Public Policy Issues

Policies Affecting Non-resident Fathers

This article, which examines policies which affect fathers who do not live with their children, is a chapter in FIRA's Inventory of Policies and Policy Areas Affecting 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.

Non-resident fathers by Denise L. Whitehead

Specific Issues and Policies

The issues of fathers who do not live with their children on a full-time basis following separation or divorce are discussed in detail in section L: Separated and Divorced Fathers. In this section we wanted to highlight some of the unique issues that some fathers face due to their non co-residency status for reasons not associated with divorce or separation. Such fathers include:
$ Incarcerated fathers (also see section I: Fathers at Risk)
$ Fathers in the military and stationed outside their community
$ Fathers who experience significant work-related absence (also see section C: Work and Family Policies)
$ Fathers in hospital whether due to mental illness or protracted ill health
$ Immigrant and refugee families (see section K: Immigrant Fathers)
$ Fathers whose children are in protective care, in a correctional or residential treatment centre, or who attend a special school

Significance and Potential Influence on Fathers

One of the realities for many non-resident fathers is the fact that they are transitioning in and out of their children’s lives to varying degrees with protracted absences in between. For those parents who are still in a partnership, the role of the mother is important when the father is absent, in that she assumes the bulk of the caregiving load, as well as acting as facilitator of the father-child relationship (e.g. reading letters, talking about daddy, transporting the child for visits if possible and keeping the father informed about their child’s development and other issues). This group (mothers and fathers in intact relationships) may be particularly vulnerable to experiencing tensions upon re-entry into the family. Mothers who have assumed the full care burden of the children will have developed routines, coping strategies and disciplinary techniques. While many mothers will welcome their spouse’s return, there is likely to follow a period of readjustment as mother, father and children re-acclimate, yet again, to the “new” family dynamics.

When fathers are separated or divorced from the child’s mother, and are living and working at a geographic distance from their children, this distance may pose additional challenges to maintaining a post-separation father-child relationship. Where there is a cordial and amicable relationship with the child’s mother or other caregiver, relationship building and remote father involvement is likely to be maintained, challenging as it may be. Where; however, there are acrimonious relations between the father and mother or other caregiver, the reliance on this person to facilitate the father-child relationship is likely to be unsuccessful and the father may feel powerless in maintaining a fathering relationship with his child.

Incarcerated Fathers: The research report on The Changing Profile of the Federal Inmate Population: 1997 and 2002 (Boe, Nafekh, Vuong, Sinclair & Cousineau, 2003) provides an overview of the demographics of men in federal prison. As of April 2002, there were 12, 285 men in custody in Federal penal institutions. While the number of men in custody is decreasing overall, the number of men in maximum security institutions is increasing (14% in 1997 to 21% in 2002). Among men who were incarcerated, 18% were in minimum security, 61% were in medium security and 21% were in maximum security facilities. The seriousness of offences means that the men will serve from between two years to life imprisonment. While this report notes that 65% of the inmates were single, no count of whether they had children was given, contributing to their invisibility as fathers.

Efforts are in place to address the needs of fathers and children. The private family visiting program allows inmates to enjoy 72 hours in an on-site “home” for spouse and children to facilitate positive family and community relationships. These are generally available only every 3 to 6 months depending upon demand. As well, special children’s play areas both inside and out have been constructed to make the atmosphere more child-friendly and encourage parent-child play and interaction to strengthen their bond. The Living Skills Programs offered to inmates includes such offerings as anger and emotion management and living without violence in the family, issues that many incarnated men have experienced. It also offers a specific parenting skills program to support inmates wishing to build healthy family relationships, particularly to their children. Recognizing the diversity of family structures, the program aims to serve a wide variety of fathering models including single, step, and blended (see Correctional Service of Canada – Living Skills Program).

Incarcerated fathers deal with many of the same issues as non-incarcerated fathers including legal visitation disputes, challenging adoption and foster care issues, and attempts to have legal parental rights terminated. There are also unique issues including reliance on friends and family outside the prison to facilitate the relationship or alternatively, friends and family who try to protect the child from their father’s criminality. Their precarious financial situation makes maintaining an involved father relationship much more difficult. The older the child, the more difficulty there may be in explaining their father’s incarceration and absence (Incarcerated Fathers: A Research Agenda).

