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Overcoming Barriers Fathers Face

"I can't see my child."

Because fathers repeatedly state, I can't see my child, fatherhood programs have developed strong knowledge of these barriers to not seeing his child and are often connected to the child support enforcement system.  However, our experience has shown that by conveying accurate information to fathers and by building a bridge with child support enforcement, fathers can better understand the reasons they cannot see their children and more importantly, develop steps to correct the situation with the help of a fatherhood program and child support enforcement.

Generally four reasons cause fathers to experience difficulties in seeing their children: (1) conflicts with the mother (custodial parent); (2) being unaware of the connection between legal paternity and legal right to visit; (3) lack of familiarity with the putative father registry and establishing legal paternity; and (4) inconsistent or no child support payments.

Fathers who have never-married mothers of their children are generally unaware of the significance of registering to establish legal paternity. Many with no legal child support obligation enroll in fatherhood programs because of difficulties they have faced securing visitation approval. If fathers can not afford legal assistance and are reluctant to meet with Child Support Enforcement representatives, they may experience the misdirection of neighborhood hearsay, and uninformed family and friends. Unfortunately, most of this type of information is neither accurate nor will it aid them in gaining visitation rights. Fatherhood programs deliver accurate information on the significance of establishing legal paternity, the connection between legal paternity and legal rights, the putative father registry, as well as, supplying relevant forms and contact numbers for proceeding.

Fatherhood curriculums are purposefully designed to address expectations, rights and responsibilities once legal paternity has been established. Transition points in the curriculum offer excellent opportunities to highlight the partnership between agencies by inviting Child Support Enforcement attorneys to explain the process of establishing child support, setting of the order, factors considered, and actions for fathers to take when jobs are lost or illness occurs. The "safe" environment of a fatherhood program site is ideal for Child Support  attorneys to clarify these complex processes and encourage participants to ask questions and share concerns. By being contributors to fatherhood programs child support personnel dispel many myths and misperceptions for the fathers while simultaneously gaining a clearer understanding of their plight. The curriculum emphasizes what to expect with emphasis on the importance of communicating with the agency while assuring fathers that the partnering agencies support their success.

Both formal and informal strategies are needed to achieve success. Child Support Enforcement agencies are not designed to address these issues; however, key elements of fatherhood programs include gaining the trust and cooperation of mothers once formal steps are in process. Effective fatherhood curriculums include lessons about parenting, co-parenting and effective communication, as well as, mediation of conflicts and establishing agreements with the custodial parent. By working informally to improve the relationship with the mother, program staff can begin to help fathers gain access to their children leading to formally established visitation. Relationship and communication breakdowns between fathers, mothers and other family members are likely to occur when fathers have not demonstrated parenting skills or gained mothersÂ’ trust. Fathers may begin to experience improved relationships with mothers once child support payments become consistent, and noticeable improvements occur in parenting and communication skills.

However, when children's mothers remain uncooperative despite efforts on the part of fathers, counselors working in fatherhood programs will be able to present options to obtain a legal right to parent when fathers cannot afford an attorney. Fatherhood curriculums typically include being a self-represented litigant and procedures for obtaining legal visitation rights and enforcement of any existing legal visitation rights.

"I can't pay my child support." - Fathers having fallen behind in child support payments

A leading reason for child support non-payment or payment shortfalls is unemployment or employment status changes. Being unfamiliar with navigating the complex system, fathers often do not know that their child support order can be modified or how to initiate the process. Unfortunately, fathers behind in their payments are far less likely to approach the enforcement agency for needed information and many may be hiding from the enforcement agency for fear of incarceration or other penalties. Most recognize that they cannot hide forever and the majority wants to do the right thing but lack confidence in what to do or where to begin. Most fathers view the child support system as complicated and often unsympathetic towards their circumstances.

Enrollment in a fatherhood program ensures that fathers will receive clear and accurate information about modifying existing child support orders when significant changes in circumstances occur. With effective partnerships in place between fatherhood programs and child support complicated systems become approachable and fathers whose financial circumstances have changed or who are medically unable to work receive assistance and instructions to help them on the path toward meeting their obligations. All fathers who seek modification of an original order are not low-income/low skills. Degreed engineers and professional athletes are just as likely to loose their jobs abruptly leaving them with no means to pay child support.

Fatherhood programs include a thorough assessment of each father's situation and child support officers depend on those results to reveal underlying causes for support payment arrears. Information gathered in the assessment process includes the father's educational background, employment status and reasons for lack of support payments. The assessment also determines if a driver's license has been revoked and if a modification is possible, or the status of any contempt hearing.

If unemployment or underemployment is a father's leading barrier to payment of child support, problems with paying will continue. Low-income fathers face multiple barriers to employment: low education levels, limited work experience/skills, physical/mental health issues and history of incarceration. With minimal education and/or job skills they often need employment related services to set them on a positive path toward earning a livable wage and meeting financial obligations. Fatherhood program staff facilitates completion of wage withholding forms immediately upon job placement to ensure documented and consistent support payments. Programs teach job readiness and retention skills, assist with employment placement, and provide transportation to and from training classes as needed. Fatherhood programs and local workforce development agencies partner to ensure access for enrolled fathers in adult education and job skills training.

Another barrier to employment and therefore, a barrier to child support payments is lack of a valid driver's license. Child support enforcement personnel are able to exercise some flexibility with the reinstatement of licenses.

"DSS has the ability to revoke all sorts of licenses," says Larry McKeown, "And, in today's world a license is also a proof of identity. Fatherhood programs, like SCCFF opened windows and shined light on shadowy areas never before viewed. Although there is currently no federal incentive to states to actively engage in fatherhood initiatives, it is encouraged, and especially in a time of constrained resources for Title IV D programs."

