What About the Dads?
Child Welfare Agencies Efforts to Identify, Locate, and Involve Nonresident
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This study documents that nonresident fathers of children in foster care
are not often involved in case planning efforts and nearly half are never
contacted by the child welfare agency during their child's stay in foster
care. By not reaching out to fathers, caseworkers may overlook potential
social connections and resources that could help to achieve permanency for
Most foster children are not living with their fathers at the time they are
removed from their homes. Once in foster care, these children may experience
even less contact with their nonresident fathers. However, few studies have
examined nonresident fathers as placement resources for their children and
there is no previous research about child-father visitation or research on
the effects of involving nonresident fathers in the lives of children being
served by child welfare agencies.
Engaging the fathers of children in foster care is important not only for
the potential benefit of a child-father relationship (when such a relationship
does not pose a risk to the child's safety or well-being), but also for making
placement and permanency decisions and gaining access to resources for the
child. Permanency may be expedited by placing children with their nonresident
fathers or paternal kin, or through early relinquishment or termination of
the father's paternal rights. Fathers and paternal relatives may also offer
social or financial resources that could support a plan of reunification
with the mother. And through engaging fathers, agencies may learn important
medical information, or that the child is the recipient of certain benefits,
such as health insurance, survivor benefits, or child support.
This research summary highlights the results of a study that sought to determine
the extent to which child welfare agencies are seeking nonresident fathers
and involving them in their children's case management and permanency planning.
The study also examined the potential utility of expanding the use of child
support enforcement data sources in these efforts. The study consisted of
three methods of data collection interviews with child welfare
administrators, case-level data collection through interviews with caseworkers,
and data linkage between child welfare and child support systems
in four study states: Arizona, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Tennessee.
A total of 1,222 local agency caseworkers were interviewed by phone about
1,958 specific cases between October 2004 and February 2005 to examine front-line
practices related to nonresident fathers. Interviewers achieved an 83% response
rate to the survey. Cases were selected from among children who had been
in foster care at least 3 months but no more than 36 months. Children in
the sample were all in foster care for the first time, and the child welfare
agency's records indicated that each of the children's biological fathers
was alive but not living in the home from which the child was removed.
Additionally, only one child per mother was eligible for the study. The results
of this study provide empirical evidence on the steps that child welfare
agencies currently take to identify, locate and involve nonresident fathers
in case planning; the barriers encountered; and the policies and practices
that affect involvement.
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Most fathers are identified in the child's case file. Over two-thirds
of nonresident fathers (68%) of children in the study were identified at
the time of case opening and another 20% had been identified by the time
the caseworker was interviewed (that is, at minimum, the father's full name
appeared in the case file). In the one-third of cases in which the father
was not identified at case opening, the child's mother often was unwilling
or unable to provide identifying information. Figure 1
summarizes the timing of caseworkers' identification of fathers in the study
Timing of Father Identification
Paternity establishment lags behind identification. Paternity had
not yet been established for over one-third of the children (37%), including
many whose fathers had been identified. For the two-thirds of cases in which
paternity was established, caseworkers reported that a variety of methods
were used to do so. In 42% of these cases the caseworker had determined that
the father's name appeared on the child's birth certificate; for 24% genetic
testing had confirmed paternity; 16% of fathers had signed voluntary paternity
acknowledgements; and in 18% of cases the caseworker reported that paternity
was established through other means or that they did not know how paternity
had been established. Unless paternity has been established, a named father
is not legally related to the child and cannot participate in court proceedings
about the child.
Fathers identified early are more likely to be involved in the case.
Administrators reported that caseworkers begin trying to identify a child's
father during the child protection investigation. However, most administrators
thought efforts were stronger and more successful early in a case but after
the investigation. Case level findings suggest that nonresident fathers not
identified early are much less likely to have contact with the agency. In
cases where the father's identity and location was known at case opening,
80% had been contacted by the child welfare agency. In contrast, if the father's
identity was determined after the child had been in foster care for 30 days,
only 13% had been contacted successfully. Figure 2 shows
contact rates for fathers identified at different points during the case.
Likelihood of Contact with Fathers Identified at Different Points
Caseworkers reported having at least one contact with 55% of nonresident
fathers. Contacts may have been by phone, in person, or by mail. Of the remaining
fathers, 12% had not been identified, and for 33% either the father had not
been located, or contact was not successful despite location information.
One in five fathers whose identity and location were known at case opening
were nonetheless never contacted by the child welfare agency.
Efforts to seek nonresident fathers are varied and inconsistent. Caseworkers
report using a number of sources when seeking nonresident fathers whose locations
were initially unknown. These include asking the mother and her relatives,
the child and his or her siblings, other workers, and the father's relatives.
