One commonly missing piece in home visiting services is what to do about fathers. A pilot project designed and evaluated by a team led by SSA Dean and Mose & Sylvia Firestone Professor Neil Guterman is a step toward changing that dynamic.
Research on fathers shows many benefits of their engagement on their children and the value of including fathers as part of an overall strategy to deal with families at risk. “Positive involvement of a father in a child’s life predicts lower aggressiveness among children, success in school and favorable mental health,” says Guterman, whose research agenda includes examining the value of prevention strategies in addressing a variety of social problems.
However, when it comes to home visitation, the norm has been to focus on the infants and their mothers. “There has been quite a bit of research in the field on home visits. I’ve been doing work in this area for 20 years, but no one has yet carefully considered the role of fathers,” Guterman says. “When this work was just getting off the ground in the 1980s, fathers were not thought of as key to the development of young children. But our understanding of a father’s role has been changing.”
Guterman served as lead investigator in a pilot study examining the intervention “Dads Matter,” which looked at 12 families in which fathers were expressly included as a part of home visiting services, and 12 that received standard home visiting. The study group was predominantly African-American with some Latino and Asian families. The parents were in the low to mid-20s, and nearly 100 percent received public assistance.
The home visitation services were provided by paraprofessionals at two Chicago-area social service agencies that were recruited by Guterman, Assistant Professor Jennifer Bellamy and doctoral student Aaron Banman. The team prepared an intervention manual for social workers that helps couples work as a parenting team and encourages them to talk together about what they want for their child and decide how they can help.
During the home visits, the paraprofessionals helped the fathers become more positively engaged with their infant children and the children’s mothers. The dads learned how to deal with stress, set goals, solve problems and identify their different parenting roles. The research team then did follow up four months later.
The study found that fathers who received home visiting services valued their contributions to the children’s well-being and were more involved in positive interactions with their children. Further, both mothers and fathers reported less parenting stress than parents in the comparison group, and encouragingly, both mothers and fathers receiving the enhanced services also reported lower child abuse and neglect risk. Guterman says that the next step, just underway, is to carry out a larger randomized controlled study to learn more about the overall efficacy of this strategy across multiple home visiting programs and family types.