Honoring Fathers by Elevating Their Voices, Leveraging their Strengths, and Embracing their Diversity

June 14, 2021
| Katie Pahigiannis, Pooja Gupta Curtin
A father holding his child

This Father’s Day, OPRE celebrates the unique and invaluable contributions of fathers and father figures to the healthy development of their children, their family’s overall well-being, and the vitality of their neighborhoods and communities. Honoring fathers is not only about what dads have to offer to their families and communities. Strong family relationships, peer networks, and community connections also support the well-being of fathers themselves, their ability to thrive, and their efforts to meet their own goals in life.

Historically, negative narratives have depicted fathers as unable or unwilling to be involved with their families. These inaccurate narratives have often led to fathers being excluded from family supports and services. But research shows that fathers are and want to be more engaged in their children’s lives, despite challenges that can make their involvement difficult (see, e.g.,  OPRE Report 2015-67, OPRE Report 2020-84 (PDF), and this NRFC Data Snapshot (PDF) Visit disclaimer page ). OPRE research is capturing the perspective of fathers, identifying effective ways for fathers to overcome barriers that make engagement with their families and program services difficult, and building evidence to support programs to more effectively, authentically, and intentionally engage fathers and support fathers’ relationships with their families and communities.



Fathers served by human services programs often face difficult life challenges that are the result of systemic or structural barriers, such as low or unstable income, a history of trauma, stigmatization, and racism. These challenges can make it difficult to maintain important life relationships, including with children, and complicate fathers’ efforts to secure and maintain employment. For example, fathers in the Parents and Children Together (PACT) study of four ACF-funded Responsible Fatherhood programs described challenges related to historical poverty and family instability, criminal records, low wages, child support arrears, and housing as barriers to father involvement and support (OPRE Report 2015-67). These challenges can create barriers to program participation and can leave fathers feeling frustrated in their efforts to achieve their hopes and dreams, including meaningful engagement with their children and families. Black fathers in particular face persistent challenges, including historical and ongoing trauma related to racism and systemic injustice, which pose unique barriers to family and child well-being. Learning how to acknowledge and address these specific contexts and challenges can help ACF programs be more equitable, relevant, and impactful.

Across ACF, programs are working to identify ways to support father engagement in program services, and to share positive and accurate narratives around fatherhood and fathers’ involvement in their families and communities. In OPRE, several research projects aim to center fathers’ voices, experiences, and identities, and learn how programs can effectively help fathers realize their goals.

One example is the Fathers and Continuous Learning (FCL) project, which is testing the use of a continuous learning methodology (called the Breakthrough Series Collaborative, or BSC) to increase father and paternal relative engagement in the child welfare system. The child welfare system has not always consistently engaged fathers, acknowledged the critical role they play in their children's social and emotional development and creating a safe and loving environment, or recognized fathers as key partners in the prevention of maltreatment. In response, the FCL project recently concluded a pilot study working collaboratively with six child welfare sites across the country to test father and paternal relative engagement strategies. The next phase of this project is an evaluation to assess whether the use of this methodology and the individual engagement strategies were associated with improved practices and cultures of engaging father and paternal relatives at the participating sites.

One notable and distinguishing feature of this project’s use of the BSC methodology is the ground-up approach involving multi-layer teams that include fathers and paternal relatives. As part of this, agency frontline staff, leadership, and fathers themselves had a voice and role in shaping the work. This also involved extensive peer sharing where sites could share their motivation for this work, the approaches they were testing, challenges they were facing, and lessons they were learning throughout the BSC process. Through this ground-up and inclusive approach, the sites and the faculty coaches (a variety of experts who each worked directly with a site team to support their work) recognized the core need to address longstanding race inequity for men of color involved in the child welfare system. Given the racial disproportionality in the child welfare system (PDF) Visit disclaimer page , they viewed the work to advance race equity as essential to achieving improved engagement of fathers and paternal relatives, and ultimately improve the outcomes for children. The site teams generated a call to action to take concrete steps to pursue transformation in the child welfare system by addressing systemic race inequities. Site teams were encouraged and supported to hold systems accountable for the inequities experienced by Black fathers in the child welfare system.

In addition, the BSC methodology supported the participating sites in their engagement work during the COVID-19 pandemic. This brief highlights how the sites were able to continue or at times enhance their engagement of fathers and paternal relatives and help them overcome challenges they faced during the pandemic.

“The more we talk about it, the more we message the value and importance of dads, that speaks to people. The more we encourage it and discuss it, the more it is on people’s mind to pay attention and focus on. It’s creating a cultural shift.” — Supervisor

“Talking about fathers is part of the conversation now, where it wasn’t always before. Not only am I doing it, but people around me are starting to as well.” — Team manager

“It’s not a question of if you’ve engaged fathers and paternal relatives, it’s have you, and if you haven’t, why haven’t you?” — Frontline staff

This project provides one example of how OPRE’s work can document and share a more positive societal narrative of fatherhood that builds on fathers’ unique values, strengths, and resiliencies; affirms their identity as a father; and honors the racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity of fatherhood and families.

Pooja Curtin is a Social Science Research Analyst whose work focuses on healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood, home visiting, and child welfare.

Katie Pahigiannis is a Senior Social Science Research Analyst whose work focuses on family strengthening and fatherhood research related to Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood and Child Welfare programs.

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