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Involving Fathers in the Lives of Their Children: Recognizing This Important Permanency Option for Children in Foster Care

Hon. Colin Witt, District Associate Judge, Polk County Juvenile Court (IA)

Summary: The author details the efforts of the Polk County Model Court’s Fatherhood Initiative to implement changes in the way child welfare cases proceed relative to identification and engagement of fathers.

As I’ve participated in men’s gatherings since the early 1980s, I’ve heard one statement over and over from American males, which has been phrased in a hundred different ways: “There is not enough father.” The sentence implies that father is a substance like salt, which in earlier times was occasionally in short supply, or like groundwater, which in some areas now has simply disappeared (Iron John: A Book About Men, Robert Bly). 

This statement was penned nearly 20 years ago, and in the child welfare system and juvenile court in our county in particular, it still sadly can ring true. Fathers are missing. They may not have been identified, there may be uncertainly about who the child’s biological father is, and there may be tensions within the family that prevent the fathers from becoming involved. All too often men are not at the table in the courtroom. They are not involved in services. And too often, we don’t even know how to find them.

Fatherhood plays a critical role in helping children thrive, grow and achieve their full potential. Children benefit from having both fathers and mothers in their lives, shaping their characters and setting their core values by being present in their lives. The Polk County Model Court Fatherhood Initiative[i] has as its goal developing and institutionalizing strategies:

  • To more effectively identify and engage fathers in child welfare case planning within 30 days of the first hearing
  • To increase their involvement in case planning and court hearings by 20%.

Polk County’s Model Court Fatherhood Initiative met often in 2010 and less often in 2011. Four days of community gatherings and educational presentations took place in June 2010 and October 2010. National and local speakers addressed many of the important issues about how providing services to men is different from providing services to women, and how the child welfare system as a whole has necessarily been maternally focused and maternally based. Approximately two hundred people in total participated in the gatherings and educational presentations. We developed three major objectives to measure our success:

  • Create a strategy to get more focus on fathers in the process early and often.
  • Develop better methods to properly identify the fathers of children in juvenile court cases.
  • Measure and improve the number of fathers engaged in the applicable juvenile court cases.

Committee members have given educational speeches to various groups over the last year —community child welfare groups, nurses, parent partners, social workers, men. The primary identified issue that comes up over and over again is that we as a system fail and have failed in the most basic of tasks—giving notice to known fathers, named fathers. We haven’t done enough at every level to try and discern who the father is or who he may be. We have attacked this problem in a number of ways.

We have started to change the court language regarding what has to be done to identify and serve fathers. We have started to put mothers under oath in court, requiring them to fill out paternity affidavits, and simultaneously we are using every method of identification and location that we can. We are using Facebook and other social media to expand the traditional methods of finding fathers. Workers are not allowed to skip over the section of a social work case plan concerning “concerted efforts” to locate non-custodial parents; they may not answer “N/A.” We are trying to put the teeth back into defining “concerted efforts.”

We have drafted a flow chart and note cards to better regulate and systemize this important and basic due process and fairness matter. It is difficult to be comprehensive and to really get this to be an effective tool that can be used in all cases. But we will keep trying. We developed benchmarks for working on each case. Within 60–90 days we will have one of three outcomes:

  • The father is actively involved.
  • The father has been served notice and is under obligation to make his intentions known.
  • We’ve exhausted all reasonable paths to find the father and he remains unknown and cannot be determined.

It is important to start from the assumption that it is a good thing to identify the father and that he needs to be given a chance to make a positive contribution to the process. He may not take us up on it and he may never appear in the case but it is not the choice of a social worker or attorney or judge to make based on what the mother says about him or based on what a criminal history may say about him without any other considerations.

Author biography:

District Associate Judge Colin J. Witt was appointed to serve Polk County as a magistrate in 2005. He was appointed to serve as a district associate judge in 2006. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa, earning his undergraduate degree with honors in English and his law degree with distinction. He was a law clerk for three years to Judge Ronald E. Longstaff of the US District Court for the Southern District of Iowa. Judge Witt also was in private practice prior to his appointment to the district associate bench.  


[i] Fatherhood Initiative: Dads Count (version 6/24/2011). Internal working document, Polk County Model Court.





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