Engaging Fathers in Dependency Hearings

WilliamsenCommissioner Nancy Williamsen
Stanislaus Superior Court, Modesto, CA

Summary: Although a child’s father may not be located at the initial stages of the court process, there needs to be a continuous effort by the child welfare agency to identify and locate every child’s father, including every possible father. But once a father comes to court, the engagement process does not end.

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There is a very important person who often is not engaged in dependency court hearings. That person is the child’s father. As a system, our failure to ensure a father’s participation in dependency matters often results in lost opportunities as well as a loss of potential resources for the child. How can courts engage fathers to obtain better outcomes for children?

Everybody likes to be invited to a party, even if we have no intent of actually attending the affair. If we have not been invited, we do not know of the event. This is true with court proceedings. However, the invitation to a court proceeding is not called an invitation, it is called notice. Notice gives the invitee the opportunity to be heard. Without notice, there is no appearance by the invitee. Without making an appearance, there is no opportunity to be heard or to participate in the important decisions being made for the child.

Far too often, the judge supervising the dependency case will ask what efforts have been made to identify and locate a child’s father and then makes no further inquiry as to continuing efforts in this area. Although a child’s father may not be located at the initial stages of the court process, there needs to be a continuous effort by the child welfare agency (hereinafter referred to as agency) to identify and locate every child’s father, including every possible father. The judge has an obligation to not only continue to inquire of the mother but also to inquire of the agency as to the efforts to identify, locate and notice the father of the dependency proceedings. The inquiry by the agency should not be limited to the mother but should include interviews of extended family members and close family friends. If the child is of sufficient age, the child may also have information concerning his or her father or at least of past family discussions surrounding the father’s identity or whereabouts.

The duty of the agency and the judge to ensure proper notice to the father is ongoing and should extend throughout the life of the dependency action—or until the father makes an appearance in court. The engagement of a father in a dependency action is such a benefit to the child that an argument could clearly be made that the child’s attorney also has an ongoing duty in this regard.

Once a father comes to court, the engagement process does not end. It is just beginning. From a historical/cultural perspective, our society has fostered the idea that women are nurturers. Until recently, men have been neither expected nor encouraged to take on this particular role. Historically there have been societal expectations that women must repair their parenting deficits and regain their nurturing role for their children. Men have not had that same societal pressure and expectation. Instead, men have been given the expectation that, above all else, they will be the bread winner in the family and, as an aside, a positive influence for their child. For years, women were told they could have it all…career, families and personal achievement. That same message should be given to men. They need not be limited in their family role to that of breadwinner but can and should take on the role of nurturer.

The sexual revolution of the 1960s, along with the inception of “no-fault” divorce in the 1970s, has caused the definition of family to be in a restructuring phase. The terms blended family, same-gender parenting and significant other have become part of our vernacular. It is not uncommon to have mothers who are married but not to their child’s father, to have children by different fathers or to even be unsure as to who their child’s father may be. This fluidity of relationships creates a challenge to encourage, and at times expect, fathers to engage in the dependency process.

As a system, we need to take more active steps in encouraging men to want to do the hard work necessary to complete their case plans and gain custody of their children. We need to assist fathers in developing a desire to be the nurturer of their children. This desire will only come if they have a positive relationship with their child. Borrowing from the vernacular of the real estate world: visitation, visitation, visitation. Frequent and regular contact with the child is important in establishing or maintaining the parent-child relationship. Some children may need the assistance of a therapist in developing a relationship. In those instances, the reunification case plan needs to include joint therapy.

Judges can be instrumental in facilitating a father’s engagement in the court process in a number of ways. The bench officer should clearly communicate expectations to fathers that they can and should take on the nurturer role and that they can and should reunify with their children, not leaving that task to the mother. Judges should validate a father’s desire to parent and not be content with the role of mere sperm donor.

Seeking the father’s input as to case plan objectives can be a significant tool in the engagement process. What does the father think he needs in order to be able to parent his child besides what the social worker has suggested? Give the parent a voice.

Judges can and should demand accountability from fathers toward completing case plan objectives and frequent visitation. Frequent case plan reviews—not just once every six months to comport with federal findings—perhaps using a drug court model, demonstrates a commitment to truly reunifying parents and demands accountability. At each review, validate their desire to parent. Focus not only on what they haven’t done, but emphasize any progress they have made. Become the cheerleader, if necessary.

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