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.