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Dads and Paternal Relatives: Using Family Group Decision Making to Refocus the Child Welfare System on the Entire Family Constellation

Molly Jenkins and Ellen Kinney

Ellen Kinney, MA, Program Assistant, American Humane Association (pictured at right)
Molly Jenkins, MSW, Program Assistant, American Humane Association (pictured at left)

With support from Lisa Merkel-Holguin, Director, National Center on Family Group Decision Making, American Humane; and Karen Jenkins, Director, Fatherhood Initiative, American Humane

Summary: Identifying and locating nonresident fathers is the first step to involving them in their children’s lives. Once identified, involving them in family group decision making empowers fathers and paternal relatives to make meaningful investments and commitments in the lives of their children.


Due to the many challenges facing families today, more children are growing up in homes without their biological father. This often results in fathers having a diminished role in their children’s daily lives. When children become involved in the public child welfare system, engaging fathers in their children’s lives can become even more difficult. Furthermore, many children involved with the child welfare system did not have fathers living with them at the time of child welfare involvement, creating a need to identify, locate and contact the nonresident father (NRF).

Father involvement is undeniably important to the lives of children. Children with involved fathers display better cognitive outcomes; higher self-esteem and less depression as teenagers; greater academic achievement; lower levels of substance use; and higher levels of pro-social behaviors (Father Facts, 5th Edition, 2007). Furthermore, father involvement has been noted to contribute to positive child development, even for NRFs (Schmid, 2006, p. 23). In contrast, children of father-absent homes have a higher risk of living in poverty, failing in school, developing emotional or behavioral problems, abusing drugs, being abused or neglected, becoming involved in crime and committing suicide (Father Facts, 5th Edition, 2007).

In 2006, the Urban Institute published a report on child welfare agencies’ efforts to identify, locate and involve NRFs in the child welfare process. The report What About the Dads? reviewed cases of children who were removed from their homes where their biological father did not reside. Telephone interviews with the involved caseworkers found that 70% of caseworkers had received training on engaging fathers and caseworkers who received training were more likely to report having located fathers. However, while 88% of NRFs were identified by the agency, only 55% were contacted by the caseworker, indicating that training may not be sufficient to address broader systemic issues. Of the contacted NRFs, 30% visited their child and 28% expressed an interest in assuming custody of their child, demonstrating that many fathers would like to be involved with their children (Malm, Murray & Geen, 2006). Despite these positive findings, some workers noted that working with fathers can be difficult; 82% of caseworkers believed that fathers need assistance with their parenting skills and 44% thought that working with NRFs can complicate a case (Malm et al., 2006). These findings about worker beliefs are discouraging, given that children have the right to know their family connections, fathers have the right to be involved in the decisions that affect their children, and fathers can often positively contribute to their children’s well-being.

The follow-up study, More About the Dads (Malm, Zielewski, and Chen, 2008), found that children with involved fathers are more likely to be reunified and less likely to be adopted than children whose fathers are not involved. However, high levels of adoption for children with unknown or uninvolved fathers may indicate that many fathers are contacted simply to expedite permanency planning or to terminate parental rights (American Humane, 2007). In addition, well-being outcomes were improved for children who had fathers that had provided financial support, nonfinancial support and had visited their child at least once (Malm et al., 2008). This finding demonstrates that having a highly involved father can have a positive impact on a child.

In 2001, the US Children’s Bureau began conducting its first round of Child and Family Services Reviews (CFSRs). These CFSRs revealed numerous notable findings about parental involvement. For example, mothers are more likely than fathers to receive services; workers are inconsistent in involving fathers in case planning; fathers had fewer visitations with children in foster care; visits with fathers were often not of sufficient quality; the needs of fathers were assessed and met inconsistently and less often than the needs of mothers; less attention was given to promoting children’s bonds with fathers; and efforts to locate, contact or engage fathers were insufficient or inconsistent (Velazquez, Jenkins, Idczak & Thornton, 2009).

