Public Policy Issues

Father Figures - Step and Social Fathers

This article, which examines policies which affect step fathers and other types of father figures, 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.


Specific Issues and Policies

While this overview has been particularly focused on policies and practices that influence the involvement of biological and adoptive fathers, there is a group of other men in children’s lives who function in very similar ways to how fathers interact with their children. These men might be step-fathers, serving as an “additional” or “replacement” father to the biological father; or kin such as uncles or grandfathers, who play a significant and ongoing role in the day-to-day lives of children; or foster fathers who play a temporary role as father to children in care. The definitions of what constitutes a “family”, “spouse” or “parent” are long established social and legal concepts which have increasingly been under social, legal and political challenge (Bala & Jaremko Bromwich, 2002). The legal concept of parenting increasingly treats biological or adoptive connections as irrelevant to determining rights and obligations between adults and children (Macdonald, 2000). Pursuant to s. 1 of the Ontario Family Law Act, a “parent” includes “a person who has demonstrated a settled intention to treat a child as part of his or her family, except under an arrangement where the child is placed for valuable consideration in a foster home by a person having lawful custody.” Furthermore, the shifting of public burdens to private shoulders has been ongoing. Bala and Jaremko Bromwich (2002:147) quote U.S. law professor Martha Minow on the importance of expanding the concept of “family”:

[S]ociety gains through defining family membership broadly: the values signaled by ‘family’ are worthwhile and yet fragile; stability, nurturance and care should be promoted wherever possible, and people committed to taking on these tasks should be encouraged to do so.

In addition, some cultural groups may position certain men within their community to take on significant and supportive roles as caregivers or mentors for their children (for example, “other fathers” in African American communities, described in Haney & March, 2003). Single mothers may choose current partners to take on fathering roles with their children, either in addition to the role that the biological father plays, if he is present in their lives, or to provide a “father-figure” when this is absent from their lives. Both single mothers and lesbian couples may choose male friends to play a similar role.
Significance and Potential Influence on Fathers

Stepfathers who are marital or common-law partners of mothers: Stepfathering is a very real phenomenon in Canadian society. In 2001, 12% of families composed of a couple with children were stepfamilies. Of these stepfamilies, 50% included only the mother’s children from a previous union (stepfathers); 10% included exclusively the father’s child or children (stepmothers); 32% consisted of a blended family composition with a child having been born to a union in addition to the children from previous ones, and 8% consisted of both spouses’ children from previous unions (Turcotte, 2002). Overall, it is estimated the families with a stepfather account for three-quarters of all stepfamilies (Juby, 2003-2004).

Remarriages and common-law relationships, however, are more tenuous than first marriages and marriage generally, and have higher rates of dissolution than first marriages. In 2003, the divorce rate was 15% for second marriages, a tripling of rates from 30 years ago (Statistics Canada, 2005). Stepfathers are contending with unique parenting issues not generally faced by biological fathers, including not having shared childrearing through infancy and childhood and the fact that most children usually have a non-resident father who is more or less likely to be involved in their lives (Pryor, 2004).

A central aspect of this discussion is the establishment of a legal connection between a stepfather and the child(ren) they have parented as a result of the relationship with the children’s mother, both through marriage and cohabitation. Pursuant to the B.C. Family Relations Act, a “parent” includes “a stepparent of a child if (i) the stepparent contributed to the support and maintenance of the child for at least one year.” In other contexts, the extent of the obligation and connection has been examined judicially primarily when there has been a breakdown in the relationship between the stepparent and biological parent. The 1999 Supreme Court of Canada in its decision Chartier v. Chartier considered the issue of a person who stands in the place of a parent to a child and determined that a step-parent cannot withdraw unilaterally from that relationship in which he or she stands in place of a parent, and hence may be financially responsible for child support after dissolution of the relationship. The court articulated that, in making such a determination, particular attention must be given to the relationship and the representations of the step-parent. The actual fact of forming a new family is a key factor in drawing an inference that the step-parent stands in the place of a parent to the child. Further factors to be considered include, but are not limited to: 1) whether the child participates in the extended family in the same way as would a biological child; 2) whether the person provides financially for the child (depending on the ability to pay); 3) whether the person disciplines the child as a parent; 4) whether the person represents to the child, the family, and the world, either explicitly or implicitly, that he or she is responsible as a parent to the child; and 5) the nature or existence of the child's relationship with the absent biological parent.

