by McKell Jorgensen and Alan J. Hawkins
The Bottom Line First: While this blog focuses on healthy relationship and marriage education, an important, parallel field of responsible fatherhood education also exists. Researchers, however, have not given a lot of attention to the effectiveness of responsible fatherhood programs. But a recently released, large-scale, rigorous study – Parents and Children Together helps to fill that void. The study found that these programs increased fathers’ engagement and nurturing behavior with their children, but struggled to have other impacts.
Previous research shows us that fathers have a significant impact on their children’s lives and well-being and father absence contributes to poorer outcomes for children. However, with all the changes to family formation and stability over the past several decades, we know that many fathers don’t live with their children. And we know that family instability has real costs for society. Can social policy be a tool to help strengthen the bonds between fathers and their children?
Readers of this blog know that the federal government (Administration for Children and Families, or ACF) has spent nearly $1 billion to support relationship and marriage education programs to help individuals and couples learn important principles and skills for forming and sustaining healthy romantic relationships. At the same time, the federal government has been funding educational programs for fathers to explore whether these kinds of programs can help disadvantaged fathers strengthen their relationships with their children, increase their parenting skills, learn co-parenting skills to work more effectively with the child’s mother (whether they live together or not), and boost their economic prospects through employment training programs.
Currently, ACF is funding 39 responsible fatherhood (RF) programs. However, researchers have not been as active studying the impact of RF programs as they have with healthy relationship and marriage programs. The results of the Parents and Children Together, or PACT, study, funded by the federal government, was recently released, giving us a rigorous test of the effectiveness of these kinds of programs. (A previous blog summarized the PACT study results on two relationship education (RE) programs. This blog summarizes the impact of four RF programs.)
In this study, 5,533 fathers were randomly assigned to either a control group (to continue life as usual) or one of four RF programs (in four cities: Kansas City, St. Louis, Minneapolis, and St. Paul). The fathers participating in the RF programs attended workshops on parenting, healthy relationships, economic stability, and personal well-being. These four programs ranged from 15-88 hours in duration. 80% of the fathers were no longer romantically involved with the (focal) child’s mother, about two-thirds didn’t live with the (focal) child. About 15% resided with the mother of the (focal) child.
What were the results of the study?
- Parent-child relationship: after participating in the program, fathers were more involved with their kids and engaged in more nurturing behaviors than control-group fathers.
- Co-parenting skills: there were no differences between treatment- and control-group fathers in how they worked together with the mother in parenting.
- Well-being: there were no differences between treatment- and control-group fathers in their reported personal social, emotional, or mental well-being.
- Child-Support System: fathers who participated in RF programs had better knowledge of the child support system compared to control-group fathers, including how it worked, and their responsibilities.
- Financial: program participants didn’t see much change in economic stability, although the fathers who participated in the educational programs reported they felt better about their financial situation.
- Criminal Justice: There was no significant difference between treatment-group and control-group fathers’ in their involvement in the criminal justice system during the study.
Here are some implications of the study:
- Program Intensity: the most intensive program (88 hours of involvement with fathers) had the best results of the four different programs. Perhaps longer, more intensive RF programs are needed to make the intended impact. Of course, more resources are needed to run these intensive programs. It may be hard to duplicate these more intensive programs without significant government support.
- Couple Education: these RF programs targeted fathers alone, without their partners. (Some of the programs had a session with the mother, but it was only a small proportion of the program hours.) We know from previous research that mothers play an important role in supporting father involvement. Maybe we need to involve fathers and mothers together in these programs in order to see stronger results, especially in the co-parenting category. Some previous studies hint that stronger results occur when parents participate together and give significant focus to the parents’ relationship.
- Progress and Improvement: the PACT study was the largest and most rigorous evaluation of a RF program to date. These rigorous studies often show limited effects, especially in early phases of policy development like this. But there were some positive results to build on. Program developers and administrators can use these results to improve their programs to serve families better. As they do so, future evaluation studies likely will show stronger results.
 McLanahan, S., Tach, L., & Schneider, D. (2013). The causal effects of father absence. Annual Review of Sociology, 399, 399–427; Sarkadi, A., Kristiansson, R., Oberklaid, F., & Bremberg, S. (2008). Fathers’ involvement and children’s developmental outcomes: A systematic review of longitudinal studies. Acta Paediatrica, 97(2), 153–158.
 Sawhill, I. V. (2014). Generation unbound: Drifting into sex and parenthood without marriage. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.
 Avellar, S., Covington, R., Moore, Q., Patnaik, A. & Wu, A. (2018). Parents and children together: Effects of four responsible fatherhood programs for low-income fathers. OPRE Report Number 2018-50. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A copy of the report can be found here.
 Cowan, P. A., Cowan, C. P. Pruett, M. K., Pruett, K., & Wong, J. J. (2009). Promoting fathers’ engagement with children: Preventive interventions for low‐income families. Journal of Marriage and Family, 71, 663-679.