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 marklarson@endingviolence.com.