Fathers play an important role in children’s lives, but they are often overlooked by programs and services that are designed to help children and families. Government agencies, nonprofits, and researchers are increasingly interested in learning about effective strategies for engaging fathers, because research suggests that children do better when their fathers play a meaningful part in their lives. Fathers’ involvement can help improve children’s emotional adjustment, their school completion rates, and their mental health as adults. When fathers are involved with their children, research suggests that the mother and father benefit also.
In partnership with the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Mathematica has been gathering information on what works to engage fathers across a wide range of human services programs, with the goal of helping fathers and families thrive. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many of the typical ways organizations support fathers and their families, but it has also given them the motivation to be creative, adapt, and experiment with digital services that have certain advantages over traditional in-person services when it comes to helping fathers achieve their goals.
On this episode of On the Evidence, guests John Ward, Sean Wilson, Richard Barr, Kirk Berry, and Rebekah Selekman discuss COVID-19’s implications for delivering fatherhood engagement services during and after the pandemic.
- Ward is a father who shares his experience working with a local nonprofit, Father to Father, in Charleston, South Carolina.
- Wilson is an intervention specialist at Father to Father who worked with Ward.
- Barr is the vice president of strategic and organizational development at the South Carolina Center for Fathers and Families, a statewide nonprofit that operates six local fatherhood organizations, including Father to Father.
- Berry is an expert on responsible fatherhood programs at Public Strategies, a public policy research and consulting firm.
- Selekman is a researcher at Mathematica who leads the KEEP Fathers Engaged project with ASPE.
Listen to the full episode.
[PREVIEW CLIP WITH JOHN WARD]
I always knew when I became a father, I wanted to be a permanent fixture in my child's life. So, to see other people who have went through similar things that I went through and they're still striving to do better, it kind of put, put like a battery in your back to be motivated to do the same.
I’m J.B. Wogan from Mathematica and welcome back to On the Evidence, a show that examines what we know about today’s most urgent challenges and how we can make progress in addressing them.
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On this episode of On the Evidence, we’re going to talk about father engagement in programs and social services. We know fathers play an important role in their children’s lives and that most fathers want to be involved with their kids. But in the past, government and nonprofit programs that serve families were typically designed with women and children in mind. Too often, these programs actually presented barriers to participation for fathers.
So, on this episode, we’re going to talk about programs and organizations that seek to break through these barriers to improve their engagement with fathers. In particular, we’re going to take a look at how fatherhood organizations and programs have pivoted to continue their mission during the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ll be focusing specifically on strategies that engage and support fathers who live in separate households from one or more of their kids, which, according to one estimate, is how nearly a quarter of fathers in the United States live.
Research suggests that children do better when their fathers play a meaningful part in their lives. Father involvement can help improve children’s emotional adjustment, their school completion rates, and their mental health as adults. And fathers’ involvement with their kids is also related to improved outcomes for mothers and the fathers themselves.
While many social services systems have historically excluded fathers, we’re now seeing more government agencies, nonprofits, and researchers explore effective strategies that embrace fathers’ desire to be more involved with their children – although we still have a long way to go.
In partnership with ASPE, and that stands for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at the U.S. Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Mathematica has been gathering information on what works in engaging fathers across a wide range of human services programs, with the goal of helping fathers and families thrive. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many of the typical ways organizations support fathers and their families, but it’s also provided motivation to be creative, adapt, and experiment with digital services that have certain advantages in helping fathers meet their goals over traditional in-person services.
On this episode, you’ll hear from experts who study or run programs that engage fathers, and from a father who receives services and supports from one of these programs. Because we’re recording in the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re also going to talk about this new world of social distancing, videoconferencing, and remote services. Some of these adaptations might continue in some form even when in-person services can resume.
We’re going to start with John Ward, a father who lives in the suburbs of Charleston, South Carolina. John has a two-year-old daughter named Riley. In the spring of 2020, he started working with Father to Father, a local area nonprofit that provides free classes, coaching, and legal support to help fathers be a positive and consistent presence in their children’s lives.
Basically, I was in the middle of starting to try to get visitation with my daughter, and I really didn't have too many funds to pay for legal fees, being that that particular time, I was battling cancer. I didn't have the economic backing to actually start going to court and things like that.
One of John’s friends recommended Father to Father, which rang a bell for John because he knew people who interned there while he was a student at the College of Charleston.
But I looked it up and I'll say during that whole duration of me being sick, it probably was the easiest help I got. Like I was trying to get on disability because when I was running low on money that I had saved. I needed to pay for bills. I had my daughter who needed things. I had bills inside the house. So, I really didn't have, you know, enough money to actually go to court. So that's when I looked up Father to Father and they were super helpful from the beginning. I remember when I did the initial application, somebody reached out to me within, I think it was either 24 or 48 hours.
