Nonresident fathers of children in foster care are rarely involved in case planning for their children, and, in the four states studied, nearly half had not been contacted by the child welfare agency. By not reaching out to fathers, caseworkers may overlook potential social connections and resources that could help to achieve permanency for the child.
Most children in foster care are not living with their fathers at the time they are removed from their homes, and once in substitute care, these children may experience even less contact with their nonresident fathers. Yet fathers and their relatives represent half of a child's potential family connections and kin resources. If ignored, important social or financial support for the child may be missed as permanency planning is conducted. Fathers or their relatives may be potential substitute caregivers for the child, may support a reunification plan with child support, respite or other assistance, or may voluntarily relinquish parental rights in support of an adoption plan. But without contact from the caseworker, such potential contributions cannot be assessed. Consequently, child welfare and child support agencies have placed new emphasis on identifying, locating, and involving nonresident fathers of children served by the child welfare system.
Researchers conducted telephone interviews with 1,222 caseworkers in four study states Arizona, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Tennessee. Caseworkers were interviewed about 1,958 specific children in their caseloads, each of whom had a living father who did not reside in the household from which the child was removed. The response rate to the survey was 83%. At the time of the interview, each of the children had been in foster care between three and thirty six months and was in foster care for the first time.
Fifty-three child welfare administrators in these states were interviewed as well about agency policies and practices regarding nonresident fathers. In addition, unless caseworkers dissented because of perceived danger to the child or mother or other concerns about the case, child welfare administrative data regarding paternity, location of the father, and fathers' history of financial support for the child were compared electronically with similar fields in the child support agency's records. Of child welfare cases included in the electronic match, over 60% percent were previously known to the child support agency, though this overlap varied widely among the states.
Study findings provide insight into how caseworkers identify and locate nonresident fathers, circumstances that may pose barriers to engaging fathers, and ways in which fathers are involved in the lives of children in foster care. Caseworkers' opinions about fathers were explored, as were issues of workload, safety and training.
While most caseworkers, at the time of the interview, knew the identity of the fathers of children in the study's sample (88%), paternity had been established for not quite two-thirds of the children (63%) and contact had been made with just over half of the fathers (55%). The lag in paternity establishment is important because unless paternity has been established a named father is not considered legally related to the child and cannot participate in court proceedings about the child. Contact with the nonresident father was likely only if his identity and location were both known immediately at the time of case opening. Figure 1 summarizes the study's findings regarding levels of father engagement among all the nearly 2,000 cases in the sample.