Public Policy Issues
Policies Affecting Fathers at Risk
By: Lynda M. Ashbourne
This article, which examines policies which impact on the circumstances of fathers at risk, is a chapter in FIRA's Inventory of Policies and Policy Areas Influencing Father Involvement.
An area of increasing interest among researchers and policy makers in recent years is the changing role of fathers and the explicit desire to support father involvement as a way to enhance children's health and well-being. Although scholarly interest in fatherhood emerged in the early 1970s and 80s, the bulk of studies and policy work on fatherhood is very recent - much of it dating from the mid-1990s onwards.
This article is a chapter in the recently released Inventory of Policies and Policy Areas Influencing Father Involvement which is a collaborative document which has benefited from the ideas and suggestions of others. It is supported by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC - CURA). For a full copy of this document click on Inventoryof Policies and Policy Areas Affecting Father Involvement on the left hand side of this page.
Policies Affecting Fathers at Risk by Lynda M. Ashbourne
Specific Issues and Policies
When we talk about enhancing the involvement of fathers with their children, it is important to acknowledge that there are some fathers who are at risk of not being able to provide a supportive and positive presence in their children’s lives. These men may have been abusive or violent toward their partners and/or their children, may struggle with alcohol, drug or gambling addictions, may have engaged in violent or criminal behaviour and may be presently incarcerated or recently released from prison. It is important that there be policies and procedures in place that allow for the recognition of those situations where fathers can pose a risk to their children and the provision of appropriate support, supervision, assessment and education where implicated.
Significance and Potential Influence on Fathers
When talking about enhancing the involvement of fathers in their children’s lives, it is difficult to discuss the topic of fathers who may pose a threat to their children by being involved in their lives. Without proper support, education and, in some cases, supervision these fathers may pose a significant risk to their children. The fathers who are most likely to pose the most risk to children are those men who have been violent toward their partners and/or their children, who may struggle with addictions that influence their judgment and ability to engage in caregiving activities, who have severe mental illnesses that are not well managed and again negatively influence caregiving abilities, or those whose lifestyle or life circumstances (engaging in criminal activities, currently incarcerated) preclude their provision of adequate and appropriate care for their children. These circumstances and factors differ with respect to the risk they pose for children, the long-term nature of the risk and the degree to which assessment, treatment, support and education, or supervised access can ameliorate risk.
Lara Guile (2003) has pointed to the complexity of the overlapping research areas of fatherhood and violent men. She suggests that the theoretical differences and demarcation between disciplines and theoretical perspectives leads to difficulty in integrating studies in these areas. Maria Eriksson and Marianne Hester (2001), in looking at policy and practice in the areas of violence against women and fatherhood in Sweden and England, point to the contradictions between safety practices for women and the emphasis in many European family policies of maintaining family connections without taking men’s violence into account. The potential for such contradictions also exists within Canadian social policy and family law.
When men have been violent or abusive toward their partners, or toward their children, child protection agencies may be involved with the family, or family courts may be involved in the determination of custody and access. Legislation, policies and practice that influence how child protection agencies approach their work with fathers as well as mothers, and family law and practice with regard to separation and divorce negotiations and determination of custody and access, must take into account both the safety of all family members and support for ongoing safe and positive father-child interaction that does not provide an opportunity for further abuse or control of the child’s mother or of the child. Often mental health professionals, acting in the role of assessors for the court, have limited understanding of the complex dynamics associated with wife assault and potential impact on children (Shaffer & Bala, 2004). Men who have been violent toward their partners and/or children require access to treatment programs, supervision of their time with their children as appropriate, and adequate assessment and planning for re-integration with their families. There are very few programs which are specifically designed to provide treatment and support within a context of men’s fathering roles when these same men have abused their partners or children (see Scott et al., 2004, for one example), and they are limited in availability whether court-mandated or voluntary. Completion of a treatment or fathering program is not sufficient evidence, in itself, that a father is ready to parent or have unsupervised time with his children (Cunningham & Baker, 2004). The role of appropriate assessment and supervision is key to child safety and enhancing father-child interaction in healthy and supportive ways. Bancroft and Silverman (2002) outline some key aspects of change to be assessed by professionals following such treatment in order to ensure safe parenting.
