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Father Involvement in Kinship Foster Care: An Empirical Study

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John O'Donnell conducted this study to increase knowledge about casework practice with biological fathers of children who are in the child welfare system. The study was based on data gathered from caseworkers in two private agencies' kinship foster care programs. As O'Donnell states, "Kinship foster care was considered a particularly opportune child welfare service in which to study practice for two reasons. First, the use of relatives as foster parents for maltreated children has increased significantly in the past decade. In some states, such as Illinois, kinship foster home placements now outnumber placements in nonrelated homes. Secondly, kinship foster care inherently promotes the involvement of biological family in the care and treatment of placed children."

Research participants

Research project staff collected data on the cases through in-person interviews with the 54 caseworkers who were responsible for services to the 100 selected children and their families. The children were primarily young African American children. Caseworkers knew the identity of 91 of the 100 fathers who also were primarily African American. This study was limited to the 82 fathers whose identity was known to the caseworker, who were living, and whose parental rights had not been terminated.

Caseworkers' knowledge about the fathers

One of the most striking aspects of this study is the caseworker's lack of information about the fathers. Caseworkers did not know the marital status of 41 percent of the fathers nor the housing status of 54 percent. (Of the 48 fathers whose marital status was known, 71 percent had never married and only six percent were married to the mother of the child in placement.) The caseworkers had no information about the education or income of most of the fathers. For 67 percent of the fathers, caseworkers were able to identify one or more problems that affected the father's ability to care for the placed child, but in 50 percent of the cases, caseworkers stated that they did not know whether or not the fathers had any strengths for caring for their children, and stated that 15 percent of the fathers had no strengths.

Casework practice with fathers

Caseworkers' accounts of their contacts with fathers were consistent with their general lack of knowledge about this group. In 63.4 percent of cases, caseworkers reported no contact with the father in the preceding six months. While caseworkers did have at least one telephone communication or in-person meeting with 30 of the 82 fathers, only a small percentage of fathers had contact with caseworkers on a regular basis.

Nine activities were used to measure fathers' participation in case planning and service delivery, including engagement, participation in the family assessment and development of the plan for the child, participation in the most recent case review, and the father's receipt of services from the agency. The data indicate that few fathers were engaged in helping efforts on behalf of their child. Only five of the 82 fathers were receiving services to assist them in assuming greater responsibility for the child.

Caseworkers' characteristics and father involvement

Forty-five of the 54 caseworkers were female, 26 were African American, 24 were white, three were Latino, and one was Native American. Forty-four had a bachelor's degree, seven had master's degrees in fields other than social work, and three had master's degrees in social work. The mean length of experience in human services was 3.2 years, and the mean length of experience in kinship foster care was one year. These caseworkers served an average caseload of 22 children from eight families, and the average length of time that a caseworker had served a case was 12 months. The analyzed data indicated that:

There was no statistically significant difference between the white and African American caseworkers in regard to the average number of contacts with fathers.

* There were no differences in the average number of service activities among fathers served by white and African American caseworkers.

* There were no significant associations between the length of caseworkers' professional experience in kinship foster care or all human services and either the number of contacts or service participation.

* Practice did not vary significantly by the size of the caseworkers' caseload or the length of time the caseworker had served a case.

Placement with maternal and paternal relatives and father involvement

Fathers whose children were placed with paternal relatives had more contact on average with caseworkers than those whose children were placed with maternal relatives. The fathers with children in paternal family homes were engaged in a mean number of 2.45 activities compared to a mean of .90 for those with children in maternal relatives. The most plausible explanation for this finding is that placement with paternal relatives usually afforded caseworkers greater access to the father.

Caseworkers' responses to the lack of involvement by fathers

The study also examined to what extent caseworkers developed ways for working successfully with fathers, pursued opportunities to connect with noninvolved fathers, or even identified lack of paternal involvement as a concern. Caseworkers' responses suggested that they seldom gave attention to the fathers of the children in their caseload:

* Eighty-two percent of the fathers had not contributed to the most recent case assessment. When asked what additional information they would have liked to have had available for this assessment, caseworkers mentioned information from or about the father in four percent of the cases.

* Ninety percent of the fathers had not participated in drafting the most recent service plan for the child and family. In only 16 percent of these cases, caseworkers cited fathers' lack of participation as an impediment to case planning.

* Caseworkers had at least monthly conferences with their supervisors. In 84 percent of the cases, caseworkers reported no discussions about the father with the supervisor. Similarly, in 83 percent of the cases, caseworkers did not note any discussion about the father in their contacts with external agencies such as the juvenile court, the public child welfare agency, and community service providers.

* Caseworkers typically made monthly visits to the homes of foster parents who were related to the father. In 61 percent of these cases, not a single reference to the father was made during these home visits with the fathers' relatives, even though the caseworker had reported not knowing the father's whereabouts in many of these cases.

Policy and practice implications

The findings of this study have several implications for child welfare practice and policy:

* The low level of paternal involvement in planning and services, coupled with the caseworkers' apparent disinterest in paternal involvement, raises serious concerns about their willingness and ability to work with fathers. The field needs to develop child welfare case-worker's knowledge about fathers, fatherhood, and current research on the paternal role in families.

* Particular attention needs to be paid to caseworkers' perception of minority fathers which may include preconceived, negative views of inner-city African American fathers. This may require training among professionals at all levels in child welfare agencies.

* Child welfare staff do not know how to assess the full range of paternal capacities or to match these capacities to the needs of individual children. In addition to training, the development of paternal assessment instruments would also help staff to consider a broad range of roles and responsibilities in determining fathers' parenting potential.

* The fathers' needs span several service areas such as job training, drug treatment, and paternal skill development. The current fragmentation of these services hampers the development and implementation of comprehensive services.
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