Temple Social Work faculty discover a key to helping low-income dads: Ask better questions.
How confident do men feel about their ability to be a dad?
This is a question that hasn’t been asked much—especially in very high-poverty communities, where family systems are complex and social and financial pressures are acute. At Temple University’s School of Social Work, Professor Jay Fagan and researchers at the Fatherhood Research and Practice Network (FRPN) want to know.
“These can be very complex family situations, and there has been very little research looking at what that involves, what effect that has on a father’s parenting, and what effect it has on children,” says Fagan, an FRPN codirector who has been involved in fatherhood research for the past 25 years.
FRPN is a five-year project funded through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and led by researchers and advisers from Temple and the Center for Policy Research, a Denver-based nonprofit that supports human services practitioners and policymakers with research, evaluation, and technical assistance. FRPN funds evaluation studies of community-based fatherhood programs, which provide job-search, personal-finance, and family education and assistance. Now in their third round of grantees, FRPN researchers collaborate with practitioners across the country to find out whether these programs work.
While studying how to improve the way community fatherhood programs are evaluated, researchers found a possible link between the quality of the relationships in a father’s coparenting network and his feelings of closeness to his child and self-efficacy as a parent. The paper that emerged was published in the Journal of Family Psychology.
In interviews with 650 fathers who do not live with at least one of their children, Fagan and his team found that the more cooperative the relationships are among a father’s coparenting network, the more likely he is to report being close to his child. “Cooperation with relatives seems to be strongly associated with fathers’ feelings of self-efficacy and how close they feel to the child,” says Fagan.
The researchers aren’t sure why this may be. “Nobody has done research quite like this, so it's a first step in trying to better understand these kinds of phenomena,” Fagan says.
One key to better understanding, though, is looking at the complex systems of extended family. All families are complex, but those with multiple children of multiple parents and their networks are especially so.
“It’s important to assess not just a father and one mother’s coparenting relationship. We might want to address those various coparenting relationships, not to be too narrow,” Fagan says.
Men come into “responsible fatherhood” programs for many reasons. Often referred by the family court system, they come seeking an economic boost—job search resources, interview coaching, resume help, and skills training—so that they can meet their child support and other financial obligations. And while arguments over money plague coparenting partners of all socioeconomic groups, the combination of highly complicated family systems and deep poverty can conspire to make them especially painful.
“If you’re not paying your child support, sometimes mothers don’t want you to see your child because they’re angry with you for not being more supportive,” Fagan says.
Rebecca Kaufman, a Temple MSW alumna and FRPN’s senior research coordinator, notes that fatherhood programs also provide a positive social network for participants. “People in these programs often build bonds, and that’s important,” she says.
The broader benefit of the study is that it provides a new tool for practitioners. FRPN has made the questionnaires available on its website to practitioners at no cost along with articles that describe their research and development.
"Now we have better tools for investigation. They enable the field to more precisely measure the effects of fatherhood programs." Kaufman says.