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Responsible Fatherhood Initiative Director Mark Larson quoted on Slate article about Chris Brown

Mark Larson, our Responsible Fatherhood Initiative Director, was quoted in a Slate magazine article that highlights Chris Brown’s pattern of coercive control and failure to take meaningful responsibility for his violent behavior to Rihanna and another woman. The article also highlights how battering is a choice, the value systems of domestic violence perpetrators and how the pattern of abuse goes far beyond the physical violence to include denial of responsibility and manipulation. To read the article, click here.

Federal Responsible Fatherhood grants provide new opportunities for collaboration on fatherhood and domestic violence

By: Mark Larson

Responsible Fatherhood Initiative Director

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Administration for Children and Families, Office of Family Assistance announced recently the availability of funding for four discretionary grant awards totaling $150 million for Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood grants.  Combined these grants represent a significant commitment to supporting fathers in their efforts to be responsible parents.

In past blog posts, I have talked about the importance of fully integrating a focus on family safety into our efforts to engage fathers.  When we do this successfully, our efforts to support fathers can also reflect our commitment to the safety and well-being of children and mothers.  We don’t want to support father’s involvement in their families when this comes at the expense of the safety of other family members.  This has been the concern that domestic violence advocates have had about some efforts to promote marriage and support fathers.

This is why I am excited to see that applicants for all four grants will be required to document efforts to build relationships with domestic violence experts and domestic violence service providers.  This requirement is a great chance to build collaboration between domestic violence service providers and those who work with fathers.  It is also a great opportunity to improve practices that ensure that safety is a core component of responsible fatherhood.

If you are thinking about applying for these new grants, I encourage you to start discussions with domestic violence partners early.  I have had the experience of being asked to participate in a grant after the grant was written and submitted.  While the invitation was appreciated, the timing was actually an obstacle to collaboration and made it difficult to take advantage of the creative thinking that occurs when we share values and ideas across disciplines.

The creative potential of the collaboration required by the new grant applications can be significant.  As part of a collaboration with the Connecticut Department of Social Services, we recently facilitated a discussion between representatives of fatherhood programs, victim advocates, child protection services, social welfare services, batterer intervention, judicial services and others.  We looked at responsible fatherhood services from many perspectives, including that of mothers and children while exploring what a model response to domestic violence by fatherhood programs would look like.  The conversation was rich and challenging.  It sparked many new ideas and practice suggestions about how to engage fathers and ensure the safety of moms and children. 

For more information about the grants, go to

Father’s Day: A time to reflect on where fathers fit in our work with families.

by Mark Larson

Responsible Fatherhood Initiative Director

Father’s Day is a day to appreciate our fathers and the role that they play in our lives.  For some, it is a day of thanks for the ways that their fathers have enriched their lives.  For others, Father’s Day brings reflection on difficult experiences and lost opportunities.  For many, Fathers Day can be a combination of the two.  Whatever the experience, Father’s Day is a reminder of the significant impacts fathers have on our lives.

As people who work with families, Father’s Day is also an opportunity to reflect on our relationships with fathers and how working with dads fits within our efforts to engage families.  Are we doing what we could or should be doing to reach out to fathers?  Do we fully understand the roles fathers play within the families we work with?  All too often, our work with families is really work with moms and kids.  This can have a profound impact on our ability to understand and support families.

Here are a few questions that might help evaluate your and your agencies work with fathers:

  1. Do we prioritize efforts to find and meet with the fathers of the families we work with?
  2. Do we fully consider the strengths that fathers have as parents and the contributions they can make in their children’s lives?
  3. Do we assess for behaviors that fathers may engage in that are harmful to their families? Do we provide accountable and supportive opportunities to change these behaviors?
  4. When working with mothers and children, do we consider the impact of fathers who are present or absent from the home on the family history and dynamics?
  5. How do issues of gender, race and class impact our expectations of fathers?
  6. Is our work environment inviting to fathers and does it show fathers as having a central role in family life?
  7. Do staff members in your organization feel as comfortable and capable of working with fathers as they do with mothers?

In honor of Father’s Day, I encourage you to take a moment to consider on a scale of one to ten how you feel about your and your agency’s work with fathers and on the role of fathers in the lives of their families.  Whatever numbers you choose, what would it take to move those numbers higher? What steps could you take by next Father’s Day to get there?   How would these steps impact the health, safety and well being of the children? How would these steps positively impact moms?   Based on this reflection, you can develop an action plan to move you and your agency forward towards an approach that more accurately reflects the lives of the families in our communities.

