Representing Fathers in Dependency Court

Joe SpaethJoseph L. Spaeth
Public Defender, Marin County, CA

Summary: Attorneys must overcome obstacles including societal bias and help men exercise the skills and commitment necessary to assume the role of father to their children.


Attorneys representing fathers have a different role, if not more difficult, from those representing mothers in dependency actions. Although father is sometimes the target of a dependency action, more often he is not actively parenting or residing with the child and may not even be aware of the child’s existence until the dependency action has begun.[1] In the latter circumstance, father must begin his relationship with the child, which can be daunting if the client has no previous experience being a father. It becomes the job of father’s attorney to guide his client over the hurdles and obstacles if father is to acquire custody of his child. As his lawyer, your advocacy is critical to help the court and agency see the father as a viable permanency resource for the child.[2]

A major hurdle that a client father may face is societal bias, often tacitly embraced by social workers, that children are better cared for by the birth mother or a female relative such as an aunt or grandmother.[3] This requires that father demonstrate even greater competence to actively engage in parenting the child. One way to overcome this bias is to ensure appropriate visitation as noted below. It is also valuable for the client and attorney to have a face-to-face meeting with the social worker to discuss expectations realistically.

Initially, it is most important for the attorney to establish a trusting relationship with father and to impress on him the importance of building a parental relationship with his child. Some men give lip service to their interest because they think it is the right thing to do but do not fully comprehend the level of responsibility required to provide needed protection, guidance and friendship to a child. Often father has lived an independent lifestyle without giving much thought to having the responsibility of caring for children. In order not to set up the client for failure, which will harm the child as well,[4] the attorney must evaluate how committed the client is to becoming a full-time father. If the attorney feels that father is not wholeheartedly committed to being the custodial parent, the chances of father convincing the social worker and the court of his readiness to be a parent are slim. This reality must be impressed on the client father with full candor. Other fathers may indeed be committed but are fearful of the responsibility. The attorney must allay those fears and aid in getting services and support for father to learn to overcome his hesitation if he is to be successful.

Although there are not as many parenting programs designed specifically for men, the attorney should make every effort to enroll the client father in a program that can provide basic parenting skills and also help father gain confidence in his ability to effectively parent his child. Anticipation of skill or behavior problems should be assessed and addressed as soon as possible, even before required by the court or social worker if possible. It is crucial that father understand the importance of strictly complying with the requirements of the social worker’s case plan, including training or rehabilitative programs.

Once the attorney has convinced father to fully commit to becoming a loving caretaker of the child, arrangements should be made with the social worker for frequent, age-appropriate visitation and to have a visitation plan written into the case plan for father. Visitation should take place frequently in an atmosphere where the child will feel at ease being alone with father, particularly if there has not been much contact in the past. The frequency should be gauged solely by the age of the child, especially if there are no allegations against father. Developing an appropriate visitation plan can be one of the attorney’s most difficult chores since social workers often feel visits must be supervised, which makes scheduling difficult. If there are no valid reasons attributable to the father, this requirement should be opposed. Building a good relationship with the temporary foster parents or family caregivers can facilitate visitation. It may be necessary to seek the assistance of an expert to gain age-appropriate frequency and duration of visits.

There are many other aspects of representation that may help father gain custody of his child and be a better father that cannot be listed here, but one that deserves mention without elaboration is to seek family group conferencing to address issues of mutual interest to the success of the family unit.

A veteran dependency attorney summarizes the role well:[5]

Half of the battle a dependency attorney fights is convincing the client that he is trying to help [him]. Once a certain level of trust is established, a dependency attorney wears many hats…advocate at the bar of the court, a social worker when helping obtain services for [the] client and an educator where helping [the] client make more positive life choices. This area of law requires an attorney to be optimistic about a person's ability to change. It is a hands-on, roll up your sleeves and get dirty type of a career that requires a high level of interaction with your clients in hopes that they do not fall through the cracks. Inevitably, some of your clients will fail or be failed by the system.


[1] The scope of this article does not include the ways in which a father may become the legal father but assumes that status has already been determined.

[2] ABA Child Law Practice, Vol. 27, No. 10, p. 145, December 2008.

[3] The National Quality Improvement Center on Non-Resident Fathers and the Child Welfare System is a collaborative effort between the American Humane Association , the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law and National Fatherhood Initiative. It is funded by the US Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children’s Burea. Its report What About the Dads? showed that there is very little meaningful engagement occurring between the child welfare system and fathers (see

[4] Among statistics gathered by Children Without Fathers: 63% of homeless/runaway children are from fatherless homes (32 times average), as are 85% of all youths in prison (20 times average) and 75% adolescent patients in chemical abuse centers (10 times average). (See

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