Fathers in the Military: While a father in the military probably has not relinquished his rights and responsibilities as a parent, the reality of being called away on duty to distant locales for long periods creates a dramatically different parenting dynamic. While most fathers will rely on their wife to assume the parenting role for day-to-day functioning, their absence and the possibility of death or serious harm creates additional stressors for the wife’s work and caring load, and reduces her access to her husband/partner for social support in parenting their child. Likewise, the father is precluded from the physical contact and emotional closeness that is more easily facilitated when frequent face-to-face parenting interactions are possible. The nature of the relationship with the child’s mother and the initiatives taken by both parents to promote and maintain the relationship will be central. The age of the child will also be important in terms of understanding why dad is away and in their ability to write, email or self-initiate contact.

Fathers Experiencing Work-related Absences: While work-family issues are explored in detail in another section (see Section C: Work and Family), we wanted to highlight a segment of the work population that experience work in a different way. While acknowledging that many fathers work outside the 9 to 5, Monday to Friday work schedule, there is a difference between those fathers who may be absent for short periods of work-related travel, extended shift work or rotating shift work and fathers who leave for protracted periods of time in order to work. Some fathers are relocated overseas and, rather than uproot their families and children, they move to facilitate work opportunities, leaving family behind. Others may leave their community for a different city or province in order to pursue better opportunities for work than are available locally, or their work may take place in remote areas for several weeks (or even months) at a time. Much like military families, many of these fathers have not removed themselves permanently from the family fold, but rather consider themselves to be very much a part of the family. Maintenance of the father-child relationship will probably be contingent on the age of the child (i.e. an older child can telephone, email, and write letters, as compared to a much younger child who depends on the mother to facilitate communication).

Fathers in Hospital: Fathers who are ill, whether due to mental illness or protracted physical ailment will find themselves separated from the day-to-day lives of their children. The extent of the illness, in large part, will dictate the type of contact that can be facilitated. Contagious, comatose or other mood altering states will limit the type of contact. As in all scenarios above, the father’s relationship with the child’s mother and the age of the child will have a significant impact on the father-child relationship. In addition, hospital policies regarding visiting hours and age limits requiring adult supervision of children will either facilitate or act as a barrier to contact.

Children in Protective Care: Children who have been placed in protective care by a local Children’s Aid Society may already have been living apart from their father. The extent to which a father will be able to maintain a relationship with their child while he/she is in care may be a function of whether they are implicated in the reasons for the child’s intake into custody (e.g., abuse, neglect) and the nature of the child protection order. For instance, when the child is designated as a crown ward without access, all parental access is terminated and the child is then made available for adoption. Lesser orders will vary with a status of ward of the crown and a designation of whether that includes access. Orders may include parenting classes and supervised visitation to ensure on-going contact, as well as the development of appropriate parenting behaviour and practices.

Children Attending Special Schools: Children with specific or profound disabilities or serious behavioural problems may attend special schools or live in residential treatment centres. Ongoing contact and involvement with the child will be influenced by proximity to the school, visitation policies, and the child’s capacities. Less commonly, parents may choose to send their child to a private school in another jurisdiction or another country for a unique educational program.

Gaps, Critical Questions and Concerns

The particular needs of incarcerated fathers have been outlined in Section I: Fathers at Risk. Fathers who are non-resident with their children due to work requirements may not have the challenges this poses to their involvement with their children sufficiently acknowledged in workplace policies and practices (e.g., time off that allows for adequate time with family, travel allowances and provision of means for communication in order to facilitate time with children, etc.). The critical role often played by mothers in mediating the father-child relationship when fathers are not living with their children can be problematic, both for women and for the relationship between partners as roles and expectations shift between the times that fathers are away and when they return.

In certain parts of the country, particularly more rural and isolated areas, choices regarding work opportunities and options with respect to medical care and specialized services for children and adults mean that families are not able to live together. In these contexts, supporting the maintenance of parent-child relationship (for both mothers and fathers) may require public policy attention to travel assistance, family-related time off work, technology that facilitates communication to accommodate these necessary distances.

Key References

Boe, R., Nafekh, M., Vuong, B., Sinclair, R. & Cousineau, C. (2003). The Changing Profile of the Federal Inmate Population: 1997-2002. Ottawa, ON: Research Branch, Correctional Service of Canada. Correctional Service of Canada. (Last updated 2002/09/06). Living Skills Program. Retrieved March 28, 2006, from
Correctional Service of Canada. (Last updated 2004/10/14). Incarcerated Fathers. Retrieved March 28, 2006, from
Correctional Service Canada. (2001) Commissioner’s Directive: Visiting (Policy Bulletin 120). Retrieved March 28, 2006, from
Correctional Service of Canada. (1995). Guidelines for parenting skills programs for federally sentenced women. Retrieved March 28, 2006, from