With the Father to Father’s help, he was able to see Riley again. But his participation in the program had other benefits as well. Through free, 24-week fatherhood program, which included one-on-one coaching, John learned more about maintaining healthy relationships, co-parenting, and enhancing his employability.
So I think the biggest thing that I took away from the program was knowing that it's okay not to be, you know, a quote unquote, perfect father, as long as you're working towards being better every day.
John says he also drew inspiration from the peer group sessions, where fathers share frustrations and build a support network.
I feel that like when you actually get in a room full of other men, you know, coming from all walks of life, and to see that we're all going through similar circumstances, but taking that initiative to still be in your children's life, to still, you know, fight, you know, just cause everybody like, I know me, personally, I didn't grow up with my father in the home. So with me not growing up with my father in the home, and not seeing him on the regular, I always knew when I became a father, I wanted to be a permanent fixture in my child's life.
So, to see other people who have went through similar things that I went through and they're still striving to do better, it kind of put, put like a battery in your back to be motivated to do the same. So if you ever get deterred or you feeling down about your situation and then you see somebody else going through something similar and they're keep going and you're like, man, I gotta keep going too. You know? So that interaction with other fathers is very helpful and very inspiring.
John says Father to Father gave him tools to attack problems differently and learn how to compromise with Riley’s mother.
It just helped me to like, try to communicate with her mother better. And that in turn resulted in me being able to spend more time with my daughter at certain times. You know, we still have, you know, friction and stuff, but I'm now working on to be a better person for myself, which in turn helps that relationship as well.
Father to Father is but one example of a local organization offering father engagement services. As I mentioned at the top, Mathematica is studying organizations like Father to Father to better understand different approaches to engaging fathers and what makes those approaches most effective. And while much of Mathematica’s initial research on father engagement took place before the pandemic, the takeaways are pretty evergreen; they were true before the pandemic and they’ll still be relevant in the post-COVID future.
It’s worth pausing for a second here to explain what exactly I mean when I say father engagement, because the phrase can mean different things based on the context. Here’s Rebekah Selekman, a researcher at Mathematica, to explain how she and her team are applying the term in their work for the U.S. Department of Health and Humans Services.
We're defining father engagement as a purposeful inclusion of fathers and program services, specifically with the goal of improving outcomes for fathers, children, and families. And when we talk about engaging in program services, these services don't have to be father specific, though they often are, such as responsible fatherhood programming or other fatherhood specific programs.
But fathers can also be engaged in services that are directed to children and the mothers of their children, such as engagement in the child's school activities or attending prenatal appointments with mothers.
Rebekah recently spoke about Mathematica’s research on father engagement at a webinar hosted by the American Public Human Services Association, better known by the acronym APHSA. Some of the clips in this podcast come from remarks she and others gave at the webinar, which was APHSA’s March installment of its Third Thursday Virtual Mini-Series. APHSA was kind enough to let us use audio from that event.
Over the past year, Mathematica has studied how programs across different fields, like child welfare, child support, fatherhood, early childhood education, and health and nutrition have engaged fathers in programming. Mathematica and ASPE recently published case studies that provide detailed information on their specific approaches, including the creative use of partnerships to reach dads in different contexts.
Rebekah says that organizations and programs that weren’t originally designed with fathers in mind can still find ways to engage with fathers.
In one program that we studied that was focused on maternal and child health, there's a fatherhood component to that program and they found that fathers were actually just sitting outside in the parking lot, waiting for the mothers and children to return. And so, that program sent their staff to the parking lot to go speak with fathers. So they didn't wait for the fathers to come in. They went out to where the fathers were.
Speaking of going out where the fathers are, Rebekah says that the programs Mathematica studied found that it helps to send recruiters out into the community because some fathers don’t trust the social service system and are reluctant to visit the program offices. In terms of who those recruiters are, Rebekah says, it helps to leverage male staff.
Hiring male staff, generally, can make fathers feel more comfortable with a program and this doesn’t have to necessarily be direct service staff, but even male staff that sit at the front desk so when you come in you see somebody who looks like you in the office can really help make fathers feel more comfortable, and build trust, and increase willingness to engage with that program.
While father engagement strategies can take many forms depending on the population being served, the location, and other factors, Rebekah says her team found that programs tend to take a similar approach in how they motivate fathers.
The programs focus a lot more on the commonalities of fathers rather than differences in father experiences. So while there is, there are definitely participation challenges that fathers in certain systems with certain backgrounds might experience and another father doesn't, and those need to be addressed appropriately, the programs preferred to think about, the objective is that most dads want to be good dads and let's focus on that rather than what makes them different.