Moving beyond “good dad” and “bad dad”

by Mark Larson

Responsible Fatherhood Initiative Director

I enjoy talking with people about their work with fathers.  I like sharing stories about our hopes for and fears about working with men and their families and learn a lot through these stories.  One thing I have noticed from these stories is that people have strong and often conflicted feelings about fathers and their role in families.

On the one hand is a strong desire to see fathers more involved with their families and for obstacles to fathers’ involvement to be removed.  On the other hand is concern that some fathers engage in behavior detrimental to their families and that these behaviors are frequently overlooked.    Sometimes these perspectives are held by different people within an office or community.  Sometimes people feel internally conflicted between the two.  Almost always, the feelings about them are strong.

In practice, the conflict between these perspectives is reflected in a tendency to place fathers in one of two categories, “good dad” or “bad dad.”

Both perspectives are easy to defend.  The positive impact of fathers’ involvement in their children’s lives has been well documented.  A wealth of research indicates that father’s involvement in their children’s lives has positive impacts of children’s economic security, academic achievement, social development, involvement in crime and incarceration and more.  (Check out the National Fatherhood Initiative’s web-site for a comprehensive review of this research at

At the same time, the negative impact of some fathers on their children is also well documented.  Children exposed to fathers who batter can be negatively affected in nearly every domain of their lives, including their social and cognitive development, academic achievement, and physical and mental health.  (Check out the National Child Traumatic Stress Network for a review of the impact of domestic violence on children at  Some fathers routinely ignore the basic responsibilities of parenting, including demonstration of respect for their co-parents and a commitment to their safety, and yet are granted enfettered access to children.

The problem of course is that when applied to work with individual fathers both the “good dad” and the “bad dad” label can lead us to overlook important information about the actual person we are working with.  If our tendency is to overemphasize the positive potential of fathers, in practice our assessments can overlook the negative impact of many current and historic behaviors fathers engage in, particularly coercive and violent behavior in their homes.  This can lead to decisions to provide fathers with access to children despite behaviors that continue to traumatize children and co-parents.  We can also become suspicious of mothers who continue to raise concerns about their children’s safety while with their fathers.

Conversely, we can also fail to recognize the positive contributions that a father can offer to his children by focusing exclusively on the weaknesses of a man’s parenting.  In practice, we can make minimal efforts to engage fathers and fail to assess the ways that they support their children’s well-being.  We can focus on keeping fathers away rather than helping them to become better parents.  We may fail to provide fathers with opportunities to successfully make changes in their lives and find meaningful ways for them and their families to contribute their children’s lives.   We may also accept the limited services available for fathers in our community because we don’t believe that fathers can or will change.

Improving outcomes for children and improving our daily practice with fathers requires us to move beyond the “good dads” and “bad dads” dichotomy.  (It also requires that we don’t make dads completely invisible when we work with families)   If we want to help children, improve men’s lives and protect the safety and well-being of women and children, we need to look at each father individually.  We must consider each father’s capacity for positive involvement in their children’s lives based on an assessment of his behavior, its impact on his family and his commitment to behavior change where needed.  We must also be aware of our underlying expectations of fathers and how issues of gender, race and class can impact these.

Here are some of the questions that can help us move in this direction.  When working with fathers or families, we can ask:

  • What behaviors has a father engaged in that support the well-being and development of his children?  What contributions does he make to providing for the safety, health, basic needs and nurturing that his children need?
  • What behaviors has a father engaged in that threaten the safety and well-being of his children?  Does he take responsibility for these behaviors and their impacts on his family?  Is he willing to commit to changing them?
  • How does a father view his role as a parent?  How does he describe his efforts to fulfill these roles?  What are his goals as a parent?
  • How does a man’s partner view his role in the family and contributions as a father?  What does she want from him in the future?
  • What concerns does his partner have about his parenting and what does she want to see change in the future?
  • With appropriate respect for age-appropriateness, what hopes and fears do a father’s children have regarding his involvement in their lives?

The answers to questions like these help us assess the individual strengths and needs of fathers and move away from the unhelpful trap of the “good dads” and “bad dads” dichotomy.  In doing so, we can strengthen our work with fathers, mothers and children.

Helping systems improve their capacity for this type of individualized assessment and engagement is the goal of DMA’s Responsible Fatherhood Initiative.   Our goal is to provide practical resources that help ensure that the positive benefits of fathers’ involvement in their children’s lives can be realized without overlooking the negative impacts of domestic violence in children’s lives.

