Public Policy Issues

Community Programming & Support, and Institutional Practices

This article, about programs, supports and institutional practices affecting father involvement, 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 see our home page.

Community Programming & Support, and Institutional Practices

by Lynda M. Ashbourne


Lynda M. Ashbourne

Specific Issues and Policies

The ways in which the notion of fatherhood, as well as the rights, responsibilities and roles associated with fatherhood, are conceptualized within a society influence community services and institutional practices and expectations. These practices, in turn, can serve to enhance or present obstacles to fathers’ involvement with their children and families. If fathers are not seen as critical and involved partners in the support of children, for example, then they may not be invited to parent-teacher meetings, appointments with family physicians or mental health care providers. If they are invited, it may be that appointment times or agency hours are not conducive to their attendance, or it may be that their employer does not see this involvement as particularly important and is therefore not willing to provide flexibility of scheduling to allow their absence from work. If community support of fathers is seen as an expensive or optional add-on to existing services, programs are likely to be few in number and dependant on one or more individuals with this particular interest. As well, these programs are likely to be the most vulnerable to cancellation or redirection of funds in order to provide “essential” services that may support mothers and children without consideration of fathers’ presence or needs.

Explicit and implicit messages of programs that are specifically designed for fathers also work to construct notions of fatherhood. For example, support enforcement policies are intended to ensure the financial support of children, and, therefore, support and maintain the central role of breadwinning for fathers. Community-based programs which are designed to help fathers become more emotionally involved in their children’s lives promote the benefits and ideal of a father who is actively engaged in family life. Curran and Abrams (2000) caution that these constructions may serve to empower individual fathers but fail to address existing social inequalities based on class and race, and may even maintain gender inequality. For example, a program which maintains that men have difficulty being good fathers because of a lack of “positive male role-models” (program literature cited in Curran & Abrams, 2000) simultaneously positions female-headed families as deficient. Educational or promotional materials may implicitly set men’s needs in opposition to women’s by stating that fathers have been left behind by the women’s movement, but fail to examine the structural inequities such as race and class that provide obstacles to some groups of fathers with respect to having their needs met (Curran & Abrams, 2000).

In this section, we would like to highlight some areas of institutional practice and community supports and services in particular. Note that workplace policies and practices have been discussed in other sections (see Section C: Work and Family Policies and Section E: Child Care).

Significance and Potential Influence on Fathers

Lamb and Oppenheim (1989) indicate that there are four factors that influence father involvement: institutional practices, motivation, skills and self-confidence, and support. Burgess (2004) suggests that it is not simply that institutional practices impede or facilitate father involvement, but that they also contribute to public discourse about the importance of father involvement and the role of fathers in their children’s lives. For example, when there is a public policy change with respect to paternity leave, public discussion is stimulated with respect to shared parenting responsibilities and tasks.

For a broad consideration of the impact of institutional policies and practices, it is necessary to go beyond workplace and employment-related policies and consider the practices of services that tend to the needs of children and families. Do these practices include or encourage father involvement?

$ When a teacher is concerned about the performance or behaviour of a child, is there an automatic assumption that the mother must be contacted and included in considering how to address this concern, or is the assumption that both parents can and should be included in teacher-parent discussions? This is complicated further by the consideration of non-resident or separated and divorced fathers.
$ Do community counselling agencies ask, as part of their regular practice when talking with one parent on the telephone or in person, whether or not the other parent is aware of a referral for child-related counselling or family counselling? Beyond the legal requirements, is an appropriate level of assessment and feedback provided to both parents, whether co-resident with the child or not?
$ When a medical appointment is set for a parent and child, is the assumption made that the parent who is present for the appointment will share the information provided to the other parent, and if this is so, how does this assumption influence the practice of information provision and decision-making support? This latter question has particular implications for fathers of special needs children, where medical appointments may be frequent and the advice and information given may be quite complex, with difficult and life-altering, perhaps life-threatening, decisions required of both parents (see Section P: Fathers of Children with Special Needs).
$ While programming such as Healthy Babies, Healthy Children or pre- and post-natal public health care services are promoted as services to new parents or young families, are they directed to both fathers and mothers, or are they targeting mothers and children only? This question directs attention to the ways in which gender neutral language such as “parents” is often used and understood by both service-delivery personnel and families accessing programs as meaning “mothers only”.

The effect of the assumptions and beliefs that are held about fathers is such that it can preclude even questioning whether or fathers should be involved. For example, pre-natal and parenting classes for adolescent mothers may take for granted that birthing support will be provided by the mother’s family members or friends rather than the father, and therefore not question or provide support to the teenaged father. A belief that it is, or should be, mothers who typically have flexible schedules, to adjust for appointments and meetings related to children, may result in an employer of a male-dominated workplace not considering family-related flex-time as an important or necessary benefit. When counselling services are provided for a mother with post-partum depression, is there a belief that support should also be offered to the father, or is this consideration not made since the service accessed is one designed to be for mothers only? In some instances, there may be a belief held by staff, or agencies as a whole, that fathers are too “difficult” to include in planning or treatment. This belief may arise out of a conceptualization of fathers as breadwinners who, therefore, have primary responsibility to their employers during work hours. It may also arise out of a construction of men as less interested in, or involved in, child care or the emotional aspects of a child’s development. Doucet (2000) refers to the ways in which community and institutional norms related to the gendered division of child care and parenting responsibilities can serve to maintain these divisions by not providing recognition or support for individuals or families who attempt to move outside of these norms.