Beyond the financial aspect of child support is also the reality that individuals who are not biological parents may establish psychological ties with a child that merit legal recognition in the form of the right of custody or access. When a child has established a psychological bond with someone, for example after being placed in their care by a biological parent, the courts may find the best interests of the child require protecting the continuity of their care by maintaining formal contact with the stepparent (Bala, 2000).

Foster Fathers: Child welfare policy and practice has a particular influence on the involvement of foster fathers. The Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies predicts that there will be 8,161 foster homes available or in use in the province on March 31, 2005, an increase of 55% since March 31, 1998, and that there will be 18,879 children in care (including temporary, society, crown wards, extended care and maintenance) at that time.

Children are often placed in foster care due to physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, family problems or parental difficulties such as substance abuse, marital problems or mental health issues. Because of these life experiences, children and youth placed in foster care can present emotional and behavioural challenges that are not faced by most parents (Orme & Buehler, 2001, Toronto CAS). The nature of the relationship – short-term care versus a long-term familial relationship – can create unique challenges to foster parents and children. There is some suggestion, because of the transient nature of fostering, that the commitment to children by foster parents is less emotionally involved than for children of adoptive parents who envision a lifetime bond (Pryor, 2004).

The experience of being a foster father can be different than the experience of being a foster mother. The “gender gap” associated with other parenting relationships has similar, though perhaps magnified outcomes for foster parents. Typically, foster mothers take on the bulk of “at-home” care while foster fathers often have outside employment in addition to their foster parent responsibilities. Since foster mothers are often the predominant disciplinarian and spend more time with the children, they can serve as a ready target for the child’s negative feelings (Delaney, R., n.d.). In general, Delaney notes that foster fathers enjoy a different type of relationship with their foster children, characterized by much less stress and animosity and fewer power struggles, and perhaps even a “playful” exchange. This imbalance can place a strain on the marital/partner relationship of the foster parents and the presence of a foster child can impact the financial, social and time resources that the family has at their disposal.

The role confusion associated with fostering (Volunteers? Staff? Professionals?) reflects the marginalization of this role. Yet, the needs of the children entering the system have heightened the requirement for a level of “professionalization” in order to adequately parent foster children (Waldock, n.d.). Current research and policy efforts in Ontario have been harnessed to implement a large-scale program entitled Looking After Children (full implementation is anticipated by April 1, 2007) (OnLAC Council, Feb. 2005) geared towards affecting outcome monitoring and service improvement in foster care.

Grandfathers and Other Kin: According to 2001 census statistics, nearly 4% of families live in multi-generational homes, those in which at least three generations are co-resident (Milan & Hamm, 2003). These data also indicate that immigrant families and Aboriginal families are more likely to live in multi-generational homes. One third of the grandparents who live in these homes are living with a lone parent and their children. Younger grandparents may be living with teen-parents and their children and 10% of grandparents who share their home with a lone parent and children are under 45 years of age. Roughly 12% of grandparents living in multi-generational families live with grandchildren and no middle generation and are so-called “skip-generation grandparents”. One in three skip-generation grandparents are men. Grandparents who live in multi-generational homes may be receiving or providing care, or both, and are the primary financial supporters in 16% of homes where the middle generation is a couple, 50% of homes with a lone parent middle generation and 65% of skip-generation homes (Milan and Hamm, 2003). As in the case of stepfathers, grandparents may be required, pursuant to the Ontario Family Law Act, for example, to be responsible for support of children where a “settled intention” has been established (Cheng v. Cheng (1996)

Grandparents are usually placed in the position of caring for their grandchildren due to parents’ inability or unwillingness to provide care to their children. These situations, then, are similar to those listed earlier for foster parents, and may include the involvement of child protection agencies or the court system. There is ongoing debate and discussion at the provincial and territorial level about kinship care and how kin might be better supported as an alternative to foster care (see, for example, Regional Municipality of Niagara, 2004, Yukon Government Children’s Act Revision, 2005). Grandparents who are providing this level of care identify the following concerns: financial challenges related to increased costs of caring for children, worry about using retirement savings, limited financial support available from provincial government sources, legal costs associated with pursuing custody, lack of formal recognition of their status, lack of availability of respite care, and lack of parenting programs specifically designed to help grandparents raising grandchildren (Muldoon, 2003; Weaver, 2002).

Kinship care is viewed as an alternative to foster care, but is currently not funded in the same way as foster care (Muldoon, 2003). Public perception may sometimes view grandparents in these situations as responsible for the problems that have resulted in parents not being able to provide adequate care for their children. They may experience isolation, social rejection and lack of support, and may be obligated to continue working beyond their planned retirement or to utilize their own retirement savings to support and raise their grandchildren. Grandparents who are indirectly providing support for their grandchildren by financially supporting the parents or providing day-to-day support such as childcare and transportation to school and appointments, may face similar challenges and lack of recognition/support (Jendrek, 1993).

