Journal Issue: Fragile Families Volume 20 Number 2 Fall 2010
A father's involvement in his children's lives depends on a number of circumstances, the most obvious of which is legal status. In relation to the child's mother, a father may be married, separated, divorced, or never married (with paternity established or not), and each category makes a difference to both opportunities and motivation to be involved with his child.36 In relation to the child, a father can be a biological parent, step-parent, adoptive parent, or de facto father with no legal status. His involvement with the child may also vary depending on whether he is living with the child's mother, in a romantic relationship with the mother, or living with the child. Research on father involvement suggests that demographic characteristics like race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and sex of the child also make a difference.37 Researchers and service providers as yet have no systematic information about father- involvement interventions for men in each of these categories, so there is little to guide them except some common-sense hypotheses about the extent to which interventions designed to enhance father involvement need to be tailored differently to fit men in each of these family circumstances. Our own hypothesis is that traditional interventions for fathers who are actively trying to communicate and cooperate with the child's mother are worth trying, but that a different approach would have to be created for men who have, for example, been violent with the mother or estranged from her for a long while. Tables 3 and 4 list and describe the characteristics and outcomes of father-involvement programs that have been evaluated.
Interventions for Fathers in Low-Income Fragile Families
Unlike interventions for couples, which were designed for middle-class couples, interventions to encourage father involvement were initially intended for unmarried noncustodial fathers, a large share of whom were African American or Hispanic. Father-involvement programs in low-income families, however, have evolved significantly. The original programs were directed at men long separated from their children and were largely focused on increasing child support through job skills training. The next phase of programs, which were more successful at affecting multiple realms of fathers' involvement, provided ongoing intensive groups for fathers and focused on family relationships. A more recent program has targeted couples and has encompassed all five domains of family life in which risk and protective factors affect the quality of their interactions with their children; this program has shown promising effects.
As table 3 shows, the Young Unwed Fathers Project provided job training for young fathers separated from their families and attempted to persuade men to acknowledge paternity as a way to heighten their motivation for making child support payments.38 The Partners for Fragile Families project recruited men who were no longer in a relationship with the mothers but were still in contact with them.39 Using group meetings and individual mentoring, both projects tried to help men make connections with social support institutions that would buttress their fatherhood roles. Neither program produced measurable gains in fathers' direct involvement with their children, although Partners for Fragile Families did produce some increases in child support payments.
The Parents' Fair Share intervention was the first study of father involvement to use a random-assignment design to assign participants to intervention and control conditions.40 It included case managers, peer-support sessions using a structured curriculum led by trained facilitators, employment training in the form of job-search assistance, and an administrative intervention that temporarily lowered child support orders. It also offered fathers the option of participating in mediation services with the child's mother. The program documented some successes: fathers in the program increased the amount of child support they paid, whereas fathers in the control group did not. Other modest benefits were shown by the least advantaged, least involved men: participants in the program group showed increased earnings and increased hands-on involvement with their children. Program evaluators also drew two important qualitative conclusions. First, despite negative stereotypes about low-income noncustodial fathers physically separated from their children for long periods, roughly one-third of the control fathers who had been separated from their children for more than three years saw them at least once a week and contributed financially to their support, although not always as much as required by the support order. Second, including the custodial mothers in a father-involvement intervention is essential, a point to which we return.
More recent attempts to foster unmarried men's involvement with their children have used ongoing groups to focus on family relationships. The Prebirth Co-Parenting program41 randomly assigned men to a five-session group program modeled on the Minnesota Early Learning Design (MELD) approach42 or to a control group consisting of a five-session prenatal class emphasizing birth preparation. The MELD program emphasized the development of supportive co-parenting and the importance of fathers becoming involved with their infants. All the couples were unmarried, and about half the fathers were cohabiting with the mothers. Compared with the fathers in the control prenatal classes, the young fathers in the Prebirth Co-Parenting intervention showed stronger co-parenting behavior with the mother and greater involvement with their infants, according to assessments by both fathers and mothers.
The Fathers and Sons Intervention was developed from principles based on a review of research on risk factors in the target population—African American biological, nonresident fathers and their eight- to twelve-year-old sons.43 Participants in the intervention groups were compared before and immediately after the intervention with fathers and sons in a nonrandom comparison group from a nearby community. The intervention groups showed positive effects on a number of identified risk and protective factors—parental monitoring, communication about sex, fathers' intentions to communicate, race-related socialization practices, and fathers' satisfaction with their parenting skills.44 The findings were among the strongest we have seen for nonresident fathers. Significantly, the intervention was one of the longest-lasting (forty-five hours) in our survey of intervention programs.