Fatherhood program staff advises fathers on rules and procedures and works with them toward reinstatement. Often, a good faith payment and proof of employment are enough to negotiate a license reinstatement agreement. Low-income fathers are a mobile population so despite considerable efforts by childsupport sending letters and relevant information by mail seldom reaches them. Even if they receive the correspondence, many will not respond. However, fathers enrolled in fatherhood programs are taught the general rules for reinstatement and state laws regarding provisional licenses and can access staff knowledge to begin the process or to gain a provisional license.

Incarceration stops fathers from paying child support. Having enrolled in a fatherhood program fathers will be able to connect with program staff that is able to attend non-payment, contempt hearings and verify fathers' enrollment as an alternative to incarceration. Through observing the success of alternative to incarceration programs, child support agencies have witnessed that not all fathers are unwilling payers destined for punishment.

A huge advantage of enrollment in fatherhood programs is receipt of coaching and guidance through knowledgeable staff leading fathers toward resolution of child support problems, information about services, job readiness, job skills and, ultimately, employment. Like other evidence-based diversion programs, fathers who consent to enroll in programs will be required to meet requirements; and, failure to do so will result in incarceration. Access to critical services increases the capacity of fathers to pay and sustain payment; in most cases it is warranted and should always be provided in a manner able to be utilized by this population.

Lack of understanding or fear of repercussions from child support enforcement will cause fathers to remain in their underground life avoiding seeking help until the contempt hearing has already occurred. In most jurisdictions, when a father fails to appear at his contempt hearing, an arrest warrant is issued for  "failure to appear." Day-to-day living with an active warrant becomes very stressful, especially when pursuing legitimate work. Is it any wonder that fathers are extremely hesitant to take this step when simply walking into a child support office could result in incarceration? Some fathers have said that they are even afraid to call the child support enforcement office believing that their phone calls will be traced and their whereabouts discovered. Almost all of them recognize that the warrant must be dealt with in order to move forward.

For fathers unable to pay support and overwhelmed by the intricate system, the fatherhood program becomes a temporary safe haven where they can receive information and begin the process of resolving their outstanding warrant. The key word is "temporary" because, in order to be approved for enrollment, all candidates are informed that the first requirement is addressing the outstanding warrant. Once the father consents to dealing with the warrant, he will be enrolled and staff will facilitate the process. At this juncture the importance of the partnership between the fatherhood program and the child support enforcement agency rises significantly. In the collaborative environment of inter-agency partnerships, the criteria and steps to resolve an outstanding warrant without incarceration can be discussed and agreed upon. Often, fathers must turn themselves into the court and consent to enrollment in the program as an alternative to incarceration. In other situations if a payment plan can be agreed upon, the court appearance involves a consent order to dismiss the warrant.

"How can I be a father when I am in jail?" - Father currently incarcerated

Being emotionally and financially active in a child's life is severely limited when fathers are incarcerated and barriers to support payments loom larger. Custodial parents often reach out to fatherhood programs for intervention because they want enforcement of requirements for fathers to work, go on wage withholding, and make consistent payments.

Each year the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provides to the federal register for publication the poverty guidelines for use for administrative purposes, such as determining financial eligibility for certain federal programs. For 2010 the poverty guideline for the 48 contiguous states and District of Columbia indicated that for families of two persons $14,570 income or less was the poverty guideline;  for families of three persons, it was $18,310; and for families of four, it was $22,050. For custodial families that fall in this poverty guideline child support represents 10 percent of family income and 40 percent for those who receive it.

Close collaboration between child support enforcement and fatherhood programs can introduce options for fathers incarcerated solely for non-payment of child support. At a sentencing review hearing, with the consent of child support enforcement in place, the father can be ordered to enroll in a fatherhood program as an alternative to incarceration. This type of order requires the father to participate in classes, employment placement, and other relevant services interpreted in the initial assessment interview. Applying the results of the intake assessment the trained and competent fatherhood program staff are prepared to identify most of the major issues contributing to the inability of individual fathers to maintain employment and consistently pay support. Before being released to the program, staff must determine whether or not the fatherhood program has the capacity to deliver the unique set of services needed by each father.

Jo Beasley, Assistant Director Regional Operations, SC DSS, CSED has said, "In the past, neither we nor the courts, had an alternative other than incarceration to handle non compliance situations. Now fathers can opt to enter fatherhood programs rather than jail. Once a participant enters into a fatherhood program and has a successful outcome this is what I see: child support payments are paid; the custodial parent receives child support; calls to CSED for enforcement are reduced since payments are being received; family court does not issue contempt citations; and court dockets are reduced. Studies have clearly shown that fathers who pay child support are more engaged in the lives of their children. It's a win-win for all involved."

The output of inter-agency partnerships ultimately impacts the children who receive the greatest benefit of involved and responsible fathers; however, there is no doubt that the economic impact in overall system operational costs is equally impressive. The vast majority of low-income fathers who enroll in fatherhood programs truly want to positively contribute to the lives of their children. Those whose goals are not aligned with responsible fatherhood will not be enrolled because the overall goal of fatherhood programs is supporting fathers who desire to be active and involved. With Child Support Enforcement as a key program partner, fathers gain access to services and critical information putting them on the path toward becoming reliable payers. Many low income fathers and families are unable to single-handedly navigate the complex child system. Agency partnerships bring impressive efficiencies and incrementally expand positive results and increase the potential for a broader scope of services with minimal increase in staff time or resources.