Identifying and locating NRFs is the first step to involving them in their children’s lives. However, the culture of child welfare agencies has several barriers to effective identification and location of fathers, including large worker caseloads, a lack of standards or guidelines for diligent searches and biases among some workers that engaging NRFs is too difficult (Howard, 2009). For example, some workers deem fathers as “liabilities” (i.e., failing to contribute to their child’s development in meaningful ways) or “threats” (i.e., classified as abusive and dangerous) (Schmid, 2006, p. 21-22). In addition, gender dynamics and worker bias may impede the ability of caseworkers to fully engage fathers in case planning processes.

Despite these barriers to father involvement, some child welfare agencies have begun to use publicly available search tools to locate NRFs, such as Family Finding, which is a set of people-locating tools and strategies that offers methods to locate and engage relatives of children living in out-of-home care. The goal of family finding is to provide each child with lifelong family connections (Center for Family Finding and Youth Connectedness, 2009).

Once NRFs and the paternal extended family are identified and located, family group decision making (FGDM) is a promising child welfare practice being implemented throughout the United States and in 22 other countries. FGDM engages immediate and extended family in a decision making process. The values and philosophy of FGDM support the engagement of fathers and paternal relatives in numerous ways—breaking down the maternal-focus of the child welfare system and beginning a broader systemic change in how families are engaged in the child welfare process. For instance, a cornerstone of FGDM is that the extended family constellation, which includes nonresident and resident fathers and their families, is entitled to participate in making decisions about children’s safety and well-being. Excluding fathers and paternal kin could limit “the range of informal supports” (Schmid, 2006, p. 23); including them will “widen the circle” of support and empower fathers and paternal relatives to make meaningful investments and commitments in the lives of their children (Pennell & Burford, 1994). A Washington study revealed that family group conferences may be more effective in involving paternal relatives in case planning than other “family-centered family preservation services;” there was an average of three paternal relatives attending a conference whereas “very few fathers” were involved in other case planning procedures (Gunderson, Cahn & Wirth, 2003, p. 44).

More research is needed on the engagement of fathers in processes such as FGDM, but it is clear that children benefit from having fathers and paternal relatives involved in their lives. Likewise, involving fathers, paternal kin and male relatives in family engagement approaches will benefit children and families by increasing resources and enhancing supportive connections in their lives. For more information on family group decision making, please see this section of American Humane’s website. For more information on involving fathers, see this section of American Humane’s website.



American Humane Association, American Bar Association Center for Children and the Law and the National Fatherhood Initiative. (2007). Literature Review: Non-Resident Fathers, Paternal Kin, and the Child Welfare System. Colorado: US Department of Health and Human Services.

Center for Family Finding and Youth Connectedness. Seneca Center. Retrieved on June 3, 2009 from

Gunderson, K., Cahn, K. & Wirth, J. (2003). The Washington State Long-Term Outcome Study. Protection Children, 18 (1&2), 42-47.

Howard, M. (2009). Quality Improvement Center for Non-Resident Fathers Social Worker Training: Engaging Non-Resident Fathers. Denver, CO: American Humane Association.

Malm, K., Murray, J. & Geen, R. (2006). What About the Dads? Child Welfare Agencies’ Efforts to Identify, Locate and Involve Nonresident Fathers. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistance Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.

Malm, K., Zielewski, E. & Chen, H. (2008). More About the Dads: Exploring Associations between Nonresident Father Involvement and Child Welfare Case Outcomes. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistance Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.

National Fatherhood Initiative. (2007). Father Facts (5th ed.).

Pennell, J. & Burford, G. (1994). “Widening the Circle: Family Group Decision Making.” Journal of Child and Youth Care, 9(1), 1-11.

Schmid, J. (2006). “The Business of Engaging Fathers (and Other Male Relatives) in the FGC Process.” Protecting Children, 21 (1), 20-29.

Velazquez, S., Jenkins, K., Idczak, J. & Thornton, S. Changing Organizational Cultures to Engage Fathers in the Child Welfare System PowerPoint. 2009 Conference on Family Group Decision Making (FGDM) and Other Family Engagement Approaches. 6/3/2009.

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