Coparenting

The May 2015 Zero to Three Journal focuses on supporting fathers and mothers as coparents.  Although referring to parents of infants in the mental health system, the articles are applicable to parents of children of all ages in all systems.  Here’s what I think gets to the heart of the matter as quoted from the first article by James P. McHale and Vicky Phares:  “In jurisdictions across the United State, fathers are still often seen as trespassers in work with mothers and infants.  Instead of adopting the posture: ‘Where is the child’s father?  We cannot begin work without him.  Let’s redouble our energies to get him in here, engage with him, help him understand that our efforts on behalf of his baby will not succeed without him,’ infant mental health professionals reflexively accept that he is not their target.”   That statement could readily be applied to many other child/family-serving systems, including the child welfare system.

But why? Why, after all these years of an ever-increasing body of knowledge of the importance of fathers, numerous fatherhood initiatives and programs, and federal grants to fund Responsible Fatherhood programs are fathers still viewed as “trespassers?”  McHale and Phares list the following reasons:

  • Fathers who do not provide financial support for their children are viewed as untrustworthy and underserving
  • Female providers are not comfortable working with men
  • The “men’s movement” is associated with possessive, controlling, and domineering fathers
  • Fathers are not necessary

However, the authors then cite some compelling studies that support father inclusion:

  • Mothers with post-partum depression heal better when fathers are engaged in the treatment
  • Better outcomes for children are dependent on family functioning that includes fathers
  • A program that videotapes both fathers and mothers playing with their children has demonstrated improved parenting confidence as well as improved coparenting communication

If you’re like me, this is the first time that you’ve heard of these studies. That’s because we’re more likely to be social workers than psychologists and these studies are from the field of psychology.  In fact the cutting-edge research on coparenting is being produced largely by psychologists.  Dr. McHale and Dr. Phares are psychologists at the University of South Florida.  There are two couples who also are instrumental in coparenting research, three psychologists and one psychiatrist:  Dr. Philip and Dr. Carolyn Pape Cowan and Dr. Kyle Pruett (psychiatrist) and Dr. Marsha Kline Pruett.  The research findings of all have a strong common thread: the involvement of both parents in their children’s lives or working with “the father and mother together—always together.”  For more information on father involvement in the field of psychology, visit http://www.usfsp.edu/fsc/research/figuring-it-out-for-the-child/  and http://www.familyresourcecenters.net/…/Phase-IV-final-report-text-plus-tables/.

How do we as social workers ignite coparenting?  Framing father involvement as coparenting is certainly one way, and note that coparents may also include kin, step-parents, foster parents, etc.  A successful coparenting movement will require a concerted effort that includes joining forces across industries and systems, finding new sources of funding, identifying and scaling up effective models (the Responsible Fatherhood programs have not yet produced definitive findings or models), addressing the primarily female workforce perspective, and promoting coparenting in all forms of media.

The National Family Preservation Network (NFPN) has promoted father involvement for the past 15 years and is happy to join the coparenting movement.  NFPN has a free resource to assist child welfare agencies to meet the federal Child and Family Services Reviews (CFSR) standards for father involvement:  http://www.nfpn.org/Portals/0/Documents/cfsr_father_involvement.pdf.   A good overview of federal fatherhood funding is available here:  https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL31025.pdf. Another free resource is best practice on visitation between non-resident fathers and their children: http://www.nfpn.org/father-involvement/father-child-visits.

NFPN has some of the few research-based curricula for training practitioners on father involvement.  The curricula were field-tested with child welfare social workers and there were significant changes following training.  For information on the curricula, visit http://www.nfpn.org/father-involvement/basic-training-package.    Complete this form to obtain a price quote: http://www.nfpn.org/father-involvement/fatherhood-form.   The curricula are also available as three online courses: http://www.nfpn.org/father-involvement/online-courses.   An updated Complete Guide to Father Involvement with links to over 30 resources is a good starting place for information: http://www.nfpn.org/father-involvement/guide-to-father-inv.    The Guide is free with purchase of either the Basic or Advance Fatherhood Training Curricula.

Priscilla Martens, Executive Director

National Family Preservation Network

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