By James Murray, Senior Advisor, OCSE
Nashville, Tennessee was buzzing with energy June 4 when more than 600 participants gathered with one focus in mind— engaging fathers to improve outcomes for children and families. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families (ACF) hosted the historic fatherhood Summit to support the concept that fathers are essential to the healthy social, emotional, and economic well-being of their children and families. The theme, Fanning the Fatherhood FIRE, increased attention to fathers as Family-focused, Interconnected, Resilient, and Essential contributors to their children, families, communities and society.
ACF has two goals when it comes to father engagement across human service programs: 1) to build a national culture that embraces the essential role that fathers play in society; 2) advance systems and practices to minimize barriers fathers have to overcome to receive inclusive and effective family services. And we’re not alone in achieving these goals. At the summit, we saw firsthand leaders from various sectors including federal, state, and local governments, social service agencies, non-government organizations and philanthropic organizations also share the same goals. Business and community leaders, fatherhood practitioners, health and human service professionals, academics, researchers, parents, and other stakeholders were on hand, and on the same accord to lend their voices to the Nashville discussion.
Child support was one of the hottest topics discussed as a challenge to help fathers navigate through programs to become more involved parents. In panel discussions and breakout sessions alike, many people described how fathers who were unemployed or underemployed could not make their full monthly child support payments, which could lead to growing debt and other legal challenges that make it hard for fathers to move forward to self-sufficiency. Those challenges could also include building and maintaining positive co-parenting relationships with their child’s mother. If fathers don’t get to see their children and the co-parenting relationship isn’t good, they may hesitate to become fully involved in their child’s life over time.
The great news is that the Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) has plenty of examples of positive, highly effective collaborations between child support agencies and responsible fatherhood programs. These programs help fathers overcome barriers that may prevent them from paying child support and being fully engaged in their child’s life.
One of the challenges we continue to find is that a lot of people outside of child support field don’t know these programs exist. During the conference, ACF had federal, state, county and tribal child support professionals on-hand to help dispel myths about the child support program. We also provided resources to better support noncustodial fathers with responsible fatherhood-related programs and services. These programs includes job training opportunities, responsible parenting and father engagement resources. Staff from Georgia and Tennessee presented a session with OCSE to highlight the state-level fatherhood programs their child support offices initiated. Other states like Ohio, Missouri, South Carolina, North Carolina, Minnesota and Maryland also provided amazing examples child support/responsible fatherhood partnerships.
The summit was our first step in fanning the fatherhood FIRE. It will take a concentrated effort through the child support program to keep it burning. If you have an effective human services partnership that others could learn from, we would love to help you tell your story. If you have an idea to help innovate child support services in your state or county or on your tribal reservation, contact the OCSE Communications team to let us know about it.
At the start of the summit, participants were asking for ways to help fathers overcome the challenges of complying with child support obligations. By the time it ended, many of those same people told me that they were glad to learn what child support is doing across the country.
For more fatherhood resources, visit the OCSE Fatherhood webpage.
This article was originally published in the OCSE July 2019 Child Support Report newsletter.