Academic journal article Social Work

Social Work and Fathers: Child Support and Fathering Programs

Academic journal article Social Work

Social Work and Fathers: Child Support and Fathering Programs

Article excerpt

At the turn of the 21st century, fatherhood has become the focus of increasing public concern. The marked increase in female-headed households and changing gender norms helped push fatherhood to the center of public discussion (Marsiglio, 1995). The federal government has responded to and catalyzed this issue, most directly in the form of social policies and programs designed to influence men's parenting. The landmark welfare reform legislation, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) (P.L. 104-193), contains significant revisions in child support policy. Rapid growth in the number of social services programs working with fathers has accompanied these policy reforms (Bernard, 1999).

These developments hold substantial implications for professional social work, given its longstanding concern with the economic and psychosocial hardships that affect many female-headed households. This article introduces social workers to these policy and practice initiatives. Through a critical review of research and descriptive programmatic material, this article considers the implications of these policies and practice interventions for child and family well-being. I argue that interventions do not always serve the best interest of children and families and that male parenting interventions demand the attention of the profession's critical eye.

Fatherhood Today

Scholars attribute public concern with fatherhood to the contemporary instability of gender relations in the United States (Furstenberg, 1988; Lupton & Barclay, 1997; Marsiglio, 1995). The feminist and gay rights movements, women's growing financial independence, and the erosion of working-class men's economic security have all challenged historical patterns of male dominance and traditional nuclear family structures (Lupton & Barclay). Many contend that these cultural and economic shifts have had a twofold and somewhat paradoxical impact on fatherhood. Furstenberg called this the "good dad--bad dad" phenomenon. On the one hand, some men have taken on traditionally female roles, and evidence suggests increased paternal participation in child rearing among dual-parent families (Lamb, 1997; Parke, 1996). On the other hand, some men have disengaged from family life altogether, and the number of female-headed households has risen steadily throughout the 20th century (Lamb; Lupton & Barclay; Parke).

Data reveal that one of four U.S. children lives in a single-parent home-88 percent of which are headed by women (U.S. Census Bureau, 1996). Given the precarious economic status of female-headed households, the supposed low level of male involvement in such homes, evidence of compromised developmental outcomes for children from these families, and their challenge to traditional norms, female-headed households have become a central arena for public debate (McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994). The media portrays nonresident fathers as "deadbeat dads" who are both financially and emotionally neglectful of their children.

Both political liberals and conservatives understand men's absence from the lives of children as inherently problematic. Organized groups on the right and the left advocate government and social service interventions and grassroots and community-based approaches to address "fatherlessness" (Blankenhorn, 1995; Horn & Bush, 1997; Levine & Pitt, 1995). These somewhat divergent constituencies find common ground in the notion of "responsible fatherhood." The concept of responsible fatherhood demands men's financial and emotional commitment to their families and suggests that children are in great need of their fathers. However, empirical research does not unilaterally support this conclusion.

Rather, social science findings provide a cautioned response to public concern over paternal absence. Children who grow up in female-headed households are at greater risk of school failure, teenage pregnancy, and a weaker attachment to the labor force than children raised in dual-parent homes (Duncan & Brooks-Gunn, 1997; McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994). …

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