Engaging fathers responsibly is fundamental to our commitment to the safety and well being of women and children

By Mark Larson

Responsible Fatherhood Initiative Director

Any responsible fatherhood work must be anchored in the realities, experiences and wishes of women and children, especially battered women and their children.  Responsible fatherhood work is a complex balancing act.  To better respond to the reality of most families, we need to be able to discuss the importance of fathers in the lives of their children without becoming cheerleaders for abusive fathers. We need to be able to talk about a child’s relationship with her father without lapsing into blind promotion of an abusive father’s unfettered access to his child or allowing that child to be used as a tool to control a partner or ex-partner.  We need to be able to talk about the independent relationship children have with their fathers without ignoring the role and concerns of their mother.

When anchored appropriately, responsible fatherhood efforts have the potential to substantially improve the safety and well being of women and children in at least two ways.   First we can better understand the impact that father’s behaviors have on the physical and emotional landscape within which women and their children live and make decisions.  Second responsible fatherhood efforts can also improve our capacity to engage fathers and motivate positive behavior change.

The following is an example of how understanding an abusive father’s behavior can help us better partner with a mother around the safety and well being of her children.  I was involved in a case where the mother was in a custody battle with her abusive ex-partner.  He claimed she was unfit to care for their child, sighting a diagnosis for an anxiety disorder and claiming that she was interfering with his relationships with the children.  He would stop by frequently at her home unannounced to check up on her.  Her lawyer was wondering how to deal with the concerns about her mental health and the impact it might have on the children in court.  I asked the lawyer to rethink her framing of the issue.  I suggested she explore the father’s decision to knock on the woman’s door in the dark unannounced.  If he was truly concerned about the mental health of his child’s mother and its impact on the child, why would this behavior make any sense if not intend to upset the child’s mother and make her feel less safe?  How does knocking on the door at night by surprise help a person struggling with an anxiety disorder?  What does this behavior mean in the context of dad’s past assaults and coercion?  When dad’s behaviors and his intention remained invisible, mom’s mental health issues looked more like a deficit in her parenting and less like a symptom of dad’s ongoing abuse.  Responsible fatherhood work can help us with this type of reframing so that a mother’s efforts to provide safety for her child aren’t misconstrued, even by her own lawyer, as manipulative attempts to limit contact or untreated mental health issues.

Responsible fatherhood work also includes addressing our tendencies to look at domestic violence as a problem in the relationship or as an understandable, though unfortunate, response by men to provocative women’s behaviors.  These tendencies hide the purposeful nature of men’s coercive behavior.  They lead us to see the father in the above example as a father concerned about his child following a messy breakup rather than a father using his child as a strategy to punish a partner who tried to escape his abuse.  These tendencies lead us down the wrong path in our assessment of families and support many engagement strategies that undermine our successful partnership with mothers.

Responsible fatherhood efforts can also improve our capacity to engage fathers and motivate positive behavior change.  Many men do care about their children even if their desire for control in the relationship results in them engaging in coercive behaviors that harm their children.  Some fathers may be motivated to change their behaviors and may become more positive contributors to their children’s lives and helpful co-parents.  Other fathers may refuse to make these changes and fail to meet the expectations of a responsible parent and co-parent.  We have the ability to improve the percentage of fathers that may make positive changes if we become more skilled at working directly with them and in doing so can increase the number of women and children who are safe.

In the bigger picture, positive behavior change isn’t the only possible positive outcome from engaging abusive fathers.  When we improve our skills at engaging fathers, we create clear opportunities for fathers to succeed or fail at meeting the needs of their children.  By providing this choice, we also provide both intervention systems and mothers with important information needed for informed decision making. A partner’s clear unwillingness to take advantage of opportunities to succeed at becoming a safer and more responsible parent can play a crucial role in a mother’s decision making about the future of their relationship and his relationship with their children.  The same information can play a crucial role for case managers and decision makers in supporting steps to restrict access to children when this appropriate.  Without fully engaging fathers, we eliminate the potential for gaining this crucial information.

For these and other reasons, improving our capacity to engage fathers and fully understand their role within their families is fundamental to our commitment to the safety and well being of women and children.  It is a part of honoring the desire of both mothers and children for abuse to stop and the integrity of their family to be preserved if at all possible.  It is a part of honoring the desire of both mothers and children for 1) the abuse to stop, and 2) the maintenance of a safe and healthy father-child relationship whenever possible. Once again, these goals can be achieved only when our work solidly grounded in the realities and experiences of women and children.

It is our commitment to support responsible fatherhood work that is true to our commitment to the safety and well-being of women and children.