While organizations continued to rely on father engagement strategies highlighted in those Mathematica case studies I mentioned before, the COVID-19 pandemic forced those organizations to radically change the way they do business.
Sean Wilson, a lead intervention specialist at Father to Father, remembers when in-person services were suspended in the spring of 2020. Staff were navigating a new era of uncertainty in lockstep with their participants. One small example? Intervention specialists like him typically have a standard list of frequently asked questions that they’re prepared to answer when onboarding a new dad.
And now we're at a position where we don't even know the questions that are on that list because it's like we're starting from a different place. So this is kind of where we find ourselves and where we had to first identify what was the participants’ fear, what were they going through that they needed help with? But along with participant fears, we, the organization as a whole, we also had questions. Don't term them fears because we didn't have fears, but we definitely had questions on how we would be able to provide support to these fathers’ changing needs. How will we provide support to address their fears? You know, how will COVID-19 affect our ability to serve them in court?
You know, in one of our counties here in Charleston, South Carolina, our court system, as far as rules, through the family court system, has not been open since March of last year. So that's a big change for those who are, you know, when we have regularly scheduled court dates and being able to go directly in front of a judge, a lot of those things change. And then we have our big, one of our big questions was how do we keep our participants both engaged and safe at the same time? So those are some of the fears and the questions that we had.
In a matter of weeks, the population characteristics of fathers being served by father engagement programs changed, says Kirk Berry, an expert on responsible fatherhood programs at Public Strategies, a public policy research and consulting firm. Before the pandemic, Kirk says many programs provided in-person workshops, and so the only fathers who could participate were the ones who had the ability to come in-person at the appointed time.
He had to be available. And if he wasn't available during those specific timeframes, if your program was in the evening one night a week, if he worked that one night a week, he might not be able to participate. So schedule availability was something that was really a huge characteristic pre-pandemic because the services of programs were pretty rigid, or they were at the same time, happening at the same place, always, and it meant that a father had to physically be there.
As the world shifted to virtual services, some things became more convenient for fathers. In some respects, access actually improved, Kirk says. We’ll talk more about the upside of pandemic adaptions in a second, but I want to note that a remote services environment came with challenges as well. Here’s Kirk again.
Fathers had to be tech savvy. They had to have access to technology and they needed to know how to use technology. And that was really important, because if a father didn't have it or know how to use it, it's hard for him to participate in a fatherhood program. And that was something that we learned really quickly. And a lot of people heard about it on the news related to our school and education system. But if you were servicing fathers, this was happening in your program that you need to find a way to connect dads to learning these workshops and participating.
Father engagement services didn’t stop during the pandemic, but they did have to evolve. For example, in March of 2020, the South Carolina Center for Fathers and Families, a statewide nonprofit that operates six local fatherhood organizations, stopped active recruitment of new participants. At the time, the center’s network of local fatherhood groups was serving nearly a thousand fathers, says Richard Barr, the center’s vice president of strategic and organizational development.
So we said, let's really alleviate recruitment because we still have to protect the people that are actually working in our offices while not exposing more people to the possibility of being virally infected. Then we decided to repurpose resources. So once we alleviated recruitment, what resources that we have that we need to repurpose? We have emergency funds. How does that need to be repurposed? We have money for food. How does that need to be repurposed? You know, how do we need to adjust our technological advances? Then we assessed participant needs. But we couldn't do that in a bubble. We literally got out there and said, what is it that you need and what can we do for you now in fatherhood to make sure we meet that need?
The center and its local partners narrowed their focus on strengthening case management for fathers who were already enrolled in programming and helping them finish components of the fatherhood curriculum. Richard describes the change in strategy as “serving keepers deeper.”
Let’s focus on getting people to the end, across the finish line, component completion. If we got somebody out there who has been involved with us, but not necessarily as strong as they should have been, let's re-enroll or re-engage that person, cause he's already here, and since we're serving keepers, let's get more involved with that guy who may have been on the fringes, but now we can get him deeper in.
Father to Father in Charleston is one of the six local organizations that adopted the model of serving keepers deeper. That wasn’t the only change the group made though. It started offering fathers weekly peer group sessions on Zoom. With children no longer receiving meals at school, and fathers no longer having access to meals during in-person fatherhood program sessions, food insecurity became a major concern for both fathers and their families. To account for that need, the organization made free groceries available for pick-up every week. It also gave fathers access WiFi in the parking lot and the printers in the office so that children could print schoolwork.
Because fathers frequently needed legal assistance, the organization arranged for a local attorney to provide one-on-one legal counsel sessions, pro bono. The group loaned equipment to fathers who needed to participate in virtual court hearings. And it helped fathers cover legal filing fees.
In the summer, they also arranged for a drive-in movie theater night, so that fathers could still have a structured activity with their children.