While maternal grandparents may take on primary or significant care responsibilities for grandchildren born to adolescent parents, paternal grandparents in the same situation may experience distress or feelings of helplessness related to lack of participation in their grandchild’s life due to an inability or unwillingness on the part of their adolescent son to be involved in his child’s life. Grandparents may also be caught on the outside of acrimonious separation and divorce proceedings, and lose even limited contact with their grandchildren.

The right of grandparents to have access to their grandchildren is not absolute. The Ontario Court of Appeal in Chapman v. Chapman (2001) held that the court will not require parents to take their children to visit a grandparent against their judgment where there is not a positive relationship. Nonetheless, the court in obiter did reflect on the opportunity for enhanced emotional well-being that can come from access to extended family and the positive relationships that can develop. There is a strong claim that grandparents who have sole responsibility for the care of a child for a significant period, and have, therefore, effectively become a psychological parent, are in a good position to seek custody and access (Bala & Jaremko Bromwich, 2002).

While the preceding discussion has highlighted the situation for many grandparents, there has been little analytical work done in the area of drawing distinctions between grandmothers’ and grandfathers’ experience. The degree of involvement for each may frequently be influenced by gender-based expectations and socialization, leading grandmothers to be more often providing direct care and grandfathers providing or managing the financial aspects of this care. However, physical health and employment status will also influence this involvement, suggesting that sometimes the grandfather is more able to engage in direct care responsibilities, perhaps in direct contrast to the more traditional fathering role they played as younger men.

Gaps, Critical Questions and Concerns

Statistical Determination of Stepfamilies: As Juby (2003-2004) discusses, because family statistics are based on the residential family unit, the number of stepfamilies currently reported underestimates the number of people involved. The vast majority of stepfamilies are created following divorce and separation, rather than widowhood, such that children are likely to have a mother and a stepfather and a father and a stepmother. Yet, the only “step-relatives” that are counted are those with whom the child lives most of the time. Not recognizing the part-time living arrangements of children has the potential to minimize the importance of these relationships. This may have implications for the lack of social support, guidelines for role performance and institutionalized procedures.

Workplace Policies and Other Institutional Policies: Assuming the role of a “parent” whether as stepfather, foster father, or grandfather brings the same challenges faced by all parents – juggling work and child care demands. While there is variability in what the parenting of stepfathers, foster fathers and grandfathers and other kin looks like, there is still great potential for external policies to have a significant effect on their ability to meet their child rearing responsibilities. Workplace policy and practice influences the degree to which social fathers are able to take family time away from work if necessary. The ways in which such roles are constructed by families and communities, and the recognition of these roles by childcare providers, schools, and other institutions, as well as workplaces, will influence the ways in which all types of “fathers” can be involved as primary or secondary father figures in children’s lives. The legal and social limbo for their “assigned” designation may underrate the reality of parenting undertaken by these fathers.

Legal Rights and Responsibilities of Stepfathers: Stepfathers can only take on a legally recognized father role where a biological father has died or relinquished his rights to make way for a stepfather to adopt the child – something most fathers are not willing to do. The result is a tremendous grey area for the majority of stepfathers who “stand in place of a parent” with respect to their relationship to the child. While the courts are beginning to recognize the significance of this relationship with respect to awarding child support and visitation following dissolution of the relationship with the child’s mother, gaps continue to exist with respect to the stepparent’s right to authorize medical treatment, visit their child in the hospital, sign a report card, or be formally notified by a school or other agency with respect to the day-to-day care of the child where formal guardianship is lacking. There may be a material impact on children with respect to issues around medical insurance, death benefits and the division of estate assets following the death of a stepparent. These gaps have been identified in a number of U.S. articles that, while referencing different laws, highlight potentially relevant concerns for Canadian stepfathers (Hans, 2002; Mason, Harrison-Jay, Messick Svare, & Wolfinger, 2002; Duran- Aydintug & Ihinger-Tallman, 1995).

Challenges Faced by Stepfathers, Foster Fathers and Grandfathers: The complex relational matters and increased child rearing challenges that have been identified for stepfathers, foster fathers and grandfathers or other male kin have been given little attention in research or in parenting programs other than those specifically designed for step-parents or foster parents.

