Note: This version corrects an error from the printed issue pertaining to the Dads Make a Difference program.
In New York, helping men become better fathers sometimes means helping them get back their driver’s licenses.
In Georgia, it means contracting with technical colleges across the state to help men launch new careers.
In Baltimore, it means teaching the fathers and mothers to work as a team – even if they’ve split up.
Ronald Mincy and others lament the decline in funding for fatherhood programs.
Photo: N.Y. Office of Temporary Assistance
Helping men become better fathers has gotten more complex than ever. That’s because fatherhood initiatives have grown beyond just collecting child support from noncustodial dads, to providing myriad services like parenting skills, GED attainment and job training. And that has required building networks of service providers within communities and even across states.
Those changes can be traced at least to the 1990s, when several foundations, including the Ford, Charles Stewart Mott and Annie E. Casey foundations, funded efforts to study the plight of struggling fathers and focus on helping to stabilize them.
Roland Warren, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, also credits the U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement for changing its mindset toward funding such efforts. “For many years, they didn’t have the perspective that their role was to connect fathers to families, so much as it was to connect wallets to kids,” he says. “That’s a sea change.”
The change was prompted in part by financial concerns: As efforts grew to establish the paternity of children and collect child support, so did the amount of money that noncustodial fathers owe. The U.S. Office of Child Support puts the aggregate arrears figure at $107 billion, says Karin Martinson, senior research associate at the Urban Institute.
Many of the fathers can’t afford to pay, and “that’s led to these more service-oriented strategies,” Martinson says.
Warren of the National Fatherhood Initiative notes that fatherhood programs help reduce those child support arrears. The programs are “not just an added expense, but an investment against a $100 billion cost,” he says.
Growth and Cutbacks
Programs have networked with partners throughout their communities to help these dads overcome parenting obstacles – which typically include little or no income, child support debts, criminal records, housing instability, poor educations and strained relationships with their children’s mothers. Most ambitious of all are probably New York and Georgia, which have tried to replicate such networks statewide.
A behind-the-scenes obstacle is that many of these men had no meaningful relationships with their own fathers. “Their knowledge of manhood is kind of distorted and shaped by what they get from the street,” says Joe Jones, whose Center for Urban Families runs a fathering program in Baltimore.
One of the most important services is still the most basic: bringing men together in a way that they’ve never gathered before. “This is where these guys develop bonds with other guys in the same situation,” says Jeffrey Johnson, president of the National Partnership for Community Leadership, which trains organizations to set up fathering programs. “They get to hear other guys’ experiences and come together around challenges they have. … How many outlets, particularly for guys who don’t go to college, are there for guys to talk about their situation?”
However, programs are doing this against a shrinking funding pool. The federal funds that began flowing into the field after welfare reform passed in 1996 have declined significantly, says Ronald B. Mincy, who championed holistic fatherhood programs as a program officer at Ford in the early 1990s.
That has led to some contraction in fatherhood programs and less interaction among them. Warren says foundations are not as involved as before, either. “A lot of the fatherhood programs are struggling around funding, trying to figure out how to sustain their work,” he says.
Some fatherhood programs are partially funded through the federal Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood Initiative (appropriated at $150 million a year), which was the subject of an analysis released last month by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Among other things, the report said that although the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) uses site visits and progress reports to monitor the grantees, “it lacks mechanisms to identify and target grantees that are not in compliance with grant requirements or are not meeting performance goals.” HHS says it is correcting the problems. (See Report Roundup, page 28.)
The GAO said high schoolers account for about 45 percent of those served through Healthy Marriage grants, whose programs tend to focus on marriage and relationships, while Responsible Fatherhood-funded programs more often serve incarcerated parents and focus more on parenting skills.
These and other issues were discussed in a webinar in March, “Dads in the Mix: The Future of Fatherhood Initiatives,” sponsored by the Chapin Hall Center for Children and the National Governors Association. The presentations and recording can be found at http://www.chapinhall.org; click “Conferences” and scroll to “Governing for Children and Families.”
Fatherhood Programs Mature