Engaging Fathers, Engaging Families

Under contract and in partnership with the New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), the Center for Development of Human Services (a program of the Research Foundation for SUNY at Buffalo State College) has developed a toolkit for caseworkers to better locate and engage fathers involved in the child welfare system.

While the term toolkit may conjure ideas of a short resource guide or publication, the Locating and Engaging Fathers Toolkit (LEFT) is actually an ongoing process that focuses on providing resources, training, and implementation support. It encompasses a range of products that are part of an agency or countywide process, including preparation meetings with leadership, an in-person orientation, online training to cover cognitive topics, classroom-based skill practice sessions with role-plays, as well as field-based coaching and an implementation workgroup that meets until the practice shift related to engaging fathers and their families is well-integrated and sustained.

Recently, Barbara Jaklitsch, Senior Project Coordinator for the Family Engagement Specialist Program at the Center, and Will Henry, one of the program’s Family Engagement Specialists, shared some of their thoughts about the LEFT program. When asked, “Why fatherhood as a focus for the toolkit?,” Henry replied that “fathers are the most neglected family member in terms of engagement by caseworkers. Many children in foster care and within the child welfare system come from single-parent homes, and often little work is done to identify and locate absent fathers. Even when fathers’ names are available to workers, only 50% are contacted, and less than 10% are aggressively worked with in typical casework practice.” He further pointed out that part of the concept of family engagement is to include not just fathers, but fathers’ families as well, and said that “when fathers are not identified, 50% of the child’s resources are eliminated from consideration.” Barbara Jaklitsch added a reminder that locating and engaging fathers was also part of the Performance Improvement Program for New York State’s Child and Family Services Review. Furthermore, New York State’s Permanency Law of 2005 requires child welfare workers to also locate and engage grandparents. In order to do so, fathers must first be identified.

Barbara Jaklitsch and Will Henry
Barbara Jaklitsch and Will Henry

Topics included in the toolkit include the following: the history of father involvement, benefits to child development from father involvement, barriers to father involvement, locating fathers, legal and regulatory issues related to father involvement in child welfare, gender and cultural issues, mothers’ relationships with fathers, worker biases, engaging fathers, reaching mutual understanding about how fathers want to parent, supporting incarcerated and deployed fathers, and dealing with domestic violence.

When asked what the greatest take-away for workers from LEFT was, Will Henry stated, “That it’s not just about the father, but about the father’s family too. That the father’s family can be a resource to children, especially those in care.”

Henry also spoke about the need to understand gender dynamics from a male perspective, how fathers often operate in a “male mindset” and—since a large majority of child welfare staff are women—communication between female staff and male clients can be problematic. But there are ways that these communication issues can be effectively addressed. Jaklitsch added that the toolkit addresses a range of barriers in this regard, “from physical barriers in the way offices are set up that can be made to be more male-friendly to personal biases that workers may bring based on their own experience with their fathers or partners.” Henry and Jaklitsch agree that the most important benefits from using the toolkit are the recognition of the immense value that children gain when their fathers are involved in their lives and learning ways to enhance that involvement.

Much of the research and practice guidelines included in LEFT are based on work from the National Fatherhood Initiative, New York State’s Program Improvement Project, and the federal Administration for Children and Families and Health and Human Services departments, as well as the American Humane Society. Jaklitsch reported that workers, supervisors, or staff development coordinators can request LEFT through their New York State OCFS Regional Office, which will then contact a Family Engagement Specialist (FES) who is co-located at the Center and the NYS OCFS Regional Office. The FES collaborates with the regional office to decide whether an agency or county is ready for the toolkit.

For more information about the development and design of LEFT or any of the other toolkits, including Family Meetings, Coaching Family Visits, and Child-Centered/Family-Focused Practice, Janice Kirshenbaum can be reached via e-mail at or by phone at (518) 225-1600.

The world needs a sense of worth, and it will achieve it only by its people feeling that they are worthwhile.” — Fred Rogers