About half a million children in the United States benefit from home visiting programs, where a nurse, social worker, or other professional provides advice and support for healthy child development in the family’s home. Most programs are designed for new moms, but dads also play an important role in a child’s life.
Because little systematic information exists on how best to involve fathers in home visits, the Administration for Children and Families commissioned an Urban Institute study into how home visiting programs reach fathers. We visited five programs across the country to learn about the strategies home visitors are using and the effect of visits on fathers and families.
How do home visiting programs target fathers?
- Joint visits: Some programs included fathers in the visits with mothers. The content of the visit was similar to the content of a traditional, mother-only visit, though the home visitor set goals for both parents and emphasized developing family bonds and coparenting skills.
- Father-only visits: Some programs sent home visitors to fathers separately. These programs often focused on making the father more self-sufficient, to position him as a better parent and provider for his children. This meant helping fathers find jobs or housing, in addition to the usual lessons about child development and parenting. In these instances, the relationship between the father and the home visitor was more that of a peer or mentor, rather than a caseworker.
- Support groups: Beyond visits, each site hosted father support groups, family outings, or other activities that brought together fathers in similar situations.
What are the challenges?
- Program design: Most home visiting programs are designed for mothers, so programs often had to modify curricula to target fathers’ needs. Some female caseworkers said they were hesitant to engage with fathers if the parents’ relationship was poor or they felt fathers were holding mothers back. Home visitors often put the female clients’ interests first.
- Fathers’ engagement: Some fathers resisted participating because they distrusted government programs and were wary of strangers in their homes. Some, especially young fathers, lacked confidence in their abilities and, according to staff, were not developmentally ready to handle certain discussions. Getting fathers to participate was especially difficult when the parents were no longer in a relationship.
- Logistics: Scheduling time with fathers proved difficult at many sites, especially where home visitors conducted joint visits and parents lived separately.
What is the impact?
We didn’t explicitly measure the effects of home visits for fathers, but we did interview mothers, fathers, and staff members, who described the benefits of the program as they saw it.
- Parenting skills: Fathers who participated in home visits were more supportive coparents and more directly involved in raising their children. They were also more aware of developmental milestones, so they were better prepared for their children’s growth. In particular, staff members noted fathers’ use of more effective discipline strategies.
- Life skills: Home visitors often connected fathers to jobs, education, housing, and other community supports, and they taught fathers how to advocate for themselves and their families. Some helped fathers address legal issues or prepare for job interviews. This kind of support helped fathers achieve their personal goals as well as their parenting goals.
- Emotional support: Fathers, especially those in father-only visiting programs, saw their home visitors as role models. Those role models helped the fathers develop emotionally, often improving their anger management techniques and enhancing their relationships with the mothers. In addition, the group programs provided a peer connection, which fathers saw as another valuable source of emotional support.
How can home visiting programs better serve fathers?
Though the approach must be tailored for each population, based on our experiences with these five sites we conclude that these six strategies can help effectively engage fathers:
- Employing fatherhood coordinators, with a particular focus on hiring the right personality
- Keeping flexible hours
- Tailoring services to fathers’ preferences
- Meeting parents where they are in their lives
- Having nonjudgmental persistence and consistency
- Advocating for parents
As more home visiting programs reach out to fathers, practitioners should look to develop evidence-informed curricula and staff training opportunities, and federal policymakers should help provide program guidance on best practices and technical assistance.