Promoting Fatherhood Where It’s Needed Most

A father and his young teen son.

Research shows that an active fatherly presence can promote children’s social and emotional well-being, academic achievement, and a host of other protective factors. However, for many clients of youth- and family-service providers, that ship has long sailed—fathers are often absent or abusive, or otherwise resistant to therapy and treatment.

In honor of Father’s Day, this issue of NCFY Reports is dedicated to helping bring dads back into the family fold, even when past behavior or circumstances have seemingly made that impossible. The programs and service providers in these articles are a testament to the idea that no paternal bond is unsalvageable when trauma-informed programs help it along. Not every young person can have a positive relationship with their fathers, but these approaches will give many at-risk youth a chance to see if they might. 

Making Home a Safer Place: Community Interventions for Abusive Fathers

For one participant, the breakthrough came when his kids stepped back in fear after admitting they lost a pair of shoes. For another, it took a call to his own father to share his anger over a troubled childhood.

Across North America, communities are implementing interventions for fathers who have abused their children or exposed them to domestic violence. Such programs can help men explore the experiences and emotions that trigger their violence and reflect on how their behavior affects their partners and children.

For programs serving victims of domestic violence, it may seem counterintuitive to seek out programs that work with abusers. But interventions designed for violent or controlling fathers acknowledge the reality that many families stay connected—and even live together—after abuse, says Jacquelyn Boggess, co-director of the Center for Family Policy and Practice in Madison, WI.

“If you really want to help families, you need to know all the kinds of help the family may need,” she says. “Many times, this list includes help for the abusive men in their past, particularly among low-income families of color.”

Breaking the Cycle of Violence

At Advocates for Family Peace in Grand Rapids, MI, John Downing coordinates a 28-week Intervention for Men and Fathers to get them talking about their use of violence. One of the curriculum-based program’s main goals is to help participants expand their definition of masculinity—a shift that often involves examining their relationships with their own dads or father figures.

Abusive caregivers may also set inappropriate expectations for their children because they lack a basic understanding of child development, says Tim Kelly, lead clinical site director of Caring Dads, which has partner organizations throughout North America. One participant explained how his young son ruined his evening by refusing to go to sleep. Kelly helped the dad take a more child-centered view of the situation, explaining the benefits of a consistent bedtime routine and more importantly—a safe, secure environment.

“We try to deconstruct the idea that being a good father means being a controlling father,” he says. “Building an underlying relationship with your child is a necessary piece of the [fatherhood] puzzle.”

Serving Families Safely

Here are some tips for family- and youth-serving agencies considering programs for abusive dads.

Poll the community: Boggess advises anti-domestic violence advocates to contact homeless shelters, neighborhood centers and other service providers to see how fatherhood interventions can help meet local needs. Community outreach allows family violence programs to raise concerns about victim safety, she says, and builds bridges that help agencies tackle violence as a united front.

Talk to victims about what they want: Service providers should also talk to women and children to get a sense of whether they want a continued relationship with an abusive male, Boggess says, and then provide safety plans and recommendations based on their needs.

Use activities to get fathers talking about difficult subjects: Caring Dads dedicates the first few weeks of its program to hearing participants’ stories and helping them complete family diagrams to learn how their families interact. Before facilitating a conversation about masculinity, Downing jots down two lists of characteristics on a chalkboard and asks participants to make snap judgments about each.

Expand participants’ idea of how people respond to violence:  Some men do not consider themselves abusive, Downing says, because their family members do not respond with fear. Fatherhood interventions can help participants understand different reactions to abuse, such as compliance and apathy, and how those reactions may change with time.

Easing the Transition: The Needs of Teen Dads

Sal Hanaif is all too familiar with the frightened looks on many of his program participants’ faces, and the swagger that they use to compensate. As director of the teen fathers program at the Greater Bridgeport Area Prevention Program, he has seen countless young men come in to his weekly discussion groups trying to make sense of a life-altering new role. Not all of them respond heroically.

“One of the guys said that when he found out he was going to be a father, he was going to leave the state,” Hanaif says. “He was flipped out, then his boys brought him in.”

A supportive environment and a heavy dose of reality helped that young man cope and eventually thrive despite difficult circumstances. Hanaif, like other youth workers who serve teen dads, says that successful counseling for this population is a matter of helping them overcome their fears and lack of role models, and developing solid goals. We asked them to name teen fathers’ greatest needs and their approaches to meeting them:

A Place to Be, and Become, Themselves

Vincente Escovedo is a case manager for Southwest Key Programs’ Responsible Fatherhood initiative. A onetime teen father himself, Escovedo grew up in a violent neighborhood where “manliness” meant being physically dominant and sexually promiscuous, and he says his clients exhibit that same “false machismo.” He says that most confused, scared young fathers need a break from that pressure.

In one of his classes, the young men made tortillas from scratch. “We kneaded the dough and talked about play, how it’s okay to act like a kid every now and again, especially with your own kids. And we talk about traditions, how when we learn something and carry that on, that’s our legacy. It gets them thinking, ‘What am I going to leave for my kids?’ Tortillas are something you learned and you can pass it to your kids now.”

Encouragement to Stay in School

John Mock counsels teen fathers for the Janesville, WI public school system. He says that most new fathers-to-be react to the news by planning to drop out and find a job, an understandable impulse that nevertheless won’t help their child in the long run.