Although Father to Father has always included components of employability and economic mobility, Sean Wilson says the organization looked for ways to turn this once-in-a-lifetime crisis into an opportunity to develop fathers’ human capital.
We wanted to use this opportunity during this pandemic, where a lot of people are slowing down, to use this as a time to educate and grow, so that when, we know that one day the pandemic is going to be over. So we want to make sure that our fathers are in a position that when it's over, they're going to be able to go back into the workforce and whatever, and they're going to be a lot more ready and, you know, they're going to be on another level.
For example, a local technical college in Charleston was offering an online course for $99 that teaches 180 skills. Father to Father covered the cost of the course for fathers who were interested. A local program that helps people earn their GED partnered with Father to Father to let dads take the curriculum online. Normally, that program required in-person attendance, so this was an example of something positive that came out of pandemic-related disruptions. Earning a GED actually became more convenient for dads during the pandemic.
For all of the economic hardship, the learning loss, the illness, and death that have come from COVID-19, the pandemic has forced some adaptations that have been positive for fathers and their children. For example, Richard Barr says that the strategy in South Carolina, of focusing on fathers who were already enrolled in programming, is here to stay because it has been so effective.
Our outcomes actually were stronger because we were not actively recruiting. And the people that we had, we were able to take deeper dives with those who we were already serving. And I can tell you that they actually appreciated it.
The expanded use of digital services is also likely to stay. Father to Father started offering virtual orientations on its website and on Facebook because it couldn’t offer in-person convenings. But Sean Wilson, the lead intervention specialist at Father to Father, says the virtual option has value even when in-person orientations are safe to resume. Here’s Sean again.
Before, even before the pandemic, a lot of times some fathers were a little hesitant to come. They will say they will kind of know they need the services, but they were kind of afraid to come into the building. So now we say, Hey, just jump on every Thursday at 10:30, here's the meeting ID, you can come and you can hear about our program. You don't even have to leave the comfort of your home. And so now we're looking at that, Hey, even when this pandemic is over, this is going to create a wonderful opportunity because we can even do this virtual orientation even in the evening hours. So those who may be working nine to five, we do this at 7:00 PM. We're going to actually meet a new audience that we never expected to be able to meet with this virtual orientation.
Kirk Berry at Public Strategies says that convenience of being able to participate in virtual programming without needing to commute somewhere means that fathers don’t have to choose between valuable fatherhood activities and other commitments.
Previously, before the pandemic, if a father was participating in many activities, sometimes he couldn't attend your program because, or a program, because he had to see a PO officer, or maybe he had to go to drug and alcohol treatment. Maybe he had to do community service. And all of these things were conflicting. Post-pandemic, a father could attend virtual learning and participate in a program, but he could also meet his requirements or all other activities, because he didn't have to leave his physical location. It'd be a phone call check-in or it could be a virtual learning experience, and it usually was a shorter period of time because the time to get somewhere, come back and meet with someone in person took up a lot of a father's day.
One could certainly imagine that something might be lost shifting from in-person to virtual services. For his part though, John Ward, the dad I spoke to at the top of this episode, says he felt like the transition to online peer group sessions at Father to Father was pretty smooth.
To be honest with you, the Zoom meetings are just as helpful as group. You know, a lot of times, us as men, we don't have the space to actually say how we're feeling, you know, talk about things that are bothering us. And that's something that Father to Father provides that I'm really grateful for. It gave us the floor and the space to actually say how we’re feeling and for you to have support from people who are going through similar things as you.
Thanks for listening to On the Evidence, the Mathematica podcast. This episode was made possible with support from The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
I also want to say thanks again to APHSA, the American Public Human Services Association, for allowing us to use clips from its Third Thursday Virtual Mini-Series, a new monthly webinar series that showcases best practices and lessons learned in human services during the pandemic. The clips you heard from Kirk Berry, Sean Wilson, Richard Barr, and Rebekah Selekman all came from a March virtual session on lessons from the field on engaging fathers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The full 90-minute recording is available at APHSA Third Thursday dot com.
On the episode page, I’ll provide links where listeners can learn more about Mathematica’s ongoing work with The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation to understand the key elements and strategies that allow for the effective engagement of fathers in human services programs.
As always, you can keep up with the latest episodes of On the Evidence by subscribing wherever you get podcasts. Another way to stay up-to-date with the podcast is by following us on Twitter. I’m at JBWogan. Mathematica is at MathematicaNow.
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Learn more about the partnership between ASPE and Mathematica to identify the strategies human services programs use to engage fathers.
Some of the clips from this episode come from a webinar hosted by the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA). We thank APHSA for allowing us to use clips from its Third Thursday Virtual Mini-Series.