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Colorado Taking Steps to Empower Fathers

LowenbachJudge J. Robert Lowenbach
District Court Judge (retired)

Summary: If we believe that children benefit from the involvement of their fathers, it is critical that they feel their participation is welcomed and that the court and other stakeholders truly value involvement.

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Almost 25% of American children live in mother-only households at any given time (US Census Bureau, 2006). An even larger percentage of our child welfare caseload fits this description. Historically, our child welfare systems, including our courts, have followed society’s inclination to dismiss fathers as important resources for their children. Research has shown that children achieve better outcomes when their fathers are involved in quality interactions with their children. It is therefore critical to the safety, permanency and well-being of our children that as judges we empower and actively seek the involvement of fathers in the child welfare court process. In Colorado there are many programs, policies and laws designed to do just that.

In addition to regulations that require caseworkers to contact each parent at least once per month, Colorado law requires that each parent be served with process in order to start the child protection court case. But as with any other regulation or law, the leadership of the judicial officer is critical in making sure that fathers are actually engaged in the process, that service is accomplished and that regular and meaningful contact is maintained.

Unfortunately, many fathers come into our system expecting the worst. They expect to be discriminated against. Once they receive the slightest hint that we are relegating them to the traditional role of “breadwinner” and excluding them from the more satisfying roles of “nurturer” and “caretaker,” they frequently become resentful and disheartened. Therefore, if we believe that children benefit from the involvement of their fathers, it is critical that they feel their participation is welcomed and that the court and other stakeholders truly value involvement.

Providing father-specific programs is an important strategy to promote the involvement of fathers in their children’s lives. Colorado’s Promoting Responsible Fatherhood Initiative was begun in 2006 with the assistance of a $10-million federal grant. The initiative is designed to strengthen father/child relationships and improve parenting. Of the $2 million awarded annually, the majority is awarded to faith and community-based organizations that provide father-specific parent skills training and healthy marriage/couples relationships training as their core services. The Responsible Fatherhood website focuses on program goals, news about upcoming training and links to more than 50 responsible fatherhood programs around the state.

In Montrose, fathers in the Empowering Dads program work with a coach who provides individual assessment, case management, advocacy and mediation to improve their relationships with their families. The coach also assists fathers in accessing appropriate community services where those are needed. Parenting classes, group workshops on healthy communication and relationships, legal system information and father/child interactive experiential activities are also available to participants.

In Weld County, the faith-based Be a Man! Fatherhood Program provides services with the goal of engaging fathers in their children’s lives. This program offers free child care and transportation for meetings as well as food, stipends and incentives for attending. It also offers a father-specific, evidence-based parenting curriculum. Mentoring relationships are offered that match fathers with other dads who serve as advisors and role models. Although not a requirement of the program, many of the dads in the program are involved in the child welfare system.

Those who work with fathers in the Responsible Fatherhood programs describe as the most rewarding part of their work watching fathers experience real growth in their parenting skills and their improved ability to interact effectively with their children and the children’s mothers. Tyler Osterhaus, the manager overseeing the Weld County programs, says, “The goal is to support a guy to really make a change of heart to prioritize his kids and family and realize that his children are his greatest asset in life. If he can do this, we believe the rest [employment, child support, etc.] will follow.”

Involved fathers provide immeasurable benefits to their children in the child welfare system. Our recognition of this fact is long overdue. To provide real value to the children and families we serve, it is incumbent upon judicial officers to collaborate with other stakeholders to engage and provide appropriate services for fathers. We must also think long and hard about what changes in our practices and procedures might promote the healthy and effective engagement of fathers. The children and families we serve deserve nothing less.

Editor’s Note: Judge Lowenbach is a ChildTrauma fellow, a judge in residence with the Colorado Judicial Branch and a consultant dedicated to improving court and agency practice for dependent children and their families. Prior to his retirement in January 2009, he was a district court judge in Greeley, CO.

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