Married and Divorced Fathers in Middle-Income Families
Father-involvement interventions for middle- and high-income families, created in university settings rather than social agency settings, emerged later than those for low-income families, and many fewer are described in the research literature. Not surprisingly, the interventions for middle-class fathers were focused not on enhancing men's social capital, but rather on dealing directly with family relationships. We exclude "parenting programs" from this review because most have not been evaluated and because even when they encourage fathers to participate, they are for the most part attended only by mothers. For example, a recent issue of the Future of Children describes many interventions for parents who maltreat their children, but none of the interventions directly addresses either couple relationships or father involvement.45
Dads for Life was directed primarily to middle-income divorced men.46 The eight-session curriculum, administered by clinically trained leaders and attended by fathers, was focused heavily on a cognitive-behavioral approach to managing men's anger and helping them to reduce conflict with their children and ex-wives. The program had positive effects on the quality of divorced fathers' relationships with their children and ex-wives—outcomes that could perhaps have had benefits for the children, but the study did not assess such benefits.
Although the intended goal of all the interventions was to increase father involvement, two programs included both parents. The Marriage Moments program tested the effect of adding videos and workbooks to a post-birth home-visiting program in hopes of increasing both marital quality and men's involvement in the care of their infants.47 Mothers reported increases in men's involvement, but the program did not produce the desired increase in the couple's satisfaction with their own relationship. The authors suggested that a group format rather than a couple-by-couple at-home format might have had stronger effects on both the couple and father-child relationships.
The Parenting Together program used couples groups with a focus on involving fathers more positively and directly in their children's lives.48 Couples were randomly offered participation in a second-trimester home visit and four group meetings before and four after the birth of a first child, or a no-treatment condition. At five months postpartum, participation in couples groups produced a positive effect on fathers' self-worth and on emotional support, intrusiveness, and dyadic synchrony with their infants (Parenting Together was one of the few studies to use observations of parent-child interaction). Fathers in the couples groups were more directly involved with their infants after they came home from work than fathers in the control condition.
A New Couples Group Approach to Father Involvement
A new study attempts to pull together the intervention strands we have been describing, with a combination of couple-relationship and father-involvement interventions for both married and unmarried couples. The Supporting Father Involvement (SFI) project recruited 300 primarily low-income couples with babies or young children from four California counties.49 Approximately two-thirds of the couples were married and one-third were unmarried (fragile families).
Based on two earlier interventions for middle-income couples (Becoming a Family, Schoolchildren and Their Families), the study had two unique design features. First, it compared the effect of a fathers group that met weekly for sixteen weeks and was led by clinically trained co-leaders, with a sixteen-week couples group with the same curriculum and leaders. Both interventions were compared with a control condition consisting of a single informational meeting in which the staff leaders discussed the importance of fathers to their children's development. One-third of the families were white and two-thirds were Latino (primarily Mexican American). A second design feature was that, unlike interventions for middle-income families, each family in both the intervention groups and in the control group was also offered a case manager to follow up and refer the family for additional services as needed.
The positive impact of the Supporting Father Involvement intervention could be seen in several family domains. Although mothers and fathers in the control group evaluated the single meeting very positively, the data showed no positive effects at follow-up. In fact, for most, family life was getting worse over an eighteen-month assessment period. Relation-ship satisfaction and father involvement declined, and parents described more problem behaviors on the part of their children over time. By contrast, men in the sixteen-week fathers groups became significantly more involved in care of their youngest child. In addition, neither the fathers nor the mothers described a significant increase in their children's problematic behavior over the eighteen months of the study. Even so, as with the parents in the control condition, the relationship satisfaction of parents in the fathers groups declined significantly over time. By contrast, parents in the sixteen-week couples groups also reported increased father involvement and no increase in the problematic behaviors in their children, but they also reported additional benefits: in contrast to both control and fathers group participants, their relationship quality and satisfaction as a couple remained stable over eighteen months, and their parenting stress declined.
In sum, in the SFI study, both fathers and couples group intervention formats improved fathers' involvement with their children, but the couples groups had added benefits for maintaining couple-relationship quality and reducing parenting stress. All of these changes, as noted, represent effects on family risk factors that are associated with negative outcomes for children. In the context of fragile families, the study produced two notable additional findings: the intervention effects were not significantly different for couples who were married or unmarried when they entered the study, and the effects did not differ by race or ethnicity. That is, a format that involves either couples or fathers working with clinically trained co-leaders can benefit both white and nonwhite fragile families with positive effects on mothers, fathers, and their children. Some qualitative comments from the participants and group leaders (see box 2) convey a little of what happened in the groups to produce the positive outcomes described by the quantitative data. A second trial of the SFI intervention for African Americans, primarily fragile families, is in progress now. Preliminary data reveal similar positive effects.
We are not suggesting that psychological interventions for fathers and couples are sufficient to produce widespread changes in father involvement. Barriers to father involvement are pervasive and often are not under the control of the participants or the intervenors. Elsewhere, the developers of the SFI intervention describe how men are struggling against culturally supported gender role stereotypes, government child support programs, workplace policies, the lack of father-friendliness in family service agencies, and the continuing tendency of social science researchers to include only mothers in family studies.50 Without significant change in these social institutions, family-based interventions to support father involvement will find it difficult to move forward.