Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Father Engagement in Home Visiting Programs: Promising Strategies, Benefits, and Challenges

Thursday, November 12, 2015 : 8:30 AM
Merrick I (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Maeve Gearing1, H. Elizabeth Peters2, Heather Sandstrom2 and Carrie Heller1, (1)The Urban Institute, (2)Urban Institute
Father involvement during the early childhood years is linked to stronger parent-child attachment (Grossman et al. 2002; Hossain et al. 1994), better child cognitive outcomes (Roggman et al. 2004), social competence (Pettit et al. 1998), lower levels of externalizing behavior for boys and positive mental health for girls (Sarkadi et al. 2008). Accordingly, there have been increased efforts in the early childhood field to encourage greater father involvement, especially among low-income men who often face significant barriers to being involved with their children.

Home visiting programs offer a unique entry point to intervene and target outcomes for fathers and their children. Such programs have traditionally targeted mothers as the primary client; however, the increasing recognition of the importance of fathers has led some of these programs to develop strategies to engage fathers in services. Little systematic information exists on the methods and approaches that home visiting programs utilize to engage fathers. To address this gap, we conducted an exploratory study using qualitative research methods to learn about father engagement and fathers’ experiences in home visiting programs.

The study addressed the following research questions:

1. What strategies do program staff use to encourage father engagement? Which strategies work better for different types of fathers (e.g., residential or non-residential; first-time or experienced fathers; teen fathers), and why?

2. What supports—including program philosophies, curricula, and training—are perceived as most useful to staff?

3. What are the perceived benefits of program participation for fathers, mothers, and their children?

4. What are the barriers to engaging fathers in home visiting services?

We identified home visiting programs that were implementing strategies to actively engage fathers.  From those, we purposively selected five programs and conducted week-long site visits. Programs varied in their home visiting model, curricula, and populations served. Field staff led semi-structured interviews with program directors, home visitors, and participating fathers and mothers. Interview transcripts were coded and analyzed using NVivo software for qualitative data analysis.

Preliminary analyses show that multiple modes of father engagement exist across and within programs, such as including fathers in mother-targeted home visits, providing separate father-targeted home visits, and offering father support groups and family activities. Each of these engagement strategies serves particular father needs, such as helping fathers feel connected to families in integrated home visits, providing mentoring support in father-targeted home visits, building father networks in father support groups, and helping fathers build memories with their children through family activities. All engagement strategies provide support for fathers and improve overall father functioning, according to both parents and staff. The choice of strategy appears dependent on the characteristics of fathers served and program resources.

The findings offer unique lessons about the implementation of father engagement strategies that have important policy and practical implications for home visiting as well as healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood programs nationwide.