The trends that have led to increasing numbers of U.S. children experiencing father absence have sparked a good deal of concern among policy makers and program administrators. As a result, a number of initiatives described below have been implemented or proposed to promote father involvement. As more attention has focused on enforcing the rights and responsibilities of biological fathers, child welfare policy makers and administrators have also had to come to terms with how to deal with the non-custodial fathers of children in out-of-home placement. The nature of these efforts reflects more general shifts in fatherhood policies as well as the more specific shifts in child welfare policy that encourage permanency planning.
Early in his administration, President Bush signaled that increasing father involvement in children’s lives would be a high priority. He declared that he was “determined to make committed, responsible fatherhood a national priority” (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001). More recently the administration has supported a legislative initiative, The Promotion and Support of Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Marriage Act, which, if passed, would authorize $64 million over FY2002 - FY 2006 for various fatherhood initiative projects. It would add a Part C - Fatherhood Program to Title IV of the Social Security Act, and would support projects designed to test promising approaches to: 1) promoting parenting through counseling, mentoring, parent education; 2) assisting low-income and employed fathers to take advantage of education, job training and job search programs, and to encourage their payment of child support; 3) educating, counseling, and mentoring fathers in matters including household management, banking, time management and home maintenance; and 4) encouraging healthy marriages through premarital education, therapy, divorce education and reduction programs, mediation, relationship skills enhancement, and violence prevention. Reflecting the priorities of the Bush Administration, the Assistant Secretary for Children and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has stated that promoting responsible fatherhood and family formation is one of his top priorities.6
These new initiatives reinforce and complement the emergence of programs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services which have grown during the last decade as the last two administrations and Congress have made promoting strong families and fatherhood a national objective The first of these efforts focused on enforcing fathers’ financial obligations when marriages ended or did not occur. Starting in 1975, Congress established an open-ended entitlement for child support enforcement services for all families receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Since that time Congress has steadily enacted various reforms to strengthen child support enforcement policies. These federal reforms include:
- State tax intercept programs, which established mechanisms to intercept state tax refunds from non-custodial parents who owe back child support (codified into federal law as part of the 1984 Child Support Enforcement Amendments).
- Wage withholding, which began targeting delinquent obligors and has been expanded to include all obligors (“immediate” withholding became part of the federal child support policy through the 1988 Family Support Act, effective January 1994).
- Presumptive guidelines, which made state guidelines for setting child support amounts binding on judges (enacted as part of the 1997 Family Support Act).
- In-hospital paternity programs, which allowed non-custodial fathers to voluntarily acknowledge paternity, are now required in all states (enacted under the Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1993).
- Establishment of a Federal directory of new hires, which requires employers to report all new hires within 20 days to child support enforcement authorities (enacted as part of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA)).
- Elimination of the $50 pass through, which previously required states to pass through the first $50 of child support paid to welfare families; 32 states no-longer provide the pass through (enacted under PRWORA), although these policies are currently being reconsidered.
- Paternity rate targets, which mandate that every state establish paternity for at least 50 percent of new non-marital births or make steady and significant progress toward doing so (enacted under PRWORA).
These efforts have strengthened the ability of state agencies to establish paternity, to set up child support orders, and to enforce these orders. They appear to have significantly increased the success of child support enforcement activities. For example, never-married mothers experienced a fourfold increase in their child support receipt rate between 1976 and 1997 (Sorensen & Halpern, 2000). In his 2002 State of the Union Address, President Bush recently called for yet another reform in this area, requesting a change in the program so that fathers’ payments would go to their children directly rather than towards past-due child support for previous welfare payments for their children.
Another recent change has been the integration of child support enforcement requirements into a wide variety of federal programs. Approval of applications for AFDC and now TANF and Medicaid (for parents) has long been contingent on cooperation with the child support agency. Now other federal and state programs are requiring participation in the child support program as a condition of program eligibility. In order to receive Food Stamps, for example, a single custodial parent must make efforts to gain financial assistance from the non-custodial parent. In some states, parents are required to participate in child support enforcement in order to receive financial assistance for child care.
Given these changes, it is not surprising that attention has now turned to how child support enforcement might complement and bolster states’ efforts to protect and support children who have experienced abuse or neglect. Indeed, foster care agencies are required to take steps where appropriate to secure an assignment to the state of any rights to support on behalf of a child receiving foster care maintenance payments (U.S. Congress, House Committee on Ways and Means, 2000). Anecdotally, states are reporting increased interest in securing child support payments for children in foster care. Data from the past three years support this contention with the total amount of collections7 reported to the Federal government increasing from a total of $37.1 million (FY99) to $52 million (FY01) (Bess, Andrews, Jantz, & Russell, forthcoming).
Other related federal initiatives focus on promoting the motivation and capacity of low-income fathers to help their children. Demonstration projects have been mounted to test the impact of providing employment services, peer support, and help in arranging visitation with their children in connection with child support collection efforts. These efforts include the Partners for Fragile Families program, the Responsible Fatherhood program, and the Access and Visitation program. To date, these demonstration projects have been small-scale efforts. However the administration’s proposal for welfare reform reauthorization includes a $300 million investment in programs that encourage healthy, stable marriages.
Beyond an emphasis on child support and welfare (or temporary assistance) programs, the Fatherhood Initiative at the Department of Health and Human Services has grown to be a much broader effort that also includes linkages with other federal departments. There are demonstration programs to involve fathers in Early Head Start projects and in Healthy Start programs. DHHS and the Department of Education have set up a joint Fathers Matter! Program. There are efforts to identify successful state strategies to promote marriage and reduce non-marital pregnancies. Prevention programs that help men avoid fatherhood before they are mature enough to care for their children have also expanded. These efforts include the Abstinence education programs funded under PRWORA. Finally, there has been a substantial effort to increase research and evaluation related to family formation and fathering. A major cooperative activity sponsored by the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics prepared a report in 1998 that is the foundation of these efforts. More recently, the Forum has prepared a fatherhood indicators report released on Fathers Day 2002. Thus, although fathers have been on the policy radar screen for about a quarter of a century, the momentum of efforts to address fathers’ lack of connection with their children has grown substantially in the last five years.