Welfare Reform Inspires a Variety of State Efforts

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Research shows that children are more successful academically when their fathers are involved in their lives.

Federal welfare-reform legislation passed almost three years ago not only brought new work requirements for mothers. It also put a strong emphasis on the responsibilities of fathers.

Since then, fatherhood initiatives have been on the rise, with every state reporting that it has at least one program geared specifically toward fathers, according to a 1997 report from the New York City-based National Center for Children in Poverty.

In the past, schools haven't been at the forefront of such initiatives, but now they, too, are part of an "unprecedented interest" in fathers, says James Levine, who has been involved in such programs for 25 years and is the director of the Fatherhood Project at the Families and Work Institute in New York.

One reason schools are beginning to focus specifically on fathers is research showing that children are more successful academically when their fathers are involved in their lives.

In addition, a 1995 executive order from President Clinton directed that all federally funded programs and research focusing on families begin including fathers. The move has helped to raise awareness.

One year earlier, Vice President Al Gore launched the national Father to Father effort. The ongoing project has put father involvement in schools at the top of its agenda for the next three years. Supported by private organizations, Father to Father will compile information on research and programs relating to fathers and tailor it specifically to educators, says Mr. Levine, who serves as the project's co-chairman.

According to the 1997 NCCP report, "Map and Track: State Initiatives to Encourage Responsible Fatherhood," these programs tend to fall into one of five categories: promoting public awareness about responsible fatherhood; preventing unwanted or too-early fatherhood; enhancing fathers as economic providers; strengthening fathers as nurturers; and promoting leadership capacity.

Because of their connection to welfare reform, the intent of many fatherhood initiatives is to get noncustodial fathers to pay child support. One way child-support-enforcement agencies have tried to reach fathers is through the federal Head Start preschool program. But such efforts sometimes work against Head Start's objectives.

"The Head Start people want fathers to be more involved in their program, especially fathers who are not employed, because they have more time," says Stanley Bernard, a co-author of the NCCP report. "But then you have child support wanting to collect from these fathers."

The NCCP report concluded that while there is a high level of activity at the state and local levels to promote responsible fatherhood, little is known about "what approaches work best for which group of fathers."

Research is often conducted with a "maternal template," as one researcher describes it, and the picture of fathers is somewhat distorted. In most surveys of low-income families, it's the mothers who are interviewed.

But two large-scale studies now under way aim to provide much-needed information on the role of fathers in their children's lives.

Both the Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration on Children, Youth, and Families, and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, will include direct interviews with fathers.

For schools, there are a variety of ways to take part in the fatherhood movement. While some are teaching responsible fatherhood through their curricula, others are reaching out to the fathers of their students with the message that parent involvement doesn't just apply to mothers.

In general, Levine says, fatherhood programs at the preschool and elementary levels focus on the pupils' fathers. When students reach middle and high school, the focus begins to shift to the students. The goal is not only to stress the importance of fathers, but also to discourage young men from becoming fathers too early.

An example of this approach is Dads Make a Difference, a curriculum developed by the University of Minnesota Extension Service and picked up in other states. Through the program, high school students learn and then teach middle schoolers about the importance of fathers in the lives of children. The curriculum also discourages students from becoming fathers too early in their lives.

While there may be natural connections between schools and fatherhood programs, schools still face significant challenges.

For the past two years, Felix Sarubbi, a school social worker with the 5, 400-student Coventry, R.I., public schools, and Chris Warner, a school psychologist there, have been running Just for Dads, a once-a-month program that grew out of other parenting classes offered to families in the district. But even with a growing national awareness of the importance of fathers, Mr. Sarubbi doesn't expect his job to get any easier.

"A lot of the energy in this district has to do with [academic] standards," he says. "The social service pieces are going to get harder and harder to sell."

Moreover, many fathers resist the notion that they could benefit from some support. Nine fathers currently attend the Just for Dad sessions, but Mr. Sarubbi wishes more would respond.

The meetings are a combination of discussion time and presentations from guest speakers on such topics as anger management, child development, and the differences between being a parent to sons and daughters.

"I tell [the fathers], it sends a powerful message to your children just that you're coming," Mr. Sarubbi says.

For more information on the Father to Father initiative, write to either of the co-chairs--James Levine or Martha Farrell Erickson--by e-mail. Their addresses are [email protected] and [email protected]

Vol. 18, Issue 35, Pages 29-30

Published in Print: May 12, 1999, as Welfare Reform Inspires a Variety of State Efforts
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