“Work is important, it’s good to have an income, but we want them to get in line with bigger picture stuff, like finishing up school,” says Mock. “They need to be more focused about what the future looks like,” and a high school diploma is an important step towards continued employment and advancement.

“Most 16-year-old men haven’t been taught to do a job interview, they don’t know how to tie a tie or even own a belt,” agrees Hanaif, from the Greater Bridgeport Area Prevention Program. “Dropping out of school with no resume, no ability to talk about himself, he doesn’t get the job. Now he’s missed 3 or 4 months of school. So he’s going to do neighborhood stuff, like selling drugs. Our most important thing is finishing high school, or going to a two-year college or trade school.”

Positive Examples of Fatherhood

Often the biggest challenge to helping teen dads is their inexperience around fatherhood itself. “Many teen fathers are fatherless themselves,” says Mock. “We have to show them how a father behaves and treats their child. They usually haven’t learned that at home.” He connects his young men with local fatherhood programs and mentoring organizations so they can find older men they respect and can emulate.

Escovedo, from Southwest Key Programs, says that counselors should be exemplary themselves. “You have to show them what a real man does,” says Escovedo. “First, a man respects himself. Sleeping around means there’s a void somewhere. Teenagers also think no one understands or cares about them. So they have to understand that they are important to somebody. I try to show them that I’m a man, and I respect them, I care about them. They see, this person shows up every week to class. He dresses nice, he smells nice. It helps them realize they can be that way too.”


Healing Through Forgiveness: How to Reconnect Runaway and Homeless Youth With Their Fathers

At Youth Shelters, an agency that serves homeless, runaway, at-risk, and street youth in northern New Mexico, about 80 percent of the residents of the transitional living program have no relationship with their fathers, and many don’t want to start one.

“A lot are from immigrant families, and their family members may have gone back to Mexico,” says Program Director Spring LePak. “For some, their fathers are in prison, absent, or the youth may not know who their fathers are.”

This speaks to the difficulty in getting runaway, homeless, and at-risk young people to reconnect with their fathers. But by creating safe and casual opportunities for engagement, youth-serving agencies can overcome some of these obstacles.

“Our goal is to help them develop natural supports and positive adult relationships where they can,” says LePak.  “It is part of the healing process for them to learn to forgive and learn that their dad is human.”

Chances to Talk

When youth do want to contact their fathers, Youth Shelters’ counselors discuss what needs to happen to repair the broken relationship. The youth may send letters or begin a dialogue over the phone. Youth workers help prepare them for what it will be like to reintegrate into the family and teach them positive coping skills for when the meetings occur.

In June 2014, Youth Shelters partnered with Santa-Fe-based Reel Fathers, an organization that has held Dads and Kids Movie Nights for the last six years. It’s a chance for parents and kids to watch a fatherhood-themed movie together, then participate in creative activities and a group discussion to explore issues raised by the film.

Youth Shelters and Reel Fathers recently co-launched a similar initiative, Campfire Movie Nights, which serves Youth Shelters’ Transitional Living Program.

It gives the youth the opportunity to explore painful issues in their history in a safe and supportive environment,” says Reel Fathers Executive Director Deborah Boldt. “They talk about what they saw in the film that had meaning. It gives them a way to talk about things that are very difficult to talk about.”

 “It’s a stereotype that men don’t talk or don’t want to communicate,” says Reel Fathers Founder and President Allan Shedlin. “My experience is the absolute opposite. Within a minute they are immediately talking about themselves and their situation.”

Low-Pressure is Best

The Reel Fathers approach highlights another important lesson: you have to create low-pressure situations for getting young people to connect with their fathers. Jonathan Monsalve, Director of New York City’s Midtown Community Court Fatherhood and Workforce Development Program, said most of the time the fathers do want relationships with their children, but they don’t know how to reconnect.

“We hear, ‘I wish I could help, but I don’t know how,’” Monsalve says. “They may say something like, ‘I don’t want my son to go down the path I did, but I don’t know how to reach him.’”

To facilitate meaningful father/child relationships, the Fatherhood Program at Midtown Community Court collects donations to buy tickets to pro-family events like sports games. They also work with the New York City Public Library to record fathers reading a book and send those recordings to their kids.

“Anything to jumpstart the relationship or start a conversation,” Monsalve said. “Whatever the reason may be that they haven’t had a relationship, we help them understand that there is still time to forge a connection.”

Reel Fathers Brings Kids and Dads Together With Movies and Poetry

Manuel Gonzalez celebrates the ninth-grade poets.
Manuel Gonzalez, poet mentor and national slam poet award-winner, describes the 9th grade students' process during the community performance that concluded Reel Fathers’ poetry intensive, “The Father Question." The program title was derived from students' study of "The Odyssey." Photo by Don Usner.

Reel Fathers in Sante Fe, NM, uses movies, poetry and group conversations to bring children and their fathers closer. In this slideshow we highlight two recent events. The first is the final performance from The Father Question, a two-week poetry-writing seminar in which 280 ninth-graders were asked to write about what the word “father” means to them. The second event is a movie night during which fathers and children watch a film and discuss its themes with other attendees.

Read more about Reel Fathers’ Dads and Kids Movie Nights in the most recent issue of NCFY Reports