Recognition and Supports for Foster Fathers: The challenges in recruiting and retaining foster parents highlights the needs and realities that foster parents experience. Role confusion and other factors, such as lack of recognition within the system and in society generally, contribute to the loss of competent foster parents and leads to excessive turnover rates (Waldock, n.d.). Issues concerning foster fathers and their families include:
$ Recruitment and retention
$ Recognition of their status and contribution to raising children with special needs
$ Inclusion in the legal and decision-making process to offer their insights into children’s care
$ Adequate levels of remuneration to off-set expenses and caregiving burden
$ Support from agencies to facilitate parenting and minimize tensions between foster parents and social workers/agencies
$ The means to protect the partnered relationship (if there is one)

Summary: There is potential, in many cases, for positive father figures to be involved in children’s lives in ways that augment or ameliorate the involvement of biological or adoptive fathers. Children can benefit from this regular contact, emotionally and psychologically, as well as from the necessary physical and financial care that is provided in some cases by step-fathers, common-law partners, grandparents and others. In order that these father figures are able to provide such care, in roles ranging from primary to supplementary, social and institutional supports must be in place that include recognition of the value of their roles from workplaces, schools and childcare services, parenting programs and respite services, and child welfare agencies.

Key References

Bala, N. & Jaremko Bromwich, R. (2002). Context and inclusivity in Canada’s evolving definition of the family. International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family, 16, 145-180.
Bala, N. (2000). Breaking up is hard to do: Family law. In Transition Magazine, 30(2). Available at
Chapman v. Chapman (March 2, 2001), Doc. C34792 (Ont. C.A.)
Chartier v. Chartier [1999] 1 S.C.R. 242
Cheng v. Cheng (1996), 21 R.F.L. (4th) 58 (Ont. C.A.).
Delaney, R. (n.d.). The gender gap in foster care: Why foster fathers and mothers each view and experience their child very differently. Retrieved March 28, 2006, from
Duran-Aydintug, C. & Ihinger-Tallman, M. (1995). Law and stepfamilies. Marriage & Family Review, 21 (3/4), 169-192.
Haney, L. & March, M. (2003). Married fathers and caring daddies: Welfare reform and the discursive politics of paternity. Social Problems, 5, 461-81.
Hans, J. D. (2002). Step parenting after divorce: Stepparents’ legal position regarding custody, access, and support. Family Relations, 51 (4), 301-307.
Jendrek, M.P. (1993). Grandparents who parent their grandchildren: Effects on lifestyle. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 55, 609-621.
Juby, H. (2003-2004). Yours, mine, and ours: New boundaries for the modern stepfamily. In Transition Magazine, 33(4). Available at
Orme, J. G. & Buehler, C. (2001). Foster family characteristics and behavioral and emotional problems of foster children: A narrative review. Family Relations, 50 (1), 3-15.
Macdonald, R. A. (2000). All in the family. In Transition Magazine, 3 0(2). Available at
Mason, M. A., Harrison-Jay, S. Messick Svare, G. & Wolfinger, N. H. (2002). De facto parents or legal strangers? Journal of Family Issues, 23 (4), 507-522.
Milan, A. & Hamm, B. (2003). Across the generations: Grandparents and grandchildren. Canadian Social Trends, pp.1-10. Retrieved March 2005, from
Minkler, M. (1999). Intergenerational households headed by grandparents: Contexts, realities, and implications for policy. Journal of Aging Studies, 13, 199-218.
OnLAC Council. (2005). Looking Ahead: A quarterly report from the OnLAC council, 1(1). Retrieved March 2005, from the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies Web site:
OnLAC (n.d.). Looking After Children. Retrieved March 2005, from the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies Web site:
Preece, M. (2003-2004). When lone parents marry: The challenge of stepfamily relationships. In Transition Magazine, 33 (4). Available at
Pryor, J. (2004). Parenting in reconstituted and surrogate families. In M. Hoghughi and L. Long (Eds) Handbook of Parenting, 110-129. London, UK: Sage.
Regional Municipality of Niagara. (2004). Supports to extended families caring for children: Report to chair and members Community Services Committee. Retrieved March 28, 2006, from
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Turcotte, P. (2002). Changing conjugal life in Canada. The Daily, July 11, 2002. Available at
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Weaver, C. (2002). Report to members of Brant Social Services Committee re: Supports for extended families caring for children, August 15, 2002. Retrieved March 28, 2006, from
Yukon Government Children’s Act Revision. (2005). Policy forum discussion paper: Prevention and early intervention. Retrieved March 2005, from