Reaching Fathers

News Type
SSA Magazine (Archive)


Research has repeatedly shown that children benefit in many ways from having engaged, supportive fathers. Yet social service programs primarily serve women and children–why are fathers so rarely part of the equation?

The complex answers to that question are the basis of this issue’s Conversation between Assistant Professor Jennifer Bellamy and Ricardo Estrada, A.M. ’93, the president and CEO of human services agency Metropolitan Family Services (MFS), which serves more than 53,000 people annually in and around Chicago with programs that range from job training to mental health services.

Bellamy is currently working with Estrada’s agency on a study of strategies she’s designed for evidence-based parenting interventions. The goal is to engage fathers in existing MFS programs that help new, at-risk parents limit maltreatment and increase good parenting practices. She will measure how well the agency can deliver strategies aimed at fathers and whether the dads participate in and are engaged by the programs.

Bellamy is one of only a handful of researchers who has studied fathering among families served by child welfare and family support programs, and she has published extensively in the area of evidence-based social work practice. Estrada has two decades of leadership experience in social services/human services, including serving as the first deputy commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services and as executive director of Erie Neighborhood House in Chicago.

Estrada: Maybe I could start by outlining why we think fathers’ involvement is important. From our perspective—from my board and staff’s perspective—we have bought into the notion that fathers play a critical role in the life of a child, whether they are living in a two-parent household or not. The active involvement of a father figure makes the difference in a variety of different life areas for a child: academically, socially, in maturity and more.

Second, we fundamentally believe that the fathering role and the man’s role is harder for a male to understand these days. If you are talking immigrants coming into the country, there is clear indications that employers would rather hire the woman than the man at the lower levels of employment. And so their role—the traditional hunter/gatherer and supposedly head of the family—is in this gray zone now. And we think that is one of the causes of domestic violence and self-medication with alcohol or drugs, because they are feeling helpless and that their partner has the stronger role now in society.

Bellamy: I think you well articulated the major points of the research, which basically validates what practitioners have known for a long time. A positive father or father figure makes a difference for kids’ outcomes, over and beyond the good things mothers can potentially provide. And also, if you have a mom who is struggling with issues like substance abuse or mental health problems, studies show that dads can be a protective factor for the kids.

Another interesting thing that I think the research reflects: You were saying father or father-figure. It doesn’t really seem to matter, the biological, legal or residential status of the relationship between the child and father or father-figure. What matters is that he is playing a strong, positive, supportive role. So it can be grandpa, it can be an adoptive father, it can be an older brother, in some cases mom’s new husband or boy-friend.

Oftentimes I hear people say that when the father or the father figure is around, he is not doing much, and if he is doing something it’s negative. Some of my earlier research, though, demonstrated that even in high-risk populations—[in this case] families involved with child welfare—most fathers have positive things to contribute to their partners and to their children. There is a segment of fathers that poses risks of domestic violence or maltreatment, but that is actually the smaller number.

Estrada: We want to see our programs grow based on your work and other research and best practices. So how would you push our thinking based on what you have seen from our staff and the relationships you are beginning to build with them?

Bellamy: I keep coming back to this sort of simple, but not so simple, idea of inviting fathers to the table. Taking that small step makes such a huge difference. I have been involved with father issues since 2000, first as a practitioner when I was working with a multisite study across the state of Texas.

We were trying to engage young, low-income unmarried fathers into a parenting program that was based on case management and peer support groups.

In the Texas project I did staff training, which would be mostly women, who traditionally served moms and babies and who had not really thought about dads or were even intimidated about working with dads. We wouldn’t hear negative comments about fathers from the home visitor staff. But we would hear things like, “Gosh, I do not know what is going on with the dad in this family,” or, “I don’t think he will be interested; I don’t think I am going to ask him.” You know, making assumptions.

This could have some benefit to your agency, getting people a little bit more comfortable working with dads. It’s part of a project that I have worked on with Dean [Neil] Guterman, helping a staff shift fathers to part of that family systems perspective on par with mom, or at least a step closer to that.

