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For Tamara Simmons, engaging fathers is critical

Tamara Simmons

Tamara Simmons is a children and family services specialist II with the New York State Office of Children and Family Services. She is also a graduate of the Minority Professional Leadership Development (MPLD) program at AdoptUSKids. We spoke with Tamara about the action research project she completed during the 12-month program.

Historically and at present, fathers have often experienced stigmatization. They have been systematically pushed away and discouraged from being involved in the lives of their children. This gender bias has disproportionately affected fathers of color and produced poor systemic outcomes.

In 2020, Tamara was deeply affected by viewing a video of homicide victim George Floyd and his small daughter, realizing that this child would grow up without her African American father. 

Tamara’s action research project is called “Strategies for Working with System-Involved Fathers.” In the project, Tamara shares relevant data and outcomes to underscore the critical importance of dads being involved with their children and the negative effects that occur when they are not present. In addition, she has recommendations for how organizations can address the issue and reverse these disquieting trends.

A look at some consequences of absent fathers:

  • 63% of youth suicides are from fatherless homes (U.S. Department of Health/Census)
  • 71% of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes (National Principals Association Report)
  • 39% of students 1st through 12th grade are fatherless (U.S. Department of Education)

According to the National Fatherhood Initiative and the U.S. Census Bureau, when fathers are absent, children are:

  • Four times more likely to live in poverty
  • Seven times more likely to experience teen pregnancy
  • More likely to experience incarceration

The benefits of having fathers involved include a reduced length of stay out of the home for children, fewer placement episodes, and positive mental health outcomes for the dads.

Given this backdrop, we spoke with Tamara, who goes about her work with a sense of unwavering fervor and urgency.

What inspired you to do this project? 

From a child welfare perspective, I’m making sure that when I’m reviewing a policy, I’m reviewing the policy for children and families overall. I’m also thinking about how the policy is going to impact children and families of color.

I noticed that our outcomes, and the outcomes in other states when it came to the federal reviews, were not doing well in terms of engaging fathers. That really concerned me for personal and systemic reasons. I am friends with a number of men who are actively parenting their children as the primary parent.

Where did you develop strategies to reduce barriers and bias when it comes to engaging fathers? For example, you have said that fathers sometimes are only looked at for what they can provide financially. 

We’re looking to reduce the number of kids that are placed in foster homes. Our data shows we’ve done well in engaging moms. We have to make an investment in an area of the system where we have not had great success.

What would it look like if systems of care amplified our efforts in terms of engaging fathers? My research looked at how we are supporting our workforce in terms of caseworkers and organizations overall. We want to improve the impact of their work with identifying, locating, and engaging fathers.

How vital is training caseworkers and staff when it comes to how they work with fathers? Data and anecdotal examples have shown that racial bias is often embedded within systems.

The research does show that fathers do not feel that caseworkers are culturally sensitive to their needs. There’s a bias towards fathers in terms of fathers as just providers. If we look at early regulations and legislation, it was primarily around welfare reform.  Fathers seemed irrelevant. 

The data shows that when male caregivers and fathers are active in the lives of their children, we see significant outcomes in education and less involvement in criminal systems. We also see better outcomes for those males in terms of their mental health and their employment.

Men of color​ ​are faced with bias. Some people say, “They don’t work. They’re all criminals. If they were involved, their children wouldn’t be in the system. They don’t need our help. They just need to show up.”

When we look at factors like mental health, the criminal justice system, and all the factors related to bias and systemic racism, there needs to be an elevated sense of education for people who are responsible for working with families and especially families of color.  They should look at how those factors impact the protective factors that allow caregivers to meet the needs of the children in their lives. The research shows early intervention is such a critical area, especially in how that impacts outcomes for children.

What more can organizations do to make changes that benefit fathers and children? What is the Father Friendly Checklist?

I have the opportunity to engage with local district stakeholders and give them organizational assessment tools like the Father Friendly Checklist from the National Fatherhood Initiative.

It allows organizations to look at themselves comprehensively to examine how they are serving fathers. It looks at all of the areas, such as staff training, program management, community outreach, and parent involvement programs. They have to ask themselves questions like, “Are there photos of fathers interacting with their children, and are staff seeing these photos?”

Staff training and development are important for any system, any structure, and any organization, especially in child welfare. Look at it from a DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) perspective in different communities and hear the voices of different people. I would encourage organizations to look at how policies, procedures, and training impact their work with fathers. An organization can then set a course of action to be in a better position to meet the needs of families in a holistic way.

Racial background can also play a part in the process of engaging dads.

Black men want to go to therapy to work on themselves, not to educate their therapists on the nuances of being Black in America. They don’t want to have to educate their therapists on why Black men do what they do. And it’s really hard to find quality services, especially when you’re in communities that are not diverse.

And when we start talking about our Black, Latino, and Burmese men, we’re talking about a whole bunch of different factors for finding people who will be able to really meet those needs in a culturally-sensitive way.

There is also a deeper, emotional connection and responsibility associated with your work.

I am still a Black girl from the East side of Buffalo who understands the plight of my people. When I am on committees and in workgroups, I may be the only chip in the cookie. I have a responsibility to do my job right because we as people are still in a state of overcoming.

I have a responsibility to my ancestors, my peers, and my community. I’m making sure that when I’m reviewing a policy, I’m reviewing the policy for children and families overall. And I’m also thinking about how this policy will impact children and families of color.

Tamara had the opportunity to carry out this action research project because of her involvement in the MPLD program.

Of her time in the program, Tamara says, “I appreciate the opportunity to promote positive things that are going on, so I really appreciate the experience of MPLD.” Learn more about the program and apply to be in the next cohort.

Resources:

National Fatherhood Initiative

Healthy Marriage Promotion and Responsible Fatherhood Grants Program

National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse