Problem: Children of absentee fathers are at higher risk of poverty, emotional and behavioral problems and incarceration.
Solution: Provide interested fathers the resources, training and support to reengage with their children.
Lesford Duncan isn’t a father. But if he becomes one, he couldn’t wish for a better role model than the dad who raised him as a single parent.
“I had a father who was personally engaged with my life, who even though my parents had separated — my mother having experienced mental health issues — our father took custody of us and he really became our advocate,” said Duncan, child abuse prevention coordinator at San Bernardino County, Calif.’s Children’s Network. “He became our champion.”
Now, in his work, Duncan gets to help ensure that other fathers can enjoy the same kind of relationships with their children through the Inland Empire Father Involvement Coalition (IEFIC). It’s a group of community-based, county and faith-based organizations that are working together to reduce father absenteeism and support fathers’ engaging with their children.
The need exists. Between 2009 and 2013, 34.3 percent of households in San Bernardino County were single-parent homes, according to U.S. Census data. That’s nearly 10 points higher than the national average of 24.4 percent. Those same data show that of all fatherless households with children under the age of 18 in the county, 43.5 percent were below the poverty level (the county’s average poverty rate is about 20 percent).
Absentee fathers increase a child’s risk of a number of poor outcomes, according to IEFIC, such as poverty, poor school performance, child abuse and neglect, emotional and behavioral problems, and incarceration.
Named for the Inland Empire region of California, east of Los Angeles, IEFIC encourages healthy child development by promoting the involvement, necessity and value of the role of fathers in the family and community. Its vision is to help fathers “fully engage as stable, supportive educators and providers, and serve as healthy family role models.”
Duncan said the need for such a coalition evolved from discussions with First 5 San Bernardino, a state-funded program to promote, support and improve early childhood development with the help of communities and child-serving agencies.
From those meetings, one takeaway was that fathers felt a lack of father-friendly resources to help them become more involved in their children’s lives — that there were of barriers both within the home and in county and community systems. And that negative media portrayals of fathers as deadbeats or incompetent were destructive.
IEFIC combats those notions with a four-pillared approach:
- mentoring and education opportunities for fathers
- support services that are more accessible to fathers
- public relations and outreach to promote positive images of fatherhood through media, and
- evaluating program outcomes and identifying best practices for father engagement.
Since forming in 2013, IEFIC has conducted two fatherhood conferences, attracting more than 400 fathers and families, targeted towards new and young fathers, low-income parents, fathers of children with special needs and those involved in the child welfare and probation systems.
To provide educational opportunities for fathers, the coalition has adopted the Nurturing Father’s Program’s nationally accredited, 13-week curriculum and trained 11 trainers from nine organizations and agencies to expand the program’s reach.
Last summer, the coalition launched the multimedia campaign — “Be the Hero of Their Story”— designed to improve the image of fatherhood through TV interviews, the use of billboards, flyers, radio ads and social media posts.
The coalition has brought together more than 200 partners representing 50-plus county, community and faith based organizations for monthly meetings to collaborate and strategize.
“The coalition is still in its infancy,” Duncan said, “but there’s a lot more that we envision ourselves doing.”
A key partner in the coalition is the county’s Children and Family Services (CFS) division, with which IEFIC has partnered on annual community fatherhood breakfasts.
Duncan noted that over the past several years, CFS has helped to increase the number of fathers involved in case planning to reunify children who have been removed from homes back into stable home environments.
“A father doesn’t necessarily need to be regularly in the home with the child because we recognize that many marriages fall apart, many children are born out of wedlock,” Duncan said. “We also promote co-parenting where the father is actively taking steps to work with the mother to ensure that they’re getting visits, that they’re seeing their kids at least once a week or every couple of weeks for an extended period of time.”
Harking back to his own story, he said, “Even though I personally have experienced a lot of adversity as a child growing up, I credit my dad’s presence to really building resilience in my life.”
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