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Julia Steiny: Fathers are often discounted as critical to their kids’ success.

By June 16, 2011April 14th, 2022No Comments

Published by — Weird, isn’t it, how fathers aren’t right up there with motherhood and apple pie. Even Fathers Day was a afterthought to Mothers Day, established decades later.

In 1960 almost 90 percent of all children lived with both parents. Now 1 in 3 kids have little or no contact with their biological father. For African-American children the rate rises to 2 in 3. No biggie, you might think. A kid’s fatherlessness is probably the dad’s fault anyway.

Social worker Barry Noel thinks most of us hardly even notice our bias about dads.

Noel tells about his own change of heart regarding fathers. For 25 years he’d worked for Rhode Island’s child protective services in various capacities, including investigating allegations of childhood abuse and neglect. Tough job. He certainly wasn’t meeting families at their best. Still, he says, “I disregarded the dads. I made judgments that were unfair and incorrect, about ‘dead beat’ dads and fathers not living in the home. In general, fathers haven’t much been engaged by child-welfare workers like me.”

Then in 2009, itching for a challenge, he went back to school to get a Masters in Social Work.

“My research project included an internship at the Training School (Rhode Island’s youth prison). There I co-facilitated a fatherhood-support group for incarcerated youth from 14 to about 19 years old, who were fathers already or expectant.”

These are just the sort of fathers any of us might writeoff. After all, they’re too young and got in enough trouble to land in jail. So they’ve forfeited their rights. While the courts, welfare and social services often bend over backwards to keep a troubled mom in her child’s life, a troubled dad is dispensable.

Noel says, “There was one guy in particular, big, older, and kind of threatening. But when he talked about his children and his role as a father, the threat completely disappeared. Standing there was a deeply concerned dad. ‘I wasn’t greedy,’ he said. ‘I was trying to take care of my family.’ And he was, in the only way he knew how.”

Yes, he knew dealing drugs was wrong. But in his blighted urban world, he saw few other options. He was proud that he provided his family with medical insurance and quality daycare for the children. And they could all live together under one roof, instead of sneaking around, pretending there was no dad so the mom could collect welfare benefits. (Welfare cuts benefits to the mom and kids when fathers are involved.) He was a good provider, if illegally so. But in prison, he was useless.

This father was distraught over his family, as were most of the young dads in Noel’s group. Fatherhood meant a lot to them. Most had grown up without dads, and they didn’t want to inflict that pain on their kids. At a minimum, they wanted regular contact with their children. But often the girlfriend had moved on to a new guy, or her family never liked him anyway.

And, Noel says, “All sorts of bureaucratic obstacles make it very difficult for inmates or just non-custodial parents to stay in touch with their kids.”

Mothers are the gatekeepers to many dads’ access to their kids. When investigating abuse and neglect, Noel notes, “the issue behind the issue is usually a domestic dispute. Many situations (couples’ quarrels) are mutual and long standing, but one day she says she’s been a victim of domestic abuse. While domestic abuse does occur, it can also be used as a tactic for the mom to get what she wants. Custody battles are difficult for everybody, but the dads have an uphill battle.”

For example, Family Courts rarely have the resources to enforce the court-ordered rights of non-custodial parents to visit their kids, and 84 percent of non-custodial parents are fathers.

Online you’ll find oceans of research supporting the positive effects of fatherhood, both on the child and on the dad himself. Authors virtually plead for the public to rethink the value of fathers, even those who are not providers.

Here’s a taste from the U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services:

“Children with involved, loving fathers are significantly more likely to do well in school, have healthy self-esteem, exhibit empathy and pro-social behavior compared to children who have uninvolved fathers. Committed and responsible fathering during infancy and early childhood contributes emotional security, curiosity, and math and verbal skills.”

Got it? Kids with involved dads do better in school and are less aggressive.

Now Noel makes a big point of listening carefully to fathers. And he feels that all the big systems — courts, probation, social services – are also changing and looking at dads with more sympathy. But such systems are overwhelmed with piles of cases. They can’t take lots of time sorting out he-said, she-said. But Noel hears more talk of “dead broke” dads, instead of “dead beat” dads. Many men are at the mercy of a merciless economy. But research is clear that dads have a wealth of positive contributions for their children beyond financial support, when money is scarce.

The bottom line is that an absent parent never really leaves a child’s life. They’re a wound that doesn’t heal.

So systems and families need to welcome and engage fathers in their children’s lives as much as is safe and possible.

This weekend and hereafter, celebrate, value and involve dads.

Julia Steiny wrote the education column for the Providence Journal for 16 years. She is a freelance writer and consultant on data projects such as , RI’s school-accountability site and , an innovative data-analysis tool. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative. She blogs and can be reached for questions or comments at .