Estrada: That’s good. And we are working to be an organization that is friendly and welcoming to fathers. For the previous four years, for instance, our “Day with Dad” has been a big fundraiser for us and an opportunity to bring dads, almost exclusively from the South Side, to a White Sox baseball game.

This year when U.S. Cellular donated tickets and box seats again, we gave the dads a box, and one of the dads threw the first pitch. He knew I had thrown the first pitch another year, so we started talking. Afterward he went up in the box and his kids were all smiling, and mom was there and she was beaming and saying how great this was. And our staff was there to witness it and think about developing a relationship with these dads.

We want to build off that kind of momentum to develop our fathering programs with that same kind of attitude, that energy of being inclusive, respectful, don’t assume anything.

Bellamy: I think that is so neat to put fathers in the forefront, give them opportunities to be “the star.” One thing that I have heard from dads over and over again is that they do feel like second class citizens in their families sometimes. Mom gets to decide what is going on with the kids; she is driving things.

In a study that Karen [Scott, a pediatrician at Mercy Hospital] and I are working on, new dads talk about when they go to doctor appointments with moms. They are really excited to be a dad for the first time, and then they go into the exam room and they are asked to wait outside or there is no chair for them—these subtle messages that they are really not that welcome. When I was working on the Texas project, I saw agency waiting rooms painted pink with pictures of moms and babies and breasts. The feminine energy is striking.

But I think before I got into this work I would have walked in and just thought, well we are in a family clinic so it is going to be mommy stuff. Service providers are predominately women, from the leadership all the way through the person at the front desk, and programs have predominately women and children as clients.

Estrada: In every organization I have been at, the great majority of people are women. And I think there is blind spot.

Bellamy: I completely agree. I have thought a lot about the institutionalization of the issues, how organizations and programs have for so long focused on women and children that they do not really even see that there is a blind spot.

We used to send folks to the parking lots of our agencies as a recruiting strategy because the guys would be sitting in the cars listening to the radio while mom was inside at the program. It is hard to blame them, right? Because you walk in and it is all women. And so I think we have to think about opening people’s eyes to that and some of these structural obstacles.

Estrada: When I say I’m at Metropolitan Family Services with a 156-year legacy, and we provide social services from legal aid to parenting to childcare, most of the room is paying attention. Then when I say we have a young fathers program, the ears of men in the room perk up. Because they know the importance of a dad in their life or the lack of a dad in their life.

Bellamy: At SSA, those of us on the  faculty who do father work—myself, Waldo [E. Johnson, Jr.], Dean Neil Guterman—probably talk about fathers a lot. But in many social work classes, you do not hear a lot about fathers and you do not hear a lot about men.

Estrada: Except when they were absentee fathers.

Bellamy: Right, the child-support or juvenile justice systems—the more punishing service systems, adversarial systems—we are talking about men. When we are talking about supportive services, child and family programs, we are talking about women. So I try to point some of these things out in my classes.

Because I think you are right. When you start really talking with people about these issues and you help them touch base with their experience around fathering, whether good or bad, then I think it resonates in the work: “Yeah, we have not been thinking about dads. What about them?”

Estrada: When I came to Metropolitan Family Services, I introduced myself to the board by essentially saying, “Look you have my bio, but let me tell you who I am. My name is Ricardo Estrada and was raised on the Southwest Side of the city, and I am the son of Arturo and Elia Estrada.” At the end I said, “I think the only difference between me and many of my colleagues and peers in my neighborhood was the fact that I had a tremendous mother and a father who was present and proud of his job.”

As a kid I remember we always felt pretty good about that situation, and as I continued to grow I realized that made all the difference. We didn’t have any more money than anyone else. In fact, we had less. But what I said to the board is I am the families we are serving. I am the kids we are serving. I understand their experience living in what now they call a garden apartments. We called them basements when I grew up.

So that was my introduction. And what the women heard was: tough life, great that he got out, and he could be a great leader at this organization because he is compassionate. But the guys heard there was a father involved in his life. They connected with that.

