Published in Volume 23, Number 1 by Kirk E. Harris

In 2013, CWLA released its National Blueprint for Excellence in Child Welfare, which “presents a vision for the future of child welfare that all children will grow up safely in loving families and supportive communities. Although the formal child welfare system has a specific role to play as it relates to children who have been or are at risk of abuse and neglect responsibility for the wellbeing of children and youth extends well beyond traditional child welfare organizations and services. …. Everyone … has a responsibility for ensuring the safety, permanency, and well-being of all children and youth” (CWLA, 2013).

One of the key standards of the National Blueprint is a focus on positive engagement strategies, specifically that “All efforts should be made to include fathers throughout their children’s involvement with supports and services” (CWLA, 2013). CWLA is working in partnership with the fatherhood community to advance this important principle.

There have been a number of challenges associated with the embracing of low-income fathers as an asset to their children, families, and communities. These challenges have emanated from a number of sources. Social service practice and public policy have functioned to decouple the father from the family context as a matter of program eligibility and support for mothers and children. Community attitudes and community institutions have not been appreciative or supportive of the roles that fathers can play in advancing the overall well-being and positive outcomes. And Responsible Fatherhood practice has been focused on fathers as the sole unit of analysis, intervention, and support in ways that have siloed the efforts of practitioners and created a crisis in approach that limits the scale, sustainability, and the outcomes associated with this practice.

The Public Policy and Practice Formulation of the Absentee Father

Support for Mothers and Children

Since the inception of the Social Security Act of 1935 and its subsequent amendment in 1939, public policy has viewed the absence of fathers as the primary basis for making support systems available to mothers and children. An extension of this practice in the 1960s took the form of Aid to Families with Dependent Children, in which eligibility rules and requirements excluded men who may in fact have been connected to the household but, nonetheless, had to be invisible–or make himself invisible–to ensure the continued public aid for the family. In the 1990s, welfare reform, manifested by Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), increased pressure on mothers to identify fathers for purposes of collecting child support. Many of these fathers were marginally connected or completely disconnected from the labor market; as a result of this marginal economic status, many of these men could not fulfill the child support obligations imposed on them. This dynamic frequently created tension between the father and the mother, while at the same time pushing low-income fathers underground as a function of their efforts to avoid the severe sanctions associated– incarceration being the harshest of these. All of the aforementioned issues have served to decouple low-income fathers from their families.

Community Attitudes and Social Service Practice

Community attitudes and social service provider practices have typically not been positively predisposed to embracing low-income fathers. Many of these fathers are often struggling to improve their level of economic self-sufficiency; they may have limited education, experienced a stint of incarceration, or struggled with numerous other issues precipitated by their socioeconomic circumstance. National public opinion survey research has found that public opinion is replete with negative attitudes about men and boys of color, and is particularly unforgiving and critical of low-income men and fathers of color. (Opportunity for Black Men and Boys, 2011). Yet within the low-income family, there is recognition of the important role that these men can play in their families. The Fragile Family study, which drew from a large national sample of African-American and Latino low-income families, found that over 90% of mothers surveyed wanted fathers involved so that they could engage with their children (Dispelling Myths About Unmarried Fathers, 2000). A study conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services found that African American fathers tended to live closer to their children and spend more time with their children than white or Latino fathers (Doherty, 1996). This data belies the assumptions of the disaffected father irreparably disassociated from his family, a perception that continues to drive negative community and practitioner perceptions about low-income fathers of color. Low-income fathers should be supported in their efforts to engage with their children and family in healthy, strength-based ways. Social service practice and public policy should encourage the leveraging of existing situational assets that low-income fathers may have available, including mother support and proximity to the family, in order to grow father engagement and healthy relationship-building opportunities among low-income fathers and their children.

Father-Only Thinking as the Framing of Responsible Fatherhood Practice

The work of Responsible Fatherhood began during an era in which idea of father engagement was a foreign concept–any dialogue about the involvement and engagement of low- income fathers of color was often met with disdain, if not hostility. The uplifting of the father’s role and importance is a defining feature of Responsible Fatherhood practice, albeit often solely focused on the father’s financial contribution to the family. The socioeconomic challenges that face low-income fathers of color challenge Responsible Fatherhood practitioners to their very core. Through sheer force of will and commitment, Responsible Fatherhood practitioners with very few resources have provided impressive assistance and support to the fathers they have served; resource constraints and difficulties in identifying supportive community collaborators have required these practitioners to often go it alone. Sporadic funding and the proliferation of practices that find placement under the Responsible Fatherhood “banner” has often precipitated competition among practitioners themselves, and further reinforces an ethic of individualism and “siloing.” This phenomena has bound the field to a history of practice that once worked to assist it in gaining presence, attention, and in many instances, recognition, but now constrains its ability to bring scale to its work, stabilize itself financially and systematically, and consistently measure its impacts and outcomes.

