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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Engagement of fathers in the child welfare system

  • Author(s): Hernandez, Julia
  • Advisor(s): Berrick, Jill D
  • et al.

The child welfare system is designed to protect children from harm and to reduce the risk of future harm by supporting families. However, the manner in which the system currently addresses child maltreatment by primary caregivers may not be sufficiently robust as current research suggests that important members of the family – fathers – may not be fully engaged as agents of change in preventing or responding to maltreatment. Evidence suggests that, until recently, fathers were largely overlooked in child welfare. This is beginning to change as child welfare researchers and practitioners are paying increasing attention to fathers and the role that they do and can play in child welfare cases and case outcomes.

In the past decade, child welfare researchers have begun to explore the engagement of fathers, the factors that contribute to a lack of engagement, and the effects of engaging fathers. This literature asserts that fathers are routinely not engaged by the child welfare system, negatively affecting their children, and suggests that caseworker bias against fathers is largely to blame for this problem. However, the extant literature takes a broad-brush approach to fathers with child welfare-involved children, painting them as a homogenous group and father engagement as invariably beneficial for children. Furthermore, the literature has yet to enumerate how many fathers are represented in child welfare cases at any given time, how many fathers are eligible (i.e. not restricted by factors such as incarceration) for engagement in their children’s cases, or among eligible fathers, how many are not being engaged.

Through a review of case records for 507 children from 359 families who entered out-of-home care in one urban county for the first time between October 1, 2013 and September 30, 2015, this mixed method exploratory study re-examines father engagement with a more nuanced lens. Data from the case record review was linked with administrative data to: 1) examine the extent and nature of father engagement in an urban county’s child welfare system; 2) compare levels of father engagement to those of mother engagement; and 3) examine the association, if any, between father engagement and case outcomes.

In this study father engagement is conceptualized as a gradient that encompasses the various points throughout the beginning of a child welfare case during which a father may be included. The gradient begins with attempting to identify fathers and concludes with considering fathers as a potential placement for their children. The gradient is progressive such that each of the later stages cannot occur without the earlier stages.

In aggregate, the 359 families included 420 fathers, most of whom were alleged fathers (75%). A majority of all fathers were identified (95%) located (75%), and contacted (63%). When considering only fathers who were contacted, as these are the fathers who can be engaged in the later stages of the gradient, over half of fathers were offered visitation (58%), offered services (56%), included in the case plan (54%), and considered as a potential placement for their children (53%).

Fathers varied in their eligibility for engagement such that 35% of fathers were found to be ineligible for engagement, largely due to a failure to establish presumed father status. Among fathers eligible for engagement, 90% were found to be eligible for full engagement and 10% for restricted engagement. Fathers eligible for engagement were more likely than ineligible fathers to be resident fathers and to have perpetrated the maltreatment that brought the family to the agency’s attention than fathers ineligible for engagement.

Among fathers who were eligible for full engagement, 40% were not offered services, included in the case plan, or considered as a potential placement. Among these, half were fathers on cases that were being dismissed or that were being transferred to family maintenance. Another quarter were fathers whose whereabouts were unknown.

In comparing father engagement to that of mothers, significant differences were found. On average, mothers had higher rates of engagement than fathers did. However, this difference was attributable to parent’s criminal justice involvement, status as the perpetrator of the maltreatment, and residence in the same home as the child and not to type of parent (i.e. mother vs. father).

In terms of the relationship between levels of father engagement and case outcomes, on average, higher levels of father engagement were associated with decreased case length. However, this difference was attributable to child’s type of primary placement and type of permanency outcome, such that when controlling for these variables, level of father engagement is no longer significantly associated with case length. Increased levels of father engagement were, however, associated with increased likelihood of reunification over adoption or remaining in care but not with likelihood of reunification in comparison to legal guardianship.

This study has multiple implications for research, practice, and policy. In research, there is a need for increased specificity around which populations are being studied, as fathers do not represent a homogenous group. Future studies should consider eligibility for engagement and control for factors, namely incarceration and residence in the same home as the child, that are predictive of levels of engagement. Future studies should also further examine the association between levels of engagement and case outcomes and explore best practices for engaging fathers. Turning to practice and policy, there is a need to re-examine policies around paternity and to work to align the various federal, state, and county policies relating to defining and establishing paternity. There is also a need to explore the ways in which the child welfare system can facilitate the continued engagement of parents while they are incarcerated. Lastly, the findings suggest that there is much nuance to consider when making decisions about if, when, and how to engage fathers, nuance that until now has largely been overlooked.

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