Fathers Are a Necessary Piece in a Child’s Puzzle of Life
Judge Oscar G. Gabaldón, Jr.
“It is a wise father that knows his own child.” When the celebrated English playwright William Shakespeare uttered these thought-provoking words, the reality of absent fathers was probably foremost in his thoughts. Without their presence in a child’s life, they do not know the child. While some fathers choose to be absent, there are others who are absent not necessarily by their own choosing but by other circumstances. These include a lack of awareness that they have a child or perhaps a mother keeping the child’s whereabouts secret, and the list goes on.
The dilemma of the absent father is frequently present in many dependency court cases. This reality calls for consistent and proactive efforts to be undertaken by the judge, child welfare officials, CASA/GAL volunteers, parent and child attorneys and other interested stakeholders in the dependency court case. All of these parties should work to identify, locate and engage fathers in their children’s lives. Fathers are not only very important to their children, but they are also critical to the child welfare legal process. Therefore, everyone in the process, beginning with the judge, has an ongoing duty to ensure that earnest steps are taken to involve fathers. Fathers need to be respected and afforded all their rights and privileges throughout the entire child protection legal process.
While it is true that states differ in their legal requirements and definitions as to who may constitute a legal father as opposed to a biological father with limited parental rights, the opportunity for that father to come forward into the legal arena and exercise all his rights under the law should be treated as nothing less than sacred. Hence, information concerning the father should be sought out and gathered as soon as possible to identify, locate and engage fathers. In this regard, the judge usually enjoys a unique advantage by virtue of “the power of the robe” to elicit information about the father from the mother, who may not reveal that information to the child protection officials, attorneys, CASA volunteers or others with an interest and need to know. Additionally, the judge has the ability to order that others follow up on leads and other available information to find and properly engage fathers.
Judges are gatekeepers for the court system as well as the ultimate arbitrators in the administration of justice for the cases coming before them. In these respects, they are responsible for guaranteeing that all fathers—whether they are referred to as alleged, presumed, biological, putative or whatever qualifiers are used to describe their legal status—should be afforded ample opportunity to receive notice of legal and court proceedings, to be appointed an attorney in accordance with existing laws, to be allowed to participate actively and equitably in all proceedings, to help facilitate their engagement in the process within legal bounds and to be consistently afforded complete due process of the law.
The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 and the Child and Family Services Reviews (CFSRs) are legal measures in place to ensure and strengthen judicial oversight over child protection cases. These laws and processes bring significant attention to the importance of meaningful parental engagement. However, a further understanding and appreciation of the importance of the fathers’ role is necessary so that fathers may be more effectively and successfully engaged. Since some child protection officials have experienced unpleasant experiences with some fathers, they may be reluctant to commit fully to reaching out to fathers. For some, there are concerns that involvement by fathers may translate into more work, potential conflicts with the mothers and an array of other headaches. This type of attitude is hurtful, particularly because it ignores the potential benefits that involvement of the fathers may bring to the children and to a sound resolution of the case.
The fathers’ involvement may mean better results for children; for example, it may often be preferable to place a child with the father versus placement in foster care or with some other family member. So long as fathers do not pose a risk of danger to their children, their participation in their children’s lives tends to bring their children advantages of all sorts, such as financial, social and developmental advantages. Furthermore, it is evident that if fathers are not actively sought out, are not provided adequate notice about court proceedings and have their legal rights ignored, they, like their children, stand to lose out on significant opportunities. These include promotion of the children’s overall well-being and the fathers’ sense of accountability and bonding toward their children.
Studies have shown that when fathers are involved in their children’s lives, the children’s upbringing often results in more positive outcomes. In these respects, we must also not forget that fathers have their own parents, siblings and other relatives who are part of the children’s extended family. The fathers’ extended families, which often include very dependable members, help create a sense of belonging and familial security for the children.
Moreover, children of parents who are not legally married should not be treated differently in how they are assisted in reunifying with their parents or other family members. These children have every right to be treated with all the privileges and attentions as any other children in the child welfare system. That means making diligent efforts to find and engage the fathers, to help the children develop or strengthen their bonding with both parents and to seriously support both parents with appropriate services to increase their ability to properly parent and protect their children. Fathers should be part of family group conferences, family team meetings, mediations and other types of group decision-making processes. They should be afforded frequent visitation opportunities with their children in homelike settings. They should be supported in going to their children’s medical and dental appointments, school activities and otherwise being part of as many aspects of the child’s life as possible both in and out of foster care.
It is clear that the role of fathers is essential in pursuing the best interests of children. Fathers are just as important as the mothers, and they should share equal opportunities to be responsible for and to cherish their children. Even though substantial strides have been made to enhance court best practices and child welfare initiatives to reach out to fathers and have them engage in the process as full parental participants from beginning to end, more needs to be done. Let all fathers be welcomed with open arms so that they may cherish their children beyond their biological ties to them. Let them embrace their children at the heart, for as the German poet, philosopher and historian Johann Schiller once remarked: “It is not flesh and blood but the heart which makes us fathers and sons.”