A Model Court for Engaging Fathers

Judge CohenJudge Constance Cohen
Lead Judge, NCJFCJ Model Court, Des Moines, IA

Summary: To the extent that it is safe and realistic, children need and deserve to know their families. Judge Cohen offers requirements and strategies for improved engagement of fathers.


I recall a class in college where we students pre-determined our own grades. During the first week of class, our professor provided the parameters for the work necessary to earn an A, B or C, and we, in turn, made a contract of sorts to qualify for our desired grade. If you were satisfied with a C, you would commit to writing six essays, completing two projects and attending 90% of classes. A B would require eight essays, three projects and 95% attendance. An A required ten essays, four projects and 100% attendance. It was surprising how many talented and capable students were satisfied with Cs and Bs.

In dependency matters, Iowa law requires personal service of notice to parents or notice by certified mail at their last known address or via publication. If a parent is notified of the adjudicatory hearing and fails to appear, further notice is waived. This is C work. We can do better.

Under Iowa law, the sole legal custodian of a child born to unmarried parents is the mother. Custody by the father may be a concurrent plan but is not considered the primary permanency goal. Limited resources and services are focused primarily on reunification with the mother, with few left over for the father. This is C work. We can do better.

Why strive for an A and go beyond the efforts required by the letter of the law to improve our practice? There are many reasons, but the one that counts is because that’s what’s best for children and families. And, as a Model Court since 2000, we have endeavored to set our sights substantially higher than barely passing work. As a result, we have seen what best practices can do to improve outcomes system-wide.

Granted, there are those disinterested fathers who are little more than DNA donors. Some are all too eager to sign a relinquishment of their parental rights to avoid child support, discord with current relationships or parental responsibilities in general. But in my 16 years on the juvenile court bench, I have found that these situations are few and far between. And even if they have no desire to be involved, or cannot be involved as custodians because of incarceration or disabilities, we cannot responsibly deprive these children of their link to half of their heritage. There are, in most cases, paternal relatives who can make valuable contributions to the child’s life.

Here are some strategies for improved engagement of fathers that have improved timely permanency for children in our care.

1.         Exceed the letter of the law requirements for providing notice to fathers. Be sure the agency charged with providing notice fulfills its duty. Ask the people who attend court hearings what information they have. (It is not unusual for one of them to be able to make a call from the courtroom and get the father on the first try after months of failed attempts by the professionals.)

2.         Hold mothers and other relatives accountable for providing information. Use Birth Mother Affidavits of Paternity early in your case. Ask if she is unwilling to involve the father because of protective concerns. Assure her that protective orders can be entered if there are these concerns but are useless if he cannot be located and served.

3.         Order paternity testing as early as possible in the case. In most states, contempt powers are applicable to a parent who refuses to comply with a valid court order.

4.         Appoint attorneys for putative fathers prior to the removal hearing. (We were able to reach an agreement with our state public defender to pay for this representation pending the filing of an affidavit. It saved money by preventing continuances.)

5.         Obtain birth certificates prior to or at disposition.

6.         Continuously discuss availability of any new information regarding efforts to locate, serve and involve the father at each hearing. It is an ongoing inquiry, not a one-time duty.

7.         As new information comes to light about the father, be sure to ask questions about Native American heritage.

8.         Allow telephonic court participation for out-of-state or incarcerated parents.

9.         Make concerted efforts to recruit mentor fathers for court-involved families.

10.       Invite fathers to speak at joint-disciplinary trainings to help identify and resolve barriers to increased involvement.

11.       Encourage the development of local services and programs that focus on the needs of fathers. As fathers are identified, be sure the agency includes them in the case permanency plans.

12.       Clarify expectations that the father attend medical appointments, parent/teacher conferences, child’s therapy appointments, soccer games, etc.

13.       In jurisdictions where juvenile judges lack jurisdiction over child support, implement a protocol whereby a father’s child support obligation is suspended if he assumes primary custody.

14.       Explore creative ways of keeping incarcerated fathers involved. Many prisons have appropriate visitation facilities. Parents may be able to audiotape bedtime stories for the custodian to play while turning the pages of the book.

To the extent that it is safe and realistic, children need and deserve to know their families. In recognition of this need, the new federal law Fostering Connections (PL 110-351) now requires due diligence to identify and provide notice to all adult relatives within 30 days of removal (42 U.S.C. Section 671(29)). As we work to ensure compliance with this law, and improve outcomes for the families we serve, let us not be satisfied with a C. We can do better.

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