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Children face greater risk when agencies focus only on moms, overlook dads

Family service agencies are missing huge opportunities to help children by focusing only on mothers and ignoring fathers, according to a groundbreaking study by some top U.S. family and child development researchers.

The scientific study, which is being published [10Aug09] in the Journal of Marriage and the Family, found that when mothers and fathers enrolled together in 16-week sessions to work on their relationships as parents and partners, their children were much less likely to show signs of depression, anxiety and hyperactivity.

“The vast majority of family services — from parenting classes to home visits — are really aimed at mothers, while fathers are almost completely overlooked,” explained Dr. Kyle Pruett, clinical professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and a co-author of the study.

“The research is clear that the best way to create a healthy environment for children is to engage dads and moms together.”

An executive summary of the research and the full research paper are available for the public.

According to the most recent census statistics, one in three children grow up without fathers. For low-income families, that percentage is even greater. Previous research has found that kids with absent fathers are more likely to suffer from psychological problems, drug addiction or incarceration in their lifetime.

The new study is especially relevant at a time when the president is calling on fathers to take more responsibility and when economic distress is expected to put more pressure on young fathers and their families.

The Supporting Father Involvement study represents the first randomized, controlled clinical trial focused on encouraging father involvement in low- and middle-income families.

The study compared father-only and father-mother interventions with each other, and against a control group, and evaluated the impacts on parents and children.

Highlights from the research include:

The behavioral and psychological involvement of fathers significantly increased when fathers were given the tools to be more effective parents alone or with the mothers.

Parenting stress decreased when fathers and mothers participated in the groups together.

While distress in couple relationships grew predictably in both the control and fathers-only groups, when fathers and mothers went through the groups together, the quality of their relationships as couples remained stable for more than a year after the groups ended.

Children of fathers who went through the program alone or with the mothers were much less aggressive, hyperactive, depressed or socially withdrawn than children of fathers in the control group.

The research was funded by the California Department of Social Services Office of Child Abuse Prevention, with additional support from The Stewart Foundation, and gathered evidence from family resource centers in five California counties: Yuba, Tulare, Contra Costa, Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo.

The researchers note in their paper that the factors that contribute to more violent behavior in the home are exacerbated when families experience greater economic stress, as they do today, making this research especially timely and relevant.

“The transformation that some of the men went through because we gave them the tools and encouragement to be involved as parents is amazing,” said Roy Martin, a director of the Supporting Fatherhood Program in Yuba County.

“Some of the couples have been so enthusiastic about supporting each other that they continue to meet as a group, even after their participation in the program concluded.”

“Public and private agencies would get more bang for their buck if their programs that already focus on mothers were retooled to include fathers as well,” said Richard S. Atlas, founder of the Atlas Family Foundation, which focuses on early child development and parent education.

“Essentially, what we need is a First Five for Fathers, or, better yet, a First Five for both parents.”

Visit the Supporting Father Involvement website,
[10August 2009,]