Investing in Fatherhood, Investing in Success
Historically, publically funded programs that support poor families have focused on low-income custodial parents, usually single mothers. Programs like the Utah Department of Workforce Services’ Invest in You, are aimed at helping these parents combat poverty by finding steady employment and building life skills like financial planning, parenting, and interviewing. Similar to many public programs addressing poverty, Invest in You targets custodial mothers, in terms of increasing family income.
Federal anti-poverty programs have often perceived non-custodial parents—usually fathers—as absentee parents, only of interest based on whether or not they were paying child support—as income or not income. These non-custodial fathers often struggle to meet their children’s economic and emotional needs. This is particularly true for those who have been incarcerated, who face substantial barriers to employment, and whose criminal history makes them ineligible for many public benefits. However, when programs focus on collecting child support payments, without also attending to the non-custodial parent’s earning capacity, they can inadvertently undermine a family’s ability to escape poverty.
The Utah Department of Workforce Services (DWS) is trying to change that. They recently piloted the project Invest in Dads Too, a program for formerly incarcerated fathers that focuses on employment, fatherhood, and reentry into society. Many individuals enter prison or jail with unstable employment histories; incarceration subsequently creates many barriers to gainful employment and, by extension, familial support. In recognition of this, the program is specifically focused on addressing barriers to employment for fathers transitioning out of jail or prison. This includes training and mentorship for participants, while also working with employers to overcome reluctance to hire someone with a criminal background.
Christian Sarver, an analyst at the U’s Utah Criminal Justice Center who is involved with evaluation of Invest in Dads Too, is excited about this different direction for resources to support poor families.
The program, which combines public and private funding to increase access to career training in high paying industries, is broken in to several different parts. The first portion of the program consists of four weeks of “Empowerment Days.” This requires participation in classes on employment skills, which include interviewing techniques, optimal communication, and professionalism in the workplace. It also includes a fatherhood/parenting class and financial literacy classes. This prepares the program participants for future job-specific training, the next phase of the program, and is aimed to improve supportive social relationships.
“It has already made a huge difference in my interaction with my kids,” said one program participant. “It had been years since I had in-person contact with all of them at the same time, and because of the fatherhood workshop, it gave me the confidence and the tools I needed to get us all together over the holidays and catch up. It made all the difference in the world.”
Another reflected, “I've literally received an ‘I'm proud of you dad.’ I mean WOW!!! Because we have now already a [sic] better communication, and I'm excited to see how I can make it better.”
“This project represents a shift in thinking of fathers, especially those who do not live in the home, as more than an income,” said Dr. Sarver. “There are large benefits to thinking of non-custodial dads as whole persons.” Studies consistently show that children with highly engaged fathers are more likely to have strong interpersonal skills and do well in school; they are also less likely to engage in delinquent behavior. “Thinking of fathers as part of the family, even if the parents are divorced, benefits the whole family, regardless of the status of the family.”
For the most part, the fathers interviewed in this study had employment histories in low-wage and unstable industries. Additionally, many of them knew they were facing large debt when their incarceration ended—fines and fees from their sentence and, for some, child support debt that accrued while they were in prison. This built pressure for fathers to “get money now” instead of incentivizing a long term professional plan. Dr. Sarver explained, “The system pushes dads to survival mode. They’re trying to get fast money as soon as they can to avoid further debt.” She continued, “They face a lot of pressure to get any job, rather than shaping a long term vision of what they’d like their career to be.” She is hopeful that future iterations of the program will do more work with fathers during their incarceration to help build this vision.
Father involvement and criminal justice research hasn’t overlapped much previously, but the criminal justice literature indicates it should. Prosocial, family relationships are one of the major treatment targets associated with reduced recidivism. “Just targeting the anti-social thinking that led to involvement with the criminal justice system isn’t enough to reduce recidivism,” said Dr. Sarver. She emphasized the importance of taking a broader life approach. “We want more than to just keep them out of prison or jail; we want these people to have careers. And relationships. And lives. We want to help them participate in life again—to create a life they don’t want to interrupt.”