DMA launches the Responsible Fatherhood Initiative

By Mark Larson, Responsible Fatherhood Initiative Director

Welcome to the DMA’s new Responsible Fatherhood blog, part of our Responsible Fatherhood Initiative (RFI). This blog is part of our expanded effort to improve the safety and well-being of families by helping  systems better understand and respond to the role of all fathers, but particularly fathers who abuse, in the lives of their families.

The Responsible Fatherhood Initiative builds on the successful foundation of DMA’s Safe and Together model.  When I began providing training on the Safe and Together model in 2006, I was attracted to the ideas upon which the model is based.  Specifically, I was convinced that we cannot be successful in our core mission of safety, permanency and well-being of children without being competent and skillful in our response to domestic violence and that intervening more effectively with domestic violence perpetrators was central to improving our response.

In the vast majority of child welfare’s cases involving domestic violence, men are the source of the lack of safety experienced by women and children within their families.   (These men include biological fathers, step fathers, and boyfriends.)  Yet our capacity to respond to these men has been too limited on both the conceptual and practical skill levels.  While we may publicly affirm our belief in the principle of batterer accountability, our policies and daily practices have not kept the coercive behaviors of perpetrators as a central focus of our case work with families experiencing domestic violence.

In daily practice, we often feel unprepared for and uncomfortable with work with men and fathers, particularly with fathers with histories of domestic violence.   Cultural norms lead to terribly low expectations of fathers and unattainable expectations of mothers.  As a result, we see mothers’ choices and actions as central to the emotional lives and physical well being of their children while we accept, and even sometimes encourage, limited involvement of fathers.   Paradoxically, low expectations of fathers can also lead to encouraging the involvement of fathers who have been abusive or neglectful when they demonstrate even the barest of interest in their children.  An abusive father who fights for custody and access to his children may be perceived as a positive parent because we fail to consider his history of violence towards the mother relevant to our assessment of him as parent. We often also fail to hold him to high standards of emotional engagement with his children and supportive co-parenting.

The challenges associated with our cultural norms around parenting are compounded by variety of factors including the varied relationships men have with their children and the children of their partners, the lack of community services for fathers and the lack of training and educational opportunities for professionals regarding working with men as fathers.  When working with children, we often gather limited data about their relationships with their father. And when we work with men we often failed to gather extensive data on their relationship with their children and their children’s mother, especially when they don’t live together any more.  These gaps reinforce one another, limiting us in our ability to develop meaningful and effective policies and practices involving fathers.

Specific to fathers who abuse partners, we too frequently don’t seek them out, challenge them appropriately, expect and support them to change, or evaluate their commitment to the safety and well-being of their children and partners.  The negative impact of this historical neglect of fathers is compounded by our efforts to coerce mothers into the impossible task of controlling abusive fathers’ behavior.  The result is that we undermine our ability to partner effectively with survivors of domestic violence and miss opportunities to intervene with domestic violence perpetrators.

Building on the success of the Safe and Together Model, DMA’s Responsible Fatherhood Initiative will provide new resources specifically targeted to improving our capacity to successfully engage fathers in efforts to promote the safety and well-being of their families within child welfare systems and other settings such as fatherhood, batter intervention, home visiting, supervised visitation and other programs.   We will also continue to provide support for systems in effectively assessing the role and impact that fathers have in the lives of their families.   We also will offer resources to batterer intervention programs interested in exploring how directly addressing fatherhood and parenting can improve their work with men.

The following are some of the core assumptions currently guiding our work in this area:

  1. Engaging fathers is central to our efforts to engage families.  We cannot say that we are engaging the whole family if we leave fathers out.  We cannot address effectively the safety concerns faced by many families without engaging fathers.
  2. Focusing on responsible fatherhood is a necessary extension of our commitment to the safety and well-being of women and children.
  3. Fathers are a significant force in children’s lives.  Fathers’ influence in children’s lives is significant whether it is positive through support for children’s safety and well-being or negative through the impact of coercive behaviors.  It is also essential to consider a father’s impact (both positive and negative) on his children’s lives whether he remains physically present or is absent from their lives.
  4. The fullest possible positive involvement of fathers in children’s lives cannot be achieved without setting high standards for fathers as co-parent and partners.  Treating a partner or the mother of his children with respect is an essential element of responsible fathering.
  5. Successfully engaging fathers requires skill, competence and commitment.

These assumptions are likely to evolve as our work evolves.  As always, we will remain committed to offering training and resources that are directly related to real world application.  If you have questions about how the Responsible Fatherhood Initiative can support your work with families, please contact me at