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Future president Barack Obama addressed a packed church in his hometown of Chicago on Fathers Day 2008. Speaking on the issue of responsible fatherhood, he said:
But if we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that what too many fathers also are is missing—missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.
These comments touched a nerve, sparking conversations in the blogosphere, at water coolers, in barbershops, and around kitchen tables. Obama was noting an issue that is clearly evident, but rarely raised by national-level leaders—the fact that many fathers are missing from their children’s lives. And this is reflective of another significant concern that receives even less attention—the difficulties involved in two people parenting together while living apart, and the frequent exclusion of low-income people from the systems that our nation has created to support such families.
The issue of post-break-up parental conflict pervades our culture, whether we are developing colorful terms for it like “baby mama drama,” or engrossing ourselves in how celebrities like Alec Baldwin, Charlie Sheen, or Jon and Kate mismanage the beginnings of their post-break-up parenting relationships. These examples of high-profile couples at the extremes of conflict and the pervasiveness of the issue can lead to the conclusion that nothing can be done to help families experiencing these difficulties. But the nation’s family courts and relevant practitioners have for decades been improving upon approaches such as mediation, parent education, and counseling that help couples reach agreements about visitation arrangements or parenting plans and set them on the right course toward effectively parenting together while living apart. These tools are definitely not a cure-all, and won’t work for all couples, but they have been associated with increased father visitation and child support payments.
Yet these helpful tools can be out of reach for low-income families because they are typically connected to the courts and are often part of divorce or custody/visitation actions. This presents great difficulties for parents who are unable to afford an attorney or face educational, literacy, or other barriers to self-representation.
The consequences can be severe. Imagine experiencing a divorce or separation and not having an agreement about custody, visitation, or support in place—being left to constantly negotiate with a former intimate partner about each visit, each dollar exchanged. The potential for constant conflict is evident. Individuals may be unclear about their roles and responsibilities, unknowingly disappointing the other parent’s expectations. Fathers may become frustrated and reduce or eliminate contact with a child. Mothers may simply deny fathers access. Both parents are left with the aggravation that comes from unanswered questions and unresolved issues. Children are ultimately the ones who are hurt, potentially witnessing unnecessary conflicts and often experiencing diminished relationships with the parent who doesn’t have custody—typically fathers.
States and localities vary on how well they are, or are not, addressing this issue. The federal government launched its own program to fill in the blanks more than 10 years ago. This Access and Visitation program, which is included within Temporary Assistance for Needy Family legislation, will soon be reconsidered by Congress. Unfortunately, it remains largely undefined and has received only paltry funding since its inception.
Improvements to the program should include:
- Increasing available funding. This would allow the program to expand, serving more families and providing more services.
- Dedicating funding to legal services providers. These service providers can offer information and assistance about rights and obligations while also playing varying roles in the delivery of alternative dispute resolution services.
- Targeting resources. Certain families should be targeted by the program. These include those who are low-income, never married, lacking access rights or formal visitation arrangements, and those with an incarcerated parent.
- Increasing community-based institution involvement. These entities have a critical role to play in providing services that are timely, welcoming, and suited to the populations being served.
Additional effort must be put into improving court policies and practices so that they better serve never-married parents and low-income parents.
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Senior Policy Analyst