When treatment programs are offered to fathers for mental health issues or alcohol, drug or gambling addictions, providers should ensure that treatment goals and ongoing assessment and treatment planning take into account their position as parents. Men who are participating in such treatment should be supported in considering the impact of their behaviour and choices on their families and children. It may be that fathers who are not living with their children are seen by mental health and health care providers as single men, rather than having their role as parents deemed as an important aspect of treatment planning and post-treatment support.
Incarcerated fathers may benefit from parenting education programs and policies that enhance and support ongoing family connection (Fox, Sayers, & Bruce, 2001; Hairston, 2001). The Canadian Families and Corrections Network has recently made policy recommendations for enhancing family connections within the Canadian corrections system (Canadian Families and Corrections Network, 2003). These recommendations include facilitating telephone communication, public transit, visiting hours and long-distance connection for prisoners with families in Newfoundland and the North. Often mothers are responsible for transporting children or ensuring that they maintain contact with incarcerated fathers. This is generally not ideal from mothers’ perspectives and may, in some cases, be impractical. Correctional institutions and parole staff might consider how best to utilize the time during which a father is in prison and the period during which he is being reintegrated into the community to provide education, support and treatment focused on enhancing his role as a father and his involvement with his children.
Gaps, Critical Questions and Concerns
Policies and procedures at the level of federal and provincial legislation, family-related social policy and institutional practice all have an impact on the ways in which the role of father is constructed for men who are incarcerated, or who are being treated for severe mental health or addiction problems, and the ways in which safety is considered and addressed in the case of men who have been violent toward their partners and/or their children and who are wanting to be involved in their children’s lives.
In the case of a history of domestic violence, the research is quite clear with respect to the risk to children of witnessing violence directed toward their mother (Cunningham & Baker, 2004; Rosman, Rea, Graham-Bermann & Butterfield, 2004). Not all provinces have explicitly stated in legislation that courts must take domestic violence into consideration when determining custody and access provision (Bailey, 2001). Availability of supervised access sites and services varies between communities and provinces. Provincial legislation governing supervised access orders is not consistent across provinces (Bailey, 2001). In a recent study of Canadian custody and access awards in cases involving a history of spousal abuse, it was noted that although judges generally recognize that awarding custody to an abuser is not in the best interest of the child, consideration of safety and risk is not always made with respect to access arrangements (Shaffer & Bala, 2004). Shaffer and Bala go on to recommend that judges, lawyers, mediators, assessors and governments consider the important implications and complexities of domestic violence and its significance with respect to child safety and maintaining parental contact.
Violence should not be just another “best interests” factor that judges may take into account. Rather courts should be required to be satisfied that any parenting arrangements do not pose a significant risk to the safety of a child or parent. The enactment of such legislation would clarify the law as well as facilitate the education of lawyers, judges, other professionals, victims, and members of the public. (Shaffer & Bala, p.185)
For fathers who continue to live with their families, there needs to be consistent and clear direction in provincial child protection policy and the practice of local children protection agencies with respect to the implications for children of witnessing domestic violence, so that interventions ensure safety for children as well as appropriate treatment that will facilitate their fathers’ safe involvement with them in the future when possible.
Incarcerated fathers’ needs have been outlined in recommendations that particularly highlight the challenges of maintaining family connections when men have been removed, sometimes at great distance, from their home communities. Particular groups may be affected to a greater degree with respect to incarceration. For example, while Aboriginal peoples make up 2.7% of the population, they represent 17% of the admissions to federal correctional institutions, and Aboriginal adults are incarcerated at a rate more than six times the national rate (Correctional Service of Canada, 1999). The Centre for Children and Families in the Justice System has recently completed, in collaboration with the Elizabeth Fry Societies of Ontario, research in the area of the impact on children of maternal incarceration (Cunningham & Baker, 2003). Similar Canadian research in the area of paternal incarceration would be useful in understanding the particular needs of children and their fathers in these circumstances.
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