvement and Self-Care
Fathers explained that being an involved father required an inner transformation or self-improvement. They described efforts to maintain sobriety, become less judgmental, increase kindness and sensitivity, find meaning in life, and control their emotions.

Fathers also recognized that ongoing self-care was important. However, they did not feel they were successfully prioritizing their wellness.

Extracurricular Focus
Fathers identified extracurricular activities as the most welcoming and comfortable way to spend time with their children. They valued these opportunities as coaches and leaders or observers. Few fathers discussed involvement with schools or teachers.

More Alike Than Different
Fathers who participated in focus groups realized that, regardless of race, class, or family structure, they had a great deal in common with other fathers. They admitted that, based on social norms, they rarely talked with other fathers about parenting or their children. Fathers found connecting with other fathers beneficial and recognized it would take a support system and vulnerability to reach their parenting goals.

Lessons Learned and Next Steps
The coalition’s work identified short-term and long-term changes that could support fathers and their engagement with children. In the short term, fathers desired support for coparenting, greater personal wellness, building attachment, and opportunities to connect with children and a community of fathers.

In the long term, fathers wanted to see larger societal changes in how they were viewed and to be included in policies, programs, and the community at large.

As the coalition continues to reimagine family services and programs to be more inclusive of fathers and their parenting needs, there are several changes the community has made to support fathers.

• Local groups and organizations are revisiting documents and protocols to identify ways to centralize fathers. This involves reviewing forms used with families, who is invited to meetings, and communicating directly with fathers.

• A full-time position was created for a male staff member to support fathers in the community. The so-called father coordinator is in charge of facilitating a weekly fathers’ group and creating an asset map of community resources for fathers.

• A mothers’ group with a focus on understanding fathers was created. Additionally, the research study now incorporates mothers to learn more about their perspectives on father engagement.

• The Department of Children and Family Services is working to expand father support programs and services that specifically address the needs of fathers by reimagining current practices and policies. Fatherhood coalitions provide a platform for community-driven educational opportunities and programs to support the diversified needs of fathers.

Support for father engagement requires the collective effort of child welfare agencies, family support networks, community organizations, parents, and legislative parties, as well as a shared urgency for change.

The coalition’s work is far from complete, but as it continues to resist the status quo, it’s anticipated there will be community change in the spirit of father engagement. The hope is that these efforts will encourage others to do the same in their communities.

— Kyle Miller, PhD, EdM, an associate professor at Illinois State University, teaches courses related to child development and elementary education with an emphasis on civic engagement and equitable practices. Her research focuses on families, trauma-informed practices, and social justice.

— Dorothy Davis, BA, MS, is regional coordinator for Parents Care and Share (Central Illinois), a cofacilitator for the Fatherhood Coalition, a chairman for the Blue Bow campaign, and facilitator for the Understanding Dads program for mothers.

— Earl Kloppmann, BA, ThM, is the program manager of Children’s Home & Aid’s statewide Parents Care & Share program and Coordinated Intake programs of McLean and DeKalb counties in Illinois.

— Sherry A. Cobbins, BA, MS, is the grant administrator for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, Community-Based Child Abuse Prevention, and Children Justice Act programs.


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