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Recognizing the importance of fathers to their families, as well as the difficulties that many low-income fathers face supporting their children, the federal government has supported responsible fatherhood (RF) programs for more than a decade. However, many questions remain about how to best serve fathers and their families. The Office of Family Assistance (OFA) and the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation (OPRE), both within the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), are committed to building the evidence base to strengthen healthy marriage (HM) and RF programming. To systematically identify current gaps in the knowledge base for HMRF programming, ACF undertook the Fatherhood, Relationships, and Marriage – Illuminating the Next Generation of Research (FRAMING Research) project.
On July 23, 2019, ACF convened the first meeting of the FRAMING Research RF technical work group. The group included RF practitioners and researchers. This brief describes the meeting, which focused on three topics: (1) measuring the effects of RF programs on child well-being; (2) improving fathers’ engagement with their children through RF programs; and (3) increasing participation rates in RF programs. These topics emerged from the project team’s review of relevant literature and discussions with ACF about agency priorities. The day concluded with technical work group members participating in a brainstorming session on RF research priorities.
Key Findings and Highlights
- Measuring the effect of RF programs on child well-being. A central motivation for federally funded RF programming is to increase fathers’ support of and engagement with their children and, by doing so, improve their children’s well-being. The TWG members’ key points were:
- Researchers must be attentive to whether the measures of father involvement they use are appropriate for the population they are studying.
- Some father involvement measures do not account for potential gatekeeping by mothers.
- Researchers should consider direct measures of the quality of the father–child relationship, not only the amount of time fathers spend with their children.
- Urban fathers often focus on teaching their children how to safely navigate potentially violent environments. This guidance is not captured in research.
- Researchers should aim to look at a broad set of child well-being measures but be careful not to overburden fathers and their families with data collection efforts.
- Improving fathers’ engagement with their children through RF programs. RF programs can enhance father engagement, but effects to date were generally modest. The TWG members conclusions included the following:
- Access to children is a major issue for nonresident fathers and an impediment to programs’ effectiveness in improving parenting skills.
- Fathers alone often cannot solve co-parenting issues, but working with mothers can bring its own set of challenges for programs.
- Emphasizing fathers’ non-economic contributions to their families could help keep fathers engaged in program services and their children’s lives.
- Approaches to improve RF programs must be culturally appropriate.
- Increasing participation rates in RF programs. For RF programs to be effective, participants must have substantial exposure to them. But participation is a challenge for many programs. TWG members highlighted the following:
- The foundation for engaging fathers is appropriate content and staff who understand participants’ life experiences.
- Programs require an adaptable structure to meet the needs of the fathers they serve.
- By emphasizing that change can take time, programs can reduce the risk that fathers will become discouraged and withdraw from the program.
- Including children in RF programs can be a powerful motivator for fathers to attend.
- Regular participation is not always realistic, as many fathers face substantial challenges that interfere with program attendance.
- Linking incentives to employment opportunities might increase program participation.
- Future RF research priorities. TWG members identified 10 priorities for future work, which included:
- Capitalize on qualitative research to identify promising strategies to improve programs’ instruction.
- Understand program components.
- Use fathers’ perception of program benefits to improve participation and services.
Avellar, Sarah, Heather Gordon, and Robert G. Wood. “Highlights from the FRAMING Research Project’s Responsible Fatherhood Technical Work Group.” OPRE Report Number 2020-86. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2020.