Workers also consulted a number of other sources including law enforcement,
public assistance, and motor vehicle records, as well as telephone books.
Which sources were contacted in a given case was variable, however, and there
did not seem to be a pattern of what steps were taken if the child's mother
was unable or unwilling to provide contact information for the child's father.
Other than asking the mother, no method of locating a father was consulted
in more than 44% of cases in which the father's location was unknown.
Varied circumstances made contact difficult. Caseworkers reported that many
factors may make it hard to contact fathers. In 60% of cases with identified
fathers, the caseworker reported that the father was unreachable by phone
and 31% of the fathers were reported to be incarcerated. Other circumstances,
ranging from unreliable transportation and unstable housing to being out
of the country, affected fewer cases but were reported to cause great difficulty
for caseworkers trying to establish or maintain contact with fathers when
Caseworker and administrator attitudes regarding fathers were mixed. Caseworkers
and administrators generally agreed that fathers' involvement can enhance
child well-being, although most recognized that this is true only when such
involvement poses no safety risk to the child or mother. However, only a
little over half of the caseworkers in the study sample (53%) believed that
nonresident fathers want to be a part of the decision-making process about
Sharing information with contacted fathers was common. In over 90 percent
of cases in which the father was contacted, the caseworkers reported sharing
the case plan with the father and telling him about his child's out of home
More substantive involvement, including visitation, was less common. Caseworkers
reported that half of the nonresident fathers with whom they had been in
contact had expressed an interest in having their children live with them
(50% of the fathers who had ever been in contact with the child welfare agency
or 27% of the entire sample). Over half the contacted fathers (56%) had visited
their child at least once while he or she was in foster care; however this
represents only 30 percent of all fathers in the sample. Far fewer were visiting
with their child regularly. In 4% of cases the child's case goal was placement
with the father. Figure 3 illustrates the level of contact
and involvement of fathers, as reported by the child's caseworker.
Summary of Identification, Contact, and Visitation
Fathers of children in foster care have multiple problems that may affect
their involvement. For cases involving fathers with whom the agency had made
contact, workers were asked to identify problems or issues that prevented
the child from being placed with the father. The most common problems identified
were substance abuse and criminal justice involvement. In over half of cases
in which the agency had been in contact with the father, the father was
identified as having an alcohol or drug problem (58%), and over half (53%)
were also involved with the criminal justice system, either incarcerated,
on parole, or awaiting trial. One-third (33%) were reported to have domestic
violence problems. In addition, many fathers had multiple problems. Workers
reported that over 40% of the contacted fathers had four or more of the potential
problems listed in the survey.
Caseworkers know less about fathers than they do about mothers. Caseworkers
much more often answered "don't know" to questions about a child's father
when they had readily available similar information on the mother. Typically,
caseworkers reported not knowing information about mothers 1% to 5% of the
time, depending on the item, while for fathers with whom they had been in
contact, "don't know" responses were more often around 15%.
Mothers had similar problem profiles. It should be noted that the serious
problems identified in fathers are the same kinds of problems and issues
facing the mothers of children in foster care. Caseworkers reported that
65% of the children's mothers had alcohol or drug problems, 38% were involved
with the criminal justice system, and 60% had four or more problems identified.
Only levels of criminal justice involvement were lower in the mothers.
In the jurisdictions studied, training on father involvement was common.
Over two-thirds of caseworkers interviewed in the four study states (70%),
reported having received training on identifying, locating, or engaging fathers.
These figures may not reflect the situation in other places.
Training was associated with higher likelihood of having identified and engaged
fathers of children in the sample. Those child welfare caseworkers who received
training were more likely than others to report having identified a child's
father, to have shared the case plan with the father, to have considered
placing the child with his or her father, and to report that the agency sought
financial assistance from the father as part of the case plan.
The level of coordination and interaction between child welfare and child
support agencies varies widely by state. Fully 100% of the study's sample
of foster children in Minnesota and Tennessee had existing case files in
the child support agency, in comparison to 35% in Arizona and 25% in
Massachusetts. The child support agency was not necessarily actively working
these cases to establish and collect upon a child support order, but had
a case file for each of the children through which information on paternity
and the father's location could be shared.
Child support files contain information on many children in foster care.
The data linkage component of the study sought to determine whether more
extensive use of the child support agency's information sources about fathers
would be helpful to child welfare workers. The results indicate that in many
cases child welfare agencies already have information on paternity, location,
and support that coincides with child support agency records. There was a
substantial subset of cases, however, in which child support records had
information that was missing or conflicted with that recorded by child welfare
caseworkers. For instance, in one-quarter of cases across study states, child
welfare caseworkers' responses about paternity establishment conflicted with
information contained in the child support administrative data.
