Identifying, Locating and Engaging Fathers in Dependency Court Cases

Judge Dean LewisJ. Dean Lewis, Judge (retired)

Summary: Timely permanency necessitates early identification of both parents, not just the mother. Making every effort to engage fathers is critical, as evidenced by studies showing the positive impact fathers and their families can have on a child's development as well as the negative outcomes demonstrated for children living apart from them.
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In all too many dependency court removal proceedings, the judge reads a petition filed by the child welfare agency that lists the name of the mother along with her contact information for service of process but, as far as identifying information for the father, states "unknown" or lists the father's name with "whereabouts unknown." It is incumbent upon the child welfare agency to provide the court with the identity and location of the father as early as possible in the timeline of the case. All available resources need to be focused on identifying and locating the father, including but not limited to a referral to the appropriate child support enforcement agencies, the federal parent locator service, internet searches and private "family find" agencies.

The legal implications are significant when agencies and courts fail to vigorously pursue absent parents. Appellate court dockets are replete with cases reversing termination of parental rights decisions for failure to provide proper legal notice or "reasonable efforts" to find an absent parent. The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) requires timely permanency for abused and neglected children. The Fostering Connections Act (PL 110-351) requires due diligence to identify and provide notice to all adult relatives within 30 days of removal. Timely permanency necessitates early identification of, and legal notice to, both parents—not just the mother. It also requires that courts engage both parents in case planning and offer appropriate reasonable efforts services to both parents.

Timely permanency and compliance with legally required notification procedures are not the only reasons to involve fathers in the dependency court process. Findings regarding the positive impact fathers and their families can have on a child's development—and findings regarding negative outcomes for children living apart from their fathers—led to a Fatherhood Initiative at the federal level launched by the US Department of Health and Human Services in 2001. Certainly the ASFA goals of child safety, well-being and permanency can be enhanced by involving fathers and their families in dependency court cases.

The articles in this issue of The Judges' Page offer perspectives from authors of varying backgrounds on the importance of involving fathers in the dependency court process:

  • Judge Leonard P. Edwards (ret.) serves as judge-in-residence for the California Administrative Office of the Courts. He gives compelling reasons to involve fathers in the dependency court case and outlines what judges can do to make sure fathers are involved. Judge Edwards also provides a judicial checklist on this topic. Article…
  • Judge A. Ellen White of Campbell County, VA, explains the role of child support enforcement agencies in locating nonresident fathers, establishing paternity as well as providing access and visitation grant funding to the states to establish fatherhood engagement initiatives. Additionally, four state and local court-child support agency collaborations are explored. Article…
  • Judge J. Robert Lowenbach (ret.) of the Colorado Court Improvement Program offers insight on how Colorado's Promoting Responsible Fatherhood Initiative has assisted the dependency courts in engaging fathers by providing father-specific programs. Article…
  • Judge Oscar G. Gabaldon, Jr. serves as the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges’ model court lead judge in El Paso, TX. He explains how "the power of the robe" can be used to implement best practices. Article…
  • Judge Constance Cohen serves as lead judge of the NCJFCJ Model Court in Des Moines, IA. She points out the requirements for notice to relatives under the new federal Fostering Connections law and gives strategies she has utilized for improved engagement of fathers. Article…
  • Commissioner Nancy Williamsen of the Stanislaus Superior Court, Modesto, CA, offers tips to give the father a voice in proceedings. Article
  • Professor Bruce A. Boyer, director of the Civitas ChildLaw Clinic, Loyola School of Law in Chicago, explains the laws, rules and procedures in Illinois and the resources available to find nonresident fathers. Professor Boyer points out that his state may serve as a model for others to follow. Article…
  • Attorney Hilary Kushins of Santa Clara County, CA, shares a father's successful experience and gives details about the Mentor Parent program she developed. Article…
  • Gary C. Seiser serves as senior deputy county counsel in San Diego, CA. He explains how the child welfare system is failing fathers and their children when fathers are not allowed or encouraged to be involved in the court process. Article…
  • Joseph L. Spaeth serves as the public defender in Marin County, CA, representing fathers in the dependency court. He explains the role of the attorney in representing and engaging the father. Article…
  • Molly Jenkins, Ellen Kinney and Lisa Merkel-Holguin are affiliated with the American Humane Association. They offer a historical perspective on research that led to the current Fatherhood Initiative and highlight family group decision-making as an important program to engage fathers. Article…
  • Vickie Scott Grove, executive director of Child Advocates of Silicon Valley, describes her jurisdiction’s new family wellness court serving children affected by parental use of methamphetamines and other substances. Article…
  • Paula Campbell, information specialist at the Permanency Planning for Children Department of NCJFCJ offers additional research and resources on the topic of fatherhood. Article…

Thanks to Judge Leonard P. Edwards (ret.) for securing most of the articles for this issue. Judge Edwards has supported The Judges' Page from its first issue in 2003 and continues to be a major collaborator as well as the author of numerous articles.

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