And so I am so encouraged by your work and Waldo’s and Neil Guterman’s.

Bellamy: It is amazing actually at SSA that we have this critical mass. I have done a lot of mining of existing research and pilot work to try to get a sense of where we have empirical evidence in terms of what works for bringing fathers into parenting intervention and Child and Family Services in general: What we know, what we do not know.

And it is almost wide open. People have developed what I think of as a laundry list of potential strategies that could work to bring fathers into parenting, and we do lots and lots of demonstration projects. The quality of research is such that it is very hard to make any conclusion about the efficacy of any of these strategies.

And people say, “This parent training is evidenced-based because it has had two randomized controlled trials that show good outcomes, all the research boxes are checked off.” Then I say, “Well how many dads were in those programs when you ran those RCTs?” Um, none, one, two, out of hundreds of participants. So maybe it is evidenced for moms, but it sure as heck is not evidence-based for dads.

[My research focuses on] evidence-based practice and father work, and I really like having these two areas because I think I can bring those two pieces together and be critical of some of my colleagues who say they have been doing parenting research, when really they have been doing mommy research.

At SSA, we were trying to think who else in the country—forget just the social work schools, but you know include psychologists and everyone else—has a critical mass of father-focused researches and we could not think of a single place. So the three of us make up a really unusual group of researchers. And add in some people from Chapin Hall down the street who are also interested in fathers, and Deborah Gorman-Smith has done some father research.  

Estrada: Right. I was just thinking about Melissa Roderick, all the work she is doing for the high schools and whether some of that includes the role of fathers in secondary school success. I do not know if anybody has done that.

Bellamy: I have not had a conversation with Melissa specifically around that, so that is a really good question. It would be really interesting to hear what she thinks. Fathers intersect with every system, and so when we are talking about education, when we are talking about kids transitioning to independent living in child welfare, we all should be thinking about fathers.

Estrada: That’s true. When I was in charge of a child welfare program, we had group homes. Most of our staff were men, so they ended up taking these roles and it was clear, again without any research base, that they made a tremendous impact during the time that those kids were with us.

And then we saw what happened when those kids went back to their communities or to foster homes. It was just a tough thing to see them going from the support of trained people in our very protective context and essentially doing everything from eating holiday meals with them to being with them 24/7, to then taking them back to their homes.

Bellamy: Right, when those environments have not changed to be more supportive.

Estrada: And there are no men there [at the other social service programs]. When I was at SSA, I was the only Latino in my class. And there were a small percentage of other men. A very small percentage. I never saw more than five. And that would be on the high end, I mean in the entire three cohorts.

Bellamy: And SSA does better than many other schools [in attracting male students] because of the focus on policy administration and I think the name that it has. When I got my masters at UT, Austin, there were two men in the entire program.

It is a huge problem and, again speaking from the Texas experience, we really wanted to find more males to hire, to bring some of that balance to the staff. We ended up hiring former school teachers, men coming our of other disciplines and professions. Sometimes as a second career, where they were like, “Well, I made my money already, now I can do this.”

It is makes it tough to find those guys if you are a fathering program and you want more male staff. It is a challenge all the way through. I think pay has something to do with it. I think perceptions about the type of work that is done by a social worker and who social workers are—some of these traditions, stereotypes, stigmas, institutions and things like that.

Estrada: Yeah, I agree with everything you said. I would only add that I am hopeful that in the next generation we are going to see more young men think about this field and other fields like psychology.

Clearly this has been a meaningful career for me. There are people out there when they ask, what do you do? And I say, “Well, I work at a big nonprofit human service organization.” And they say, “Is that a full-time job?” So there is still a lack of understanding about our career, our profession, our sector.

But I was at a trustees conference for the board at another university where I serve, and they presented data that was clear that kids today are volunteering in much greater numbers than in any other generation in the past and they are much more willing to think about meaningful employment post-college. And if that is true, than the likelihood that they pick a career or a profession like social worker is better.