Scourfield (2001) identifies that, within the child protection system, constructions of men may be present that impede or preclude effective work with fathers or the inclusion of fathers in social work targeting a family’s or child’s needs. He finds several examples of problematic constructions of men, including: “men as a threat, men as no use, men as irrelevant, men as absent, men as no different from women, and men as better than women” (p. 70). He suggests that these notions need to be acknowledged and taken into account as part of the regular practice of service providers in order to avoid both an unfair scrutiny of mothering that can lead to women being unreasonably held to account for a “failure to protect”, and minimal attention to fathering that leads to men being overlooked as potential recipients of services. These notions of who men and women are can also be found within supports and services for women and children who have experienced family violence and woman assault. Constructions of men and notions of fathering, as well as corresponding beliefs about women and mothers, can influence the practice of providing support and services to families either by over- or under-emphasizing receptiveness to service, efficacy of treatment and gendered responsibility for existing problems and potential change.

Social service provisions may limit the degree to which a man’s identity as a father influences the need for financial support or housing arrangements that take into consideration his time with non-resident children. This limitation may influence the amount of time that a father can spend with his children due to lack of food or space (see Section D: Income Support Policies and the Support of Low Income Fathers). Programming that specifically targets men in a community, such as anger management courses, immigrant support or employment counselling services may not consider the unique and specific ways in which the presence of dependent children in their lives complicates or enhances their experiences or needs relative to these support services (see Section I: Fathers at Risk).

The content of programming that is relevant and responsive to the concerns of fathers may differ from that which has been traditionally offered to mothers. Fagan & Palm (2004) suggest that fathers may be less at ease in asking for assistance or revealing their own need for information or assistance, and that services that have been developed and provided within a female-dominated context may require some adjustment and change in order to be comfortable for men. In order to ensure the relevance of program content, fathers can be used as both consultants and mentors. Many of the staff members in community agencies that serve families and children are female. It is reasonable to ask how prepared or comfortable these staff members are in providing information and support to fathers if this is a new area of service that they are expected to provide. This points to the importance of providing adequate planning, training and professional supports when changes in programming are made to be more inclusive of fathers.

In addition to the underlying beliefs and assumptions about fathers that influence institutional practices, the fragility of the funding base for community programming and support directed at fathers influences the degree to which such programs are seen as part of the permanent fabric of community services. Often community programming that is directed at fathers is of a pilot or demonstration nature and is supported by one-time funding. Questions of sustainability arise with this type of arrangement. In addition, such programming, as is typical of many programs directed at supporting families, is often funded out of local United Way funds, or as a part of larger funding packages to local agencies from provincial and territorial governments. When provincial funding is cut back, or local fund-raising results are less than anticipated, these programs, as are many programs directed at serving families, are then vulnerable. The limited nature of such programs, their vulnerable position with respect to funding, and their lack of sustained support contributes to a piece-meal approach to programming initiatives and a challenge to offering programs more broadly across regions, provinces and the nation. In some instances, courts or child protection agencies may be referring parents, and fathers specifically, to community-based agencies or programs who do not receive core funding to provide these “mandated” services.

A notable exception to the exclusion or lack of consideration made with respect to fathers in institutional practices is the practices of recreational programs. Fathers are often expected to take on roles of leadership within sports organizations or community-based clubs, and often are responsible for driving children to and from practices and lessons. In these cases, the visibility of fathers and the inclusion of their needs as points of consideration when planning programs (e.g., practices at the end of the workday or on weekends, and including mothers and fathers in consultations with parents about upcoming events) is noteworthy.

Gaps, Critical Questions and Concerns

Fletcher (2003) suggests that it is not simply that services for infants and young children are female-oriented, or that they are hostile to men, but rather “that the invisibility of fathers is taken for granted”. He suggests that services targeting families and children often see mothers as particularly relevant and fathers as irrelevant. The challenge is to recognize the needs and concerns of fathers and incorporate these into more inclusive programming that is relevant and responsive to the needs of fathers, mothers and children.

In addition to the concerns and gaps identified in the previous paragraphs, there is also the question that may arise as to “which” father to include if there is a step-father or new partner living with the mother and child. Thus, it is important that services recognize the importance of the father to the child and the family, and the importance of the role of father to the men who are being served. Father-friendly institutional practices, careful attention to the explicit and implicit messages of programs designed for fathers, and the designation of how and when to include biological and social fathers are all key aspects to be considered in adapting community and institutional practices to include fathers. Finally, programming that addresses the needs and concerns of fathers should be provided within a sustainable framework of broader community support for families.

Key References

Burgess, A. (2004, September). Changing paternal identities, changing social policies. Plenary lecture presented at Working Fathers, Caring Men Conference, Rotterdam. Retrieved March 27, 2006 from
Curran, L. & Abrams, L.S. (2000). Making men into dads: Fatherhood, the state, and welfare reform. Gender & Society, 14. 662-78.
Doucet, A. (2000). ‘There’s a huge gulf between me as a male carer and women’: Gender, domestic responsibility, and the community as an institutional arena. Community, Work & Family, 3, 163-184.
Fagan, J. & Palm, G. (2004). Fathers and early childhood programs. Clifton Park, NY: Delmar Learning.
Fletcher, R. (2003). Defining fatherhood. 8th Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference Proceedings, Melbourne. Available from
Lamb, M., & Oppenheim, D. (1989). Fatherhood and father-child relationships: Five years of research. In S. H. Cath, A. R. Gurwitt & L. Gunsberg (Eds.), Fathers and their families (pp. 11-26). Hillsdale, N.J.: Analytic.
Scourfield, J.B. (2001). Constructing men in child protection work. Men and Masculinities, 4, 70- 89.