Father Presence and Realizing Fathers as an Asset to Their Children, Families, and Communities

Ecological View of Fatherhood

There must be a growing understanding among Responsible Fatherhood practitioners that the father’s functioning does not occur in isolation and it is best understood as part of a family and community system (Coltrane & Parke, 1998). In order to move toward this new paradigm of practice within Responsible Fatherhood, the field must embrace a more ecologically positioned role of the father within the context of his relationship with his children, his family, and his community. This ecological view appreciates the interactive and interdependent features of fatherhood and fathering and allows for a more nuanced, complex articulation of the notion of fatherhood and fathering. In this constellation of complexity and interwoven causes and effects, fatherhood can find its meaning at multiple levels in which fathers function to improve family and community outcomes: making provisions for the financial support of the family, nurturing and emotionally supporting of children, engaging in effective co-parenting, assuming community leadership, interacting with community institutions such as schools for purposes of exacting performance and accountability, and advancing safety and security in the family and the community. In order for the ecological view of fatherhood to take hold, community attitudes and institutional practices that fail to leverage fathers as a resource and/or an asset must change. Community stakeholders, community institutions, and social service providers must be organized around an ethic that mobilizes community resources for the purpose of advancing family strengthening by engaging low-income fathers as an underutilized asset while simultaneously leveraging other community resources.

Mobilizing Community and Institutional Services and Resources to Advance Father Engagement and Family Strengthening

The leveraging of community assets is an essential strategy for organizing, scaling-up, and resourcing a community- wide family strengthening and father engagement strategy. Kretzmann and McKnight (1993) articulate the importance of mobilizing all of the assets in a community in order to inspire asset-based community development. Asset-based community development furthers the notion that successful community-building involves rediscovering and mobilizing resources that are already present–the skills and resources of individuals and relationships between associations in the community (Rans, 2005). This asset-based approach reveals the power of a meta-infrastructure, the power of building relationships among local associations that share a common purpose in their communities (Kretzmann et al., 2005). In fact, “associations of associations have proven to be the most powerful tool” in community building as they amplify the power of each association (McKnight, 2013).

The Stanford University Collective Impact Model incorporates the core principles of asset-based community development (Kania & Kramer, 2011). These efforts have moved away from depending on isolated, independent organizations as the primary vehicle for social change and moved toward collaboration and commitment of various stakeholders to a common agenda for solving a specific, community-based social problem. (Kania & Kramer, 2011) Kania and Kramer layout the five elements of this collective impact approach:

  • Common Agenda
  • Shared Measurement
  • Mutually Reinforcing Activities
  • Continuous Communications
  • Backbone Organization
  • Measuring Outcomes


Fathers, Families and Healthy Communities, for instance, is a family-strengthening and father-engagement demonstration in the City of Chicago. The demonstration is presently deploying the collective impact model as a foundational feature of its work.


Engaging fathers as assets in their families and communities in a sustainable, scalable way requires collective community commitment and collective community action. The collective action model offers an opportunity to measure the impact of Responsible Fatherhood at scale and simultaneously provides for the embracing and support of fathers by community-wide stakeholders and the existing community social service infrastructure. Fathers desperately want to be involved in raising their children and need a Responsible Fatherhood field that is driven by the support of their community in order to maximize their impact. We must promote an approach that makes the community, not just a given individual program, responsible for advancing Responsible Fatherhood practice. This will ensure that this practice, and its impact on children and families, is scalable, more sustainable, and more measureable.

Kirk E. Harris, MPA, JD, PhD, Esq., is Senior Advisor for Fathers, Families and Healthy Communities, based in Chicago.


Child Welfare League of America. (2013). National Blueprint for Excellence in Child Welfare. Washington, DC: Author.

Coltrane, S., & Parke, R.D. (1998). Reinventing Fatherhood: Toward an Historical Understanding of Continuity and Change in Men’s Family Lives. Philadelphia: National Center on Fathers and Families.

Doherty, W J., Kouneski, E F., & Erickson, M F. (1996). Responsible Fathering: An Overview and Conceptual Framework. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Fragile Families Research Brief no. 1 (May 2000). Dispelling Myths about Unmarried Fathers. Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing, Princeton University and Social Indicators Survey Center, Columbia University.

Kania, J., & Kramer, M. (2011). Collective Impact. Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2011.

Kretzmann, John P. & McKnight, John L. (1993). Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets. Evanston, IL: Asset-Based Community Development Institute, Northwestern University School of Education and Social Policy.

Kretzmann, J. P., McKnight, J. L., Dobrowolski, S., Puntenney, D. (2005). Discovering Community Power: A Guide in Mobilizing Local Assets and Your Organization’s Capacity. Evanston, IL: Asset-Based Community Development Institute, Northwestern University School of Education and Social Policy.

Opportunity for Black Men and Boys: Public Opinion, Media Depictions, and Media Consumption. The Opportunity Agenda, October 2011.

Rans, S. A. (2005). Hidden Treasures: Building Community Connections by Engaging the Gifts of People on Welfare, People with Disabilities, People with Mental Illness, Older Adults, and Young People. Evanston, IL: Asset-Based Community Development Institute, Northwestern University School of Education and Social Policy.

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