It seems clear that the recent trends putting more emphasis on the involvement of non-custodial fathers in their children’s lives are likely to affect the families served by child welfare agencies. Many child welfare families are also part of the TANF caseload, the majority of whom are single parent families. While no national data exists on the percent of children in foster care who have non-custodial fathers, the likelihood of this being a significant portion is high. Enhanced efforts to establish paternity and enforce child support orders within the TANF population will therefore affect child welfare families. Increasingly, child welfare agencies are also seeking to recoup the cost of foster care payments through child support collection.
For the most part, this literature review has revealed the dearth of research specific to the topic of non-custodial father involvement in the child welfare system. While a few studies have focused attention on fathers as placement resources for their children, there was no research about child-father visitation or on the effects of involving fathers in the lives of children being served by child welfare agencies. Additionally, while the nature of recent policy reforms and initiatives, e.g., expedited permanency planning, concurrent planning, and family group meetings, lead us to believe that child welfare agencies will increasingly identify, locate, and involve non-custodial fathers in casework and permanency planning, the current lack of research means that there is no evidence to predict the likely effects of these shifts in case practice.
An area that has received some attention over the years is that of caseworker bias against fathers. While studies have concluded that bias does exist, the findings are limited to small scale, non-generalizable studies conducted several years ago. In addition, there is some evidence that mothers can present barriers to greater father involvement. Studies of non-custodial fathers in general have identified certain characteristics — such as unemployment, substance abuse, and incarceration — as barriers to greater involvement with their children. Not surprisingly, child welfare caseworkers do not consider these characteristics, when they are present, as markers of a good placement option for a child.
There are some limited efforts to promote collaborations between child welfare and child support enforcement agencies. The results of the South Carolina diligent search project appear promising. The focus of this effort thus far appears to be on identifying and locating fathers primarily for the purposes of expediting the termination of parental rights, thereby hastening adoption proceedings. Other collaborative efforts are focused on increasing child support collections. Few programs, with the exception of the parental involvement project in Illinois, focus attention on finding non-custodial fathers as placement resources.
The lack of basic research about how non-custodial fathers are involved in the child welfare permanency planning process provides a strong rationale for the current study which will examine case work practices in five states. For these five states, the study will provide information that is currently not available about:
- How many children in foster care have non-custodial fathers?
- How do child welfare policies and caseworker practices currently involve non-custodial fathers in case planning?
- What are the perceived barriers to involving non-custodial fathers in case planning?
- What are the perceived likely effects of non-custodial father involvement?
- How many children in foster care are known to the child support program and can child support locator services assist child welfare agencies in identifying and locating non-custodial fathers?
- What promising practices are currently being implemented to identify, locate, and involve non-custodial fathers in child welfare cases?