Studies show having an involved father leads to better grades, lower teen pregnancy rates, lower drug use, lower crime rates and lower aggression.¹
Emotionally, it’s pretty simple; Kids love their parents.
“Kids love their parents and will defend them to an irrational level,” says Patrick Duganz, Father Engagement Specialist at Gallatin City-County Health Department. “For example, a little boy will sit outside on the step waiting for his dad to come, even though the dad has missed the last 15 visits.”
Yet out of the approximately 24 million children living in the U.S., one out of three live in a home where their biological father is not present.²
“More than 20 million children live in a home without the physical presence of a father. Millions more have dads who are physically present, but emotionally absent. If it were classified as a disease, fatherlessness would be an epidemic worthy of attention as a national emergency.” (National Center for Fathering.)
The cause is complex, the effects are dramatic and the solution is not easy.
Where does it all start?
With a father’s own father.
“The majority of the problem with absent dads is that they weren’t shown how to be a parent. They want to parent, but weren’t parented themselves. We expect men to understand a role they were never shown. Many of these fathers were either abused or abandoned themselves,” Duganz explains, “Which leads to a feeling of inadequacy.”
In an article by the Huffington Post, a dad named Dwayne talks about why he left. “The reason I walked away is because, at the moment, I wasn’t the man that I wanted to be for [my kids],” Dwayne says. “I put them on a higher pedestal than I put myself. So, at a point, I wasn’t worthy to be in their life because I wasn’t the man that I would want for them.”³
Duganz said that often the biggest road block to becoming more involved with their children is their own lack of confidence about the job, a problem that can be caused by negative feedback from other relatives. This negativity sometimes pushes fathers to be less involved. “Often, the problem is that they don’t feel good about their ability to be a good dad,” Duganz said. “By leaving, it eliminates the feelings of self-doubt and of people not liking them.”
Another factor contributing to fatherlessness is mass incarceration. The New York Times reports, “The United States’ incarceration rate is now more than four times the world average, with about 2.2 million people in prisons and jails. Of those, roughly 200,000 are federal inmates, double the number from 20 years ago. This substantial increase occurred even as violent crime was falling sharply.”⁴
The effects of incarceration can last far beyond a father’s release date. “Men come out of prison and feel like they can’t be a good dad, or that they shouldn’t be there. Especially when another man, or father figure is in their children’s lives while they were gone,” Duganz explains.
Which in turn, leads to more feelings of inadequacy…and the cycle continues.
The trickle-down effect.
Children generally have 3-5 people in their day to day life; it could be a mom, dad, siblings and maybe close satellite family members. Fathers are the first male they get to know, the first archetype. An involved father will want to see healthy, happy kids who can show emotion. They want to see their children be successful in life.
Kids need these role models. “A dad can help socialize his kids in ways that we can’t begin to fathom. One good dad is causing a ripple effect that we will never know,” Duganz says. “You can see the effects in the community; in the graduation rate, the crime rate. Something as simple as showing up for a soccer game shows a child that you care, it gives them positive reinforcement. You know there are fathers doing a great job when you wake up in the morning and your car stereo is still in your car.”
Conversely, absent dads have a huge impact on a child’s life– it becomes who they think a man is, or should be. “Children emulate what they know. Women with abusive dads learn that it’s acceptable. Show me a pregnant teen with a black eye, and I will show you a poor father,” Duganz says. “Often times, a violent offender has a violent father.”
Teach a man to fish.
Amie Gatterdam, Father Engagement Program Supervisor for Gallatin City-County Health Department identified a huge opportunity to make a difference. “For every 100 moms we saw in our home visiting program, there was 1 dad,” she explained. “We received a grant to start the Father Engagement Program, and within 2 months Patrick’s caseload was full.”
The program, free to any father in the county with children ages 0-5 or expectant fathers, supports dads in many different situations. “We teach Dad’s about normal childhood development—things like tantrums being normal and appropriate– that this is the child’s way of telling you they have a need,” Gatterdam said.
It doesn’t stop there. Patrick [Duganz] helps dads with things such as applying for daycare scholarships, completing custody paperwork, and connecting them with other community resources.
Thinking outside the box, Duganz approached the detention center and now does a class once a week on the importance of being a dad.
Judges, attorneys, the victim’s advocate office and the mediation office are all entities who call on the Father Engagement Program and commend the work.
Tiffani Pimley, Fresh Start Program Coordinator for Gallatin County Detention Center tells this success story: “An inmate was not able to see his little boy, he had no one to turn to and had so many questions. Patrick worked with him while he was in jail, and continued when he got out, helping him through mediation, parenting plans and ways to handle himself in meetings. Had Patrick not been involved, the father wouldn’t have had the resources or knowledge; he wouldn’t have gotten through.”
She goes on to say,“People always focus on the mother and fathers get lost in the shuffle. Patrick helps them learn skills to be positive role models which is imperative to help individuals be good dads. Men love it. At first, they want out of the program, but they work through it and in the end they are happy they did.”
The program is open to anyone. Chad, a first time dad looking for information to help him parent his young child had this to say, “It [the program] has helped me manage my frustrations. It’s nice having someone to talk to about being a first time dad.”
Nick, a single dad adjusting to being on his own says, “It’s good to know someone is there to help me.”
For more information, contact:
Father Engagement Specialist
Gallatin City-County Health Department
¹National Fatherhood Initiative & National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse
²U.S. Census Bureau, 2011