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There’s a growing body of research on the importance of fathers in child development and well-being. But there has been relatively limited work exploring what kinds of programs help fathers with parenting skills, particularly fathers in low-income families and underrepresented populations who have made mistakes such as child maltreatment.

“We're trying to get fathers more involved in child welfare and include them more as an important resource for kids. Historically it hasn't been done,” says Julia Kobulsky, assistant professor in the School of Social Work.

Developing effective approaches to helping low-income parents and children starts with gathering better data about how family situations are being handled in the real world. One of Kobulsky’s recent studies examines situations involving fathers in maltreatment cases reported to Child Protective Services (CPS) systems in the United States. Among its findings, the research suggests that although father-alone maltreatment was associated with less severe physical abuse behavior, child maltreatment cases involving fathers are more likely to lead to criminal investigations.

“There are stereotypes, right?” Kobulsky says. “In the context of child maltreatment, there's a concern fathers are more dangerous.”

She analyzed data drawn from the second National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-being (NSCAW-II), a nationally representative study of children investigated for maltreatment by CPS. The goal is to help support development of interventions for maltreating fathers and their affected children by understanding the distinguishing characteristics of the child maltreatment that is attributed to fathers and whether there are disparate outcomes in maltreatment cases attributed to fathers as compared to mothers. Understanding the nature of father-perpetrated maltreatment—and how CPS systems are responding to it—is key to supporting child well-being.

She conducted her research under funding from the Fatherhood Research and Practice Network, a five-year national research project co-led by Jay Fagan, professor in the School of Social Work.

Prior research has suggested that, in reported cases of child abuse and neglect, fathers are perpetrators less often than mothers, as mothers more often are primary caregivers who spend more time with children. Other studies have shown that maltreatment involving fathers is higher risk, particularly for infants and toddlers. This study, using a sample of children from infancy to adolescence, doesn’t display that higher-risk pattern, Kobulsky says. Analysis of the data does show that father-alone maltreatment was associated with less severe physical abuse behavior types, lower caregiver serious mental health problems, and older average child age. The sole variable showing higher risk for the father-alone group was intimate partner violence. Kobulsky's study did find that when a father is involved in reported maltreatment, a case is more likely to lead to a criminal investigation. Absence of effective interventions and tools may contribute to the criminal justice system getting involved, due to a lack of a viable alternative.

“Sometimes there's more of a question about whether they can take care of a child. Traditionally, the CPS system has been geared toward mothers, and caregiving has been seen as part of women's role. Culturally, this is starting to change, but services and systems are slower to catch up.” 

Other factors may also be at play, Kobulsky suggests. Case workers often are female and may be more likely to feel like they need protection when interviewing a father. “Maybe they're more likely to ask law enforcement to accompany them for their own safety. And then it has an unintended consequence,” she says. Training to address bias or help caseworkers engage fathers could be part of the solution.

Even if separation from a maltreating father is called for to protect a child, interventions should address the father’s behavior to prevent the future victimization of another child or intimate partner, Kobulsky’s study concludes.

“Child protective services need to ensure the best interests of the child,” Kobulsky says. “Sometimes child removal or criminal justice intervention is the best option, and necessary to ensure child safety. But placing children into out-of-home foster care has consequences, too. Removal can be traumatizing. In lower risk cases, appropriate services for fathers may successfully prevent harm and preserve family relationships.”