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June 2018Vol. 19, No. 5A Time to Celebrate and to Challenge Ourselves

Written by Jerry Milner, Associate Commissioner at the Children's Bureau.

The month of June provides two causes for celebration in the child welfare world, Father's Day and National Reunification Month. Both allow us the opportunity to reflect on the importance of families. Both also prompt us to redouble our efforts to strengthen families and do everything we can as a system and in our communities to respect and nurture the integrity of the parent-child relationship.

The value of father involvement to the healthy development of children and to family connectedness is critical. Even when fathers are unable to be active in their children's lives, paternal relatives remain vital sources of support and belonging, and they can make a tremendous difference in the healthy development and everyday lives of children. 

Even so, working with fathers has long been a challenge in child welfare. Unfortunately, the latest round of the Child and Family Services Reviews confirms that the challenge continues.  Father engagement can be difficult and discouraging work. Human relationships, trauma, geographic separation, and a host of other societal conditions often exacerbate the challenge, not to mention values that may lead to ignoring or devaluing fathers who do not reside with their children. I know that there are incredible efforts out there that are making headway on engaging fathers, but I am afraid they remain the exception rather than the norm. 

I am afraid, as professionals, we may be too soon to rule out or fail to recognize the inherent value of fathers to the lives of children, even if they do not reside under the same roof. In fact, the fears that fathers and their families may have relative to other human service programs—for example, child support and public assistance—may discourage fathers from coming forward seeking more active engagement with their children. We in Administration for Children and Families (ACF) are actively addressing these concerns across ACF programs so that we can project consistently positive messages and expectations regarding father involvement and alleviate some of the real or imagined barriers to keeping fathers closely connected to their children.

Similarly, Reunification Month is a time to celebrate resiliency, hard work, and the power of families to heal. It is a time to acknowledge perseverance and commit to seeking positive outcomes for families separated through foster care. Parents that achieve reunification often have overcome great odds—and too often without adequate support. Their achievement is a demonstration of parental love and its ability to propel change. 

Reunification month also is a time to challenge ourselves to reduce the unnecessary removal of children from their homes and a reminder of the critical importance and benefit of investing in families before harm occurs and before separation becomes necessary. The road for too many parents is incredibly arduous. We fall short of providing parents with services that match their specific needs in ways that are easy to access and effective. We ask parents to do an awful lot—sometimes too much—given all they may be confronting and the real possibly that they may be struggling with their own personal trauma histories. Responding to these situations requires us to reflect on our values as a profession, system, and society and seek to create the kinds of community-based environments where families can receive the supports they need and be helped to avoid damaging crises.

This June, we have an opportunity to imagine a child welfare system where fathers are supported and engaged as a rule and where foster care and reunification are needed less because families are strong and intact. Let's demonstrate our commitment to fathers and all parents by working together to build a system that supports the conditions for all families to thrive, a system that is proactive, preventative, and allows all families to maximize their greatest potential.