Reaching Young Fathers of Color

What does fatherhood look like, if you’re a young father of color (aecf.org)?

Fatherhood is life changing. But what does it look like if you’re a black or Latino father between the ages of 18 and 24?

This question is explored in a recent report released by Baltimore’s Center for Urban Families (CFUF), Reaching Their Full Potential: Strategies for Supporting Young Fathers of Color, which compiles the wisdom of 10 fatherhood programs from across the country. According to the report: “roughly one million young men ages 18 to 24 are parenting,” but “until recently, the needs of young fathers, and young parents in general, were all but ignored by researchers, policymakers, and practitioners.”

There’s a move to change that. Quanic Fullard, program associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, moderated a recent webinar on young fatherhood in coordination with the report’s release. Fullard explained that the Casey Foundation “has funded two-generation studies for a while” but now plans to do more to support parents. 

“Common sense and research show that fathers are important to kids’ lives,” she said, “but fathers are often left out of policy discussions.”

Fullard explained that young fathers face unique challenges, since they are transitioning to adulthood and “learning how to regulate impulses, become reliable and consistent on the job,” while also raising young children, who are at their own critically important developmental stage. Good childrearing is important for children’s emotional and nutritional development, but so, too, is having parents with a steady income. Household stress, whether caused by economic insecurity or other challenges, can affect healthy attachment for infants and toddlers. 

The webinar’s three panelists, Joe Jones of CFUF, Charles Daniels of Boston’s Fathers’ Uplift, and Sheldon Smith of Chicago’s The Dovetail Project, also shared insights about challenges specific to young fathers of color, the importance of building trust, and the challenges of recruitment. Many of the fathers served by these three programs have a connection to the criminal justice system or family courts, which complicates their attempts to emotionally care for, or financially support, their own children.  

Jones observed, that young parents’ brains are still developing, their family relationships are often complex, and they are typically trying to decipher parenthood on their own. “It’s important not to take sides with either parent,” he advised, noting that many young fathers did not know their own fathers, “so their manhood is being shaped by other forces.” Jones said he communicates to program participants, “This identity void you feel is not normal, but in this camaraderie we’re building, you’re not alone.”

These young men want to be good fathers, but recruitment can be a challenge, as Daniels explained, because many “have preconceived notions about what you’re going to do . . . especially with mental health or medical services; there’s fear because of what’s been done to my people and to me.” 

The solution, Daniels said, is “proving them wrong, that you’re not using them for data, but you care about them,” which includes showing “they’re a part of the family” and encouraging staff to share personal information, as appropriate, to build trust.      

Smith said 80% of his program participants are recruits, while 20% are alumni referrals. “In general, our outreach team is walking up to anyone asking if they’re dads,” and whether they need a GED or want to learn a trade. Smith was clear that programs must detail what they offer: “You can’t just say you have a fatherhood program.” The report itself offers further examples of unorthodox recruitment, including “showing up at bars or strip clubs to pass out fliers.”

Once young fathers join fatherhood programs, it’s important to tailor curricula and services to their needs. Smith advised focusing on cultural competence and recognizing there is no one-size-fits-all approach to fatherhood. “Young men in your program want something familiar to what they’re experiencing in their city.” Staff should resemble program participants, including speaking the same language, and the program’s location must account for safety: “The number one thing fathers are concerned about is safety. If they feel unsafe, they won’t come and be involved.”

Panelists also discussed the toll COVID has taken on the fathers they serve. Many of these men already faced financial and educational challenges at the start of the year, but things are tougher now. One example Jones cited was the CARES Act, which offered $1200 “relief to every income eligible American,” except men like those he serves. Jones observed, “In a pandemic, we decided that if you were a young father or a father who owed state-owed child support, you weren’t eligible for stimulus check.” The result has been that indebted or unemployed fathers have been forced “to double or triple up in housing,” increasing their risk of COVID infection.

Other lessons from the panelists included: 

1) Fatherhood program providers need their own peer network because this “heavy” work is often done in isolation. 

2) Both quantitative and qualitative program evaluation is necessary, not only to improve programs but also to attract further investment, especially from foundations. 

3) It’s important to identify public policies that “harm or exclude fathers.” For example, Jones suggested that child support orders “be set based on fathers’ ability to pay,” and state waivers shouldn’t be required for state funds to support workforce training. 

4) Since young fathers of color are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, they face difficulties with education, work, and housing. Because child support accumulates even during incarceration, these fathers “often have insurmountable debt.” 

5) TANF and other public benefits are crucial supports for vulnerable young families, but many parents may not know they’re eligible. Some couples might need help with applying while they stay together, while others may need help negotiating co-parenting after splitting, particularly if more than two adults will be involved.

Daniels noted there are “some things about being a dad that can’t be taught in a textbook.” He’s undoubtedly right—which is why these programs are so very important.

This article appeared in the Family Studies blog.

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