Coparenting and Healthy Relationship and Marriage Education for Dads (CHaRMED): Results from a Qualitative Study of Staff and Participant Experiences in Nine Fatherhood Programs

Publication Date: December 17, 2021
CHaRMED Results from a Qualitative Study Cover

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  • Published: 2021

Introduction

Research Questions

  1. Better understand the approaches that fatherhood programs use to support fathers’ healthy coparenting and romantic relationships.
  2. Explore fathers’ perceptions of and needs around relationship programming.
  3. Examine whether and how programs respond to those needs.

Fathers, children, and their families benefit from healthy coparenting and romantic relationships. Healthy relationships can improve fathers’ mental health and the quality of their involvement with their children, and can support positive health and developmental outcomes for children. In accordance with legislation authorizing Responsible Fatherhood (RF) programming, the Office of Family Assistance (OFA) within the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) requires relationship education and activities to promote or sustain marriage as part of their Responsible Fatherhood (RF) grant programs. RF programs aim to improve relationship skills such as communication, conflict resolution, and problem solving to support fathers’ coparenting and romantic relationships.

Research that explores the design of select federally funded fatherhood programs suggests variation in the design and delivery of healthy relationship content. Further, it is not clear whether or how this content is responsive to fathers’ diverse relationship contexts or the needs of fathers and their families. Gaining a better understanding of how fatherhood programs design and deliver coparenting and romantic relationship services, as well as how fathers perceive and engage in those services, can help ensure that these programs are better equipped to support fathers’ healthy relationships.

Purpose

The purpose of this report is to inform both ACF and the broader fatherhood practice and research fields about the ways in which fatherhood programs support, or could better support, fathers’ healthy coparenting and romantic relationships. First, we introduce the CHaRMED study goals and methodology. Next, we explore six key themes that emerged from interviews conducted with program staff, fathers, and coparents across nine programs. Finally, we offer considerations for fatherhood program practitioners and researchers moving forward.

Key Findings and Highlights

  • Fatherhood programs support healthy relationships through multiple services and strategies. These approaches include curriculum-based workshops, one-on-one support, referrals to supplemental services, and coparent and family engagement in workshops and in other activities outside of the program. During the COVID-19 pandemic, programs have adapted by using multiple virtual approaches, which may be integrated into their models moving forward.
  • Fathers engage in healthy relationship content once they feel connected to the program. While most fathers are not drawn initially to fatherhood programs because of a desire to improve their coparenting or romantic relationships, they ultimately found value in healthy relationship content. Staff stressed that establishing this connection with fathers can require intensive intake efforts and engagement up front to gain fathers’ trust and create excitement about the fatherhood program as a whole.
  • Safe group spaces invite discussions around healthy relationships. Fathers spoke of the “brotherhood” that forms with others in their cohort. Staff play a critical role in creating a safe space that allows for honest discussions and peer learning around relationships.
  • Staff and participants view healthy relationship content as relevant and useful for fathers’ coparenting relationships. Staff described a tendency for discussions about healthy relationships during workshops and one-on-one engagement to focus more on coparenting than on romantic relationships, often due to greater challenges faced by fathers in their coparenting relationships than in their romantic relationships. Many fathers reported learning skills that they use to address these challenges.
  • Meaningful engagement of coparents in relationship programming is seen as beneficial, but with important tradeoffs and logistical challenges. For fathers and staff, there is a distinct tension between the value of coparent involvement in fatherhood programming and the need to respect a fathers-only space. Programs also reported challenges to successfully engaging coparents in programming, particularly when coparents and fathers were no longer in romantic relationships.
  • Fathers see access to children as a key challenge in their lives, which is complicated by challenging coparenting relationships and by legal and social systems. Some fathers described contentious coparenting relationships and legal and social systems as important factors that influence their ability to see their children and maintain relationships with them.

Methods

The CHaRMED project team conducted a qualitative study with nine fatherhood programs across the United States. The study consisted of semi-structured telephone interviews with fatherhood program staff (n= 24), participating fathers (n= 36), and coparents of participating fathers (n= 6). The interviews assessed fathers’ and program staff’s perceptions of coparenting and romantic relationship services, fathers’ engagement in the services, and perspectives on how fatherhood programs support, or could better support, the needs of fathers and their families. Interviews were transcribed and coded for emerging themes. Interviews were supplemented by a review of program curricula to determine the focus, goals, duration, and target audiences for relationship-related program content.

Citation

Vazzano, Andrea, Samantha Ciaravino, Mindy E. Scott, April Wilson, Lisa Kim, Isabel Griffith, Huda Tauseef, Sydney Briggs, Michael Bradley, Victor St. John, Anushree Bhatia, and Heather Wasik (2021). Coparenting and Healthy Relationship and Marriage Education for Dads (CHaRMED): Results from a qualitative study of staff and participant experiences in nine fatherhood programs, OPRE Report #2021- 196, Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.