This section describes recent trends in the involvement of fathers in today’s families. While we are particularly interested in children and families involved with the child welfare system, many of the trends in the general population also affect and are sometimes magnified among children served by child welfare agencies. These trends include declines in marriage, increases in non-marital childbearing, rising rates of incarceration, and rising rates of foster care placement.
With declines in marriage, increases in non-marital childbearing, and relatively stable but high rates of divorce and remarriage, an increasing share of children in the U.S. spend substantial portions of their childhoods apart from their biological fathers. The proportion of children under 18 living apart from their biological fathers has grown in the last two decades. Children living with only their mothers have increased from 18 percent of the U.S. child population in 1980 to 23 percent in 1999. Among black children, the proportion increased from 44 percent to 52 percent, and it increased from 20 percent to 27 percent among Hispanic children.4 These statistics cause concern because of the documented association between single parenthood and economic deprivation. Families facing these deprivations are also more likely to be at risk of child neglect and abuse, and may come to the attention of child protective services.
Although it is not always evident, children living in families designated as “two parent families” may also have a parent who lives elsewhere because the other parent has remarried or re-partnered. Overall, the share of children living in two parent families has declined in the last twenty years from 77 to 68 percent. But, in addition, approximately one in ten of the children in these “two parent families” are estimated to live without one of their biological parents.5 Thus, the proportion of children living without one of their birth parents is higher than the single parenthood statistics would indicate and the share has been increasing.
The most recent estimate from the 1997 National Survey of America’s Families (NSAF) is that one in three children under age 18 now lives apart from one of their parents. Most of these children (83 percent) live apart from their biological fathers. In 1997, there were 19 million children with non-custodial biological fathers representing 27 percent of children under age 18 (Sorensen and Zibman, 2000).
Increased father absence can also occur for reasons other than the decline in marriages. Rising rates of incarceration, especially of African American men, have also contributed to father absence among U.S. children. Since 1973, rates of imprisonment have grown four-fold. In 1999, 1 in every 110 males and 1 in every 29 African American males in the U.S. was sentenced to at least a year’s confinement (Travis, Solomon, & Waul, 2001). Approximately 55 percent of male State and 63 percent of male Federal prisoners are fathers; they report having a child under the age of 18 (Mumola, 2000). The remarkable increases in U.S. imprisonment rates of men and of fathers has led to a situation in which it is now estimated that 1 in 10 U.S. children have a parent in prison, in jail, on probation or on parole (This statistic is awaiting vetting by the Bureau of Justice Statistics). Such parents face multiple impediments to protecting and caring for their children. The growth of families with one or more incarcerated parents likely places an extra burden on the child welfare system. Almost 2 percent of fathers in prison, for example, report a child living in a foster home compared to close to 10 percent of mothers in prison (Mumola, 2000).
A small share of children (4 percent) live apart from both parents. This proportion has remained steady over the last two decades. There are, however, wide variations by race and ethnicity. While 3 percent of white children under age 18 live with neither parent, the proportion is 10 percent for black children and 5 percent for Hispanic children (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, 2000). Most of these children (91 percent) live with their relatives. A small but growing portion of this kinship care population (21 percent) is supervised by the child welfare system as kin foster care (National Survey of America’s Families, 1999). The remaining children are in non-kin foster care or other arrangements. In 1998, the rate of children placed in foster care, either with kin or non-kin, was 8 per 1000 children, a rate that was double the 1982 rate. Thus, the foster care population of children, who are the focus of our study, constitute a very small, but growing, proportion of all children and of children experiencing father absence.
This evidence documents the growing share of children who do not live with their biological fathers. Shifts in marriage and childbearing patterns, as well as increased incarceration rates of men in their prime childbearing and child-raising years, translate into more and more children in the U.S. living apart from their biological fathers. It is likely that the proportion of children in the child welfare system with non-custodial fathers is greater than the share of children overall and is rising concurrently with the overall trends. However, as will be documented later, it is difficult to estimate the proportion of children in the child welfare system affected by declining rates of resident fathers.