Study of Fathers’ Involvement in Permanency Planning and Child Welfare Casework . Are child welfare systems biased against non-custodial fathers?


Worker bias against father involvement appears to be the most widely researched barrier to fathers’ participation in child welfare case planning. A 1990 review of five major social work journals over a 27-year period found, for example, that the literature available on fathers primarily concentrated on the negative elements of fathering. Three views of fathers emerged — fathers who were perpetrators of abuse or neglect, fathers who were missing and needed, and single-parent fathers (Greif & Bailey, 1990). Several studies have examined the extent of case worker bias against involving birth fathers in case planning, but most were conducted prior to the growth of policy interest in fathers (Dailey, 1980; Fischer, Dulaney, Hudak, & Zivotofsky, 1976; Jaffe, Lamb, & Sagi, 1983). A more recent study conducted in Salt Lake City, Utah found that workers primarily orient their services to mothers , and this pattern is true regardless of the gender of the case worker (Lazar, Sagi, & Fraser, 1991). Another recent study conducted in three New York City foster care agencies explored whether birthfathers were being ignored as a resource for discharge planning (Franck, 2001). The study found that the caseworkers did not pay attention to birth fathers to the degree they worked with birth mothers, but birth fathers also did not respond to outreach efforts as well as birth mothers. These findings suggest that the fathers had to demonstrate to the caseworker their connection to the child whereas the mothers’ connection to the child was taken for granted by the caseworkers (Franck, 2001). There is also evidence that caseworkers’ attitudes about fathers make a difference. In a small study of workers in New York City, those with more positive values and attitudes toward biological parents did in fact have greater levels of activity with these parents. The levels of activity in turn affected whether biological parents received the services they needed (Nisivoccia, 1993).

Characteristics of non-custodial fathers may contribute to this situation. A significant number of non-custodial fathers are incarcerated, homeless, significantly impaired by substance abuse, or otherwise unable to provide emotional or financial support to the mother and children (Greif & Zuravin, 1989). Additionally, while neglectful mothers are routinely provided a range of services (including housing and employment assistance) in order to maintain custody of the children, in most cases, non-custodial fathers would not be eligible for these services (Rasheed, 1999). Child welfare agencies offer family preservation and family reunification services to custodial parents, e.g., providing assistance so that children are able to remain in the home or be returned to the home. However, these same services are not routinely offered to non-custodial parents. With the increasing use of relative care, and the many supportive services being offered and provided to relatives, agencies may begin to modify the services available to non-custodial parents.

It is important to note that similar biases may also exist within family courts, among judges as well as attorneys. No research studies were found on this topic, however, the Urban Institute has collected qualitative information on the subject from focus groups with caseworkers about kinship care. In response to questions about whether or not the courts were favorable toward kinship care, the workers indicated that within individual court rooms, judges can play an integral role in whether or not a child is placed with relatives or in a non-kin foster home. A pertinent example regarding father involvement is a worker seeking child-father visitation. Even with careful preparation of the reasons why visitation should occur, the judge can make a final decision contrary to the worker’s view of what is in the best interests of the child. Likewise, searches for relatives can vary greatly, with the definition of a diligent search for a non-custodial father varying based upon the judge’s personal views.

Another example of possible judicial prejudice against fathers is the “primary caretaker preference” standard that is utilized in some jurisdictions to make custody determinations. The “primary caretaker preference” supports the idea that it is in a child’s best interests to remain with the parent who is responsible for the primary caretaking functions, thereby giving the “primary caretaker” firm preference in custody placement decisions. While the majority of states reject this standard, West Virginia, and to some degree, Minnesota, continue to uphold the primary caretaker preference in making custody decisions (Crippen, 1990; Smith, 2000). For example, in West Virginia, the primary caretaker presumption is used as the sole factor for making custody determinations (Smith, 2000). While this presumption does not explicitly state a gender preference, the result is often female parent custody.

Other women involved with non-custodial fathers can also be determining factors in whether or not non-custodial fathers gain custody of their children. One study of fathers who had gained custody of their children due to abuse or neglect perpetrated by the mother found that the presence of a stabilizing female influence in his household, either a girlfriend or wife, had a positive effect on whether the father gained custody of the children (Greif and Zuravin, 1989).

A series of factors can explain the caseworkers’ actions. Many caseworkers lack guidance and training about how to successfully engage fathers even when agency policies may dictate contact with the non-custodial father at appointed times throughout the case period. A study of incarcerated fathers, for example, concluded that little or no training was provided to child welfare workers about how best to involve these fathers in the lives of their children. Also no information was provided to the workers about the benefits to the children of involving fathers (Hairston, 1998).

Other factors influencing child welfare workers’ efforts to engage and involve non-custodial fathers include their heavy workloads in general. Caseworkers may believe that the time and energy needed to engage a previously uninvolved fathers may not be worth the effort. Although many agencies are trying to decrease caseloads, staff shortages create problems (Malm, Bess, Leos-Urbel, Geen, & Markowitz, 2001). Overburdened workers may be hesitant to involve non-custodial fathers or paternal relatives. Caseworkers participating in the Urban Institute’s focus groups on kinship care noted that involving fathers is particularly challenging for cases in which children with the same mother have different fathers. A kinship placement with a maternal relative results in placing siblings together in the same home whereas seeking paternal relatives can result in separating siblings. Paternal relatives would be unrelated to the half siblings and not given priority for placement.

Leashore (1997) suggests that the involvement of fathers may be even more difficult when white caseworkers are dealing with the fathers of African American children. Child welfare caseworkers are described as possibly having fearful or stereotyped perceptions of African American men. These caseworkers may hesitate to involve the fathers even though African American and Hispanic fathers are reported to have higher rates of shared child care responsibility than do white fathers (Leashore, 1997). Additionally, other recent research suggests that young black children benefit from the presence of nonresident fathers (Jackson, 1999).

An additional issue that may explain caseworkers’ reluctance to involve non-custodial fathers in case planning is their familiarity with male perpetrators in child abuse cases. While children are most often neglected by female perpetrators (87% by females vs. 43% by males), children are more often abused by males (67% versus 40% for females). The prevalence of male perpetrators is highest among sex abuse cases (89 percent of cases) (Sedlak & Broadhurst, 1996). Recent research also emphasizes the degree to which father surrogates, such as mothers’ boyfriends, increase the likelihood of child maltreatment (Radhakrishna, Bou-Saada, Hunter, Catellier, & Kotch, 2001). While these findings relate specifically to non-biological fathers,14 evidence of maltreatment by males in the household may reinforce concerns about males in general, including non-custodial fathers. Further evidence about child maltreatment and domestic violence suggest that cases of violence against children and violence against women overlap in the same families for between 30 to 60 percent of the cases (Edelson, 1999). Increasingly, child welfare agencies are addressing domestic violence in child welfare cases with many agencies now providing specialized training to caseworkers, hiring domestic violence specialists, and coordinating with local domestic violence organizations. Thus, caseworkers may be involved in cases in which fathers figure prominently as the perpetrator of violence both against the mother as well as the children.