State and Federal parent locator services are a productive but under-utilized
source of location information. On child welfare cases in which locate
information had been sought through the child support systems' state or federal
parent locator services (about two-thirds of all cases in the matching sample,
with some variation across states), these methods were successful in providing
location information in 96 percent of cases. It should be cautioned, however,
that these were the results for cases in the sample on which locate results
existed in the child support agency's files. This study did not conduct new
locate requests. Child welfare caseworkers reported that state parent locator
services had been used to try and locate the father in only 35 percent of
cases in which the father had not been located by the child welfare agency
at the time of the interview. In some additional cases the child support
agency may have sought location information as part of a welfare case. There
was considerable variation among the states in how often locator services
were used, ranging from 3% of cases in Massachusetts, to 79% in Arizona.
However, in approximately one-quarter of cases in each state but Arizona,
caseworkers reported not knowing whether locator services were used.
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This study is an exploratory look at nonresident fathers of children in the
child welfare system. While the study findings do not define best practices,
they can inform practice. In particular:
Search for fathers early in the case. Most successful information
gathering about a nonresident father's identity and location occurs very
early in a case, usually as part of the case investigation activities. In
this study, if a father's identity and location were not determined at case
opening, there was less than a 40% chance that he would have been contacted
successfully even once by the time the caseworker was interviewed (at which
point children had been in care an average of two years). Agencies should
consider whether information about fathers is being sought consistently at,
or before, the time a child is first placed in foster care.
Provide training to caseworkers on locating and involving fathers.
Casework practice in seeking information on unidentified fathers and those
whose location is unknown appears case specific and variable. Agencies may
wish to make clear what steps caseworkers should consider when mothers do
not know or share information about the child's father. Caseworker training
appears to help caseworkers understand the importance of father involvement
and facilitates the consideration of a father as a potential caregiver. In
addition to methods of locating and involving fathers, training should address
worker safety issues since safety concerns may discourage workers from making
Use child support data more routinely. Child support information,
including father location, paternity, and financial support, can be a helpful
tool in considering placements with fathers or other ways in which fathers
can play constructive roles in their children's lives. The frequency with
which caseworkers sought available information from child support varied
by state and was related to administrators' perceptions of the relationships
between the child welfare and child support agencies and the ease with which
caseworkers could request information, including locator services.
Develop models for involving fathers constructively. Unless the child's
case goal is for placement with the father or his kin, caseworkers often
are not sure what, if anything, they should be doing beyond sharing the child's
case plan and offering visitation. There is considerable room for programming
that engages these fathers on behalf of their children in ways that could
extend beyond the child's stay in foster care and support whatever permanency
goal is in the child's best interests.
Address domestic violence and worker safety concerns. Caseworkers
and administrators expressed a reluctance to involve some fathers because
doing so might reintroduce potential abusers into volatile family situations.
Administrators also raised concerns regarding worker safety when contacting
the fathers of children on the caseload. Unless safety concerns are effectively
addressed, both those related to worker safety as well as those related to
the safety of the child and mother, efforts to involve fathers are likely
to stall. Safety concerns need to be acknowledged and assessed at a case
level and, as previously noted, through training. However, that nearly half
of the fathers were never contacted by the agency suggests that little assessment
of the actual risk presented is occurring.
This study also serves as a starting point for further research. Additional
analysis of this data set is possible on topics including how state and local
characteristics and particular state policies affect case practice regarding
fathers. A public use data set for the study will be available through the
National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect. Further, a second phase
of this study will examine whether caseworkers' actions with respect to
identifying, contacting, and engaging fathers are related to later permanency
outcomes. Such an examination was not possible in the initial study since
all of the children were in foster care at the time of the interviews, and
thus no permanency outcome had yet been achieved. Future productive qualitative
research could also examine specific methods of identifying, locating and
About this Research Summary
|This ASPE Research Summary describes the findings of a study that
sought to assess typical child welfare practice with respect to nonresident
fathers of children in foster care. Engaging these fathers is important for
the potential benefit of a child-father relationship (when such a relationship
does not pose a risk to the child's safety or well-being), and also may be
helpful in expediting permanent placement decisions and gaining access to
resources for the child.
The study was conducted by The Urban Institute and the National Opinion Research
Center (NORC) under contract to ASPE and in partnership with the Administration
for Children and Families.
Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation
Office of Human Services Policy
US Department of Health and Human Services
Washington, DC 20201
Donald Young, M.D.
Acting Assistant Secretary
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Human Services Policy
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Human Services Policy
Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services