Engaging fathers on CASA cases

Mar 18 2013

By Greg Trottie

If I were to try and identify what seems to be a similar aspect in CASA cases I’ve worked on, including my work with CASA programs in Louisiana and Illinois, it would be the uneven efforts and/or expectations between mothers and fathers in child welfare cases. Sadly, too many fathers are either AWOL, incarcerated for vital chunks of their children’s lives or they’re present but may not be as significant to the process as they should be.

The child is in the care of the state and all the parts of the machine have began churning in order to return the child home or place them with relatives to achieve permanency.  During this process sometime we don’t shine the light under the paternal rock as long as we should. What can be discovered underneath can turn out to be a valuable key to permanency as well as the child’s emotional well being.

I recently attended Kenneth Thompson’s “A Hole in the Soul” training on engaging fathers of children in the foster care system. Mr. Thompson told us of his personal story of growing up without his father and how it impacted his life.  He asked the group to think about the depiction of the father in media and on television. Although there weren’t a ton of responses, everyone seemed to nod their head when someone mentioned Bill Cosby’s depiction of the father on the 80s/90s era sitcom “The Cosby Show.” He then pointed out that the current longest-running father on TV is Homer Simpson. That’s right - the Homer Simpson that somehow comes off as loveable even though he’s probably best known for choking his son when he gets angry.  Although Homer’s present, he’s pretty irresponsible in all other aspects of fatherhood.

Throughout Mr. Thompson’s presentation he gave us vital questions to ponder. He spoke of the number of children being brought into care with an absent father, asking “Who fills the void that’s left by that absent father?” Mr. Thompson explained the skepticism a father may have about being involved with the Child Protective Services system. Some fathers may have grown up in CPS as well and associate any type of “system” as being more of a problem than a solution.

Here are some key points from Mr. Thompson’s presentation for future reference when working with fathers:

  • Value the Venue of Engagement: When and where may be the best place to have a conversation with a father in order to gain insight into areas of strengths and support, as well as areas of improvement as we recommend services?
  • Try to eliminate bias as you engage the father.
  • Inquire some about his family dynamics, including who raised him. What was the relationship like with his own father (or stepfather or mother’s boyfriend)?
  • Be careful of how one documents interaction with the father as to not unnecessarily give a negative portrayal of the person based off conversation in which he may be emotional or frustrated.
  • Be careful not to totally discount the value of a child visiting a father in jail or getting info from a incarcerated father about more family ties that my lead to a home. 

Overall Mr. Thompson’s presentation reinforced the need to explore the fathers and their side of the family as we go down all types of avenues seeking options for a safe and permanent home for the children we serve. Ultimately, it may prove to be beneficial by increasing the chance that a child finds permanency in a home with relatives. Engaging fathers more could also have an effect on the issue of disproportionality as well as have a positive effect on the child’s sense of belonging, security and value.