Add the Dad

Published in the Spring 2009 issue of SSA Magazine

Fatherhood initiatives are exploring how to bring more men into family social services

-Gordon Mayer

Walk into the waiting room of a family or child development social service agency and you're likely to see a lot more women than men. Mostly that's because there are more single moms trying to raise their kids alone. But in some cases, it can also be because men feel uncomfortable in the environment.

But SSA Assistant Professor Jennifer Bellamy says efforts begun more than a decade ago to support employment and help ensure men pay child support are blossoming into a variety of programs that involve fathers and other male father figures in children's lives. "Somewhere in the mid- to late-1990s, we saw a little bit of a surge in these programs specifically being developed to support fathers," she says.

After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin, Bellamy provided evaluation and technical support to practitioners involved with the Texas Fragile Families Initiative, one of 11 statewide programs supported by multiple national and local funders, including the Ford Foundation, to help support male caregivers across the state. "Finding a concrete intervention is a good way to get dads involved," she says. Job-search support, for example, can help fathers and other male\ caregivers who want to fulfill a "breadwinner" role. Some successful programs include incentives to fathers, such as the ability to bring home diapers as a reward for participation. Another approach is to provide pragmatic activities—for example, practicing how to change a diaper on a football.

"It's not that dads don't want to be involved in caring for their children," says Gardner Wiseheart, director of programs and services at Healthy Families San Angelo, one of the programs Bellamy worked with. But they don't often barge in to an agency, and we don't often ask hem in."

The benefits of fatherhood involvement accrue to both the male caregiver and the family. For example, getting involved in a family program may not be many young dads' first impulse when they learn a partner is pregnant, Bellamy says, "but when they are pulled into these programs it can help them to shift their point of view. Finding ways to feel as though they are making a positive contribution to their families and the child is an encouraging and stabilizing force in their lives."

The Centers for Disease Control recently issued a call for new research documenting the rigor and value of fatherhood involvement. "Ten years from now I think this will be more common," Wiseheart says. "We've learned a lot about the barriers to working with fathers and we've also learned some good things about how to work with them more successfully."