Dear Fellow Coloradoan:
There are few measures of success as important as how well we raise our children. In our efforts to make Colorado the best place to raise a child we must ensure that every child has access to the basics they need to be successful. One of those basics is responsible parenting.
This report by my Task Force on Responsible Fatherhood begins an important step in improving the availability of responsible parental support for all Colorado children. It addresses the growing number of cases where fathers are not engaged in their children's lives, identifies causes of the growing problem of father absence and proposes steps that can begin to stem the alarming trend.
I have grown increasingly troubled at the number of children who grow up without active fathers involved in their lives. Evidence clearly indicates that children whose fathers do not take responsibility for them are more likely to encounter personal, social and emotional problems throughout life. We should be clear that we value responsible parenting by both fathers and mothers and ensure that we are not standing unnecessarily in the way of a responsible relationship between a father and his child.
There are many causes of the growing problem of father absence, many of which the state alone cannot affect. However, I believe that the trends are so serious that we must take steps together to reverse them. I hope you will carefully review the findings of this Task Force and then join me in an effort to make Colorado a place where kids can count on responsible parenting - by both parents. This difficult dialogue is an important place to begin.Sincerely,
The Governor convened a statewide Summit on Responsible Fatherhood as he kicked off the work of a state level Task Force which was created to help him address the problem of father absence. The Summit included almost 500 child and family advocates and other concerned citizens, members of the Governor's newly appointed task force and national experts, James Levine, Wade Horn, Kirk Harris and Kent Amos. The summit was followed by six months of intense work by the Governor's Task Force to begin to identify causes and possible solutions around the problem of father absence.
The Task Force met with many different people from around the state, took steps to raise public awareness about the problem of father absence and produced a report, a blue print for a state agenda and recommendations for immediate action.
Upon completion of the Task Force work, two things are increasingly evident. The first is that Colorado, like the rest of the nation, faces a crisis in terms of its prospects for supporting children because of the increasing number and impact of absent fathers. The rate at which fathers are absent from their children's lives is growing at such a rate as to reach crisis proportions. And, it is increasingly apparent that many of the most serious problems facing children today can be almost directly traced to a father's absence.
The second fact that became clear through the work of the task force was that government alone cannot solve this problem. Many of the dimensions of the problem of absent fathers are cultural or based deep in community tradition. To really change the environment in which kids grow up, we have got to take steps to change the community culture - which means that government, the private sector and the non-profit sector, in addition to the general public have all got a role to play. We have got to generate a statewide dialogue and a commitment to doing things differently that penetrates all levels of our community.
Children need parents involved in their lives.
While there are many different factors that contribute to the vision of making Colorado the best place for children, there is simply no substitute for a responsible father and a responsible mother. Every child needs regular nurturing and parental guidance. Fathers, like mothers, share responsibility for all aspects of a child's development.
Without question, children need to be financially supported. There is no excuse for a failure to pay child support obligations. But the state that enforces child support with an iron fist achieves only half of what is needed. Children also need responsible male role models and regular parental involvement.
Fathers can make a unique contribution to the parenting process by modeling responsible male behavior in a relationship, control of aggression and self-respect. As a partner in parenting, fathers can provide additional time and caregiving for children, reduced stress in the home and support for the other parent.
As unprecedented numbers of women enter the work force, the workplace is adapting. Simultaneously, pressures on the "homeplace" have increased. Parents are not as readily available for children as in the past. In fact, studies indicate that parents spend, on average, as much as forty percent less time with their children today than a generation ago.
Today, women who are mothers are often torn between work and traditional parenting responsibilities, leaving them without the same kind of time that mothers once had for children. This change places new demands on many families. However, children's needs have not changed amidst these new financial demands and professional opportunities. It is necessary to adjust assumptions about fathers' roles in the home just as views about women have adjusted in the workplace. It is not practical to presume that mothers are the only appropriate or able providers of care for children.
Parenting is a personal responsibility and an intensely personal experience. However, the implications of parent's actions are often very public. The public either benefits from a child raised responsibly or suffers the costs of supporting, correcting and protecting against children who are in trouble because they were not raised well.
The absence of a father from one family means the loss of a good male role model for the children of that family. The absence of many fathers from many families compounds the loss, especially as children in the community grow up with few examples of responsible male behavior.
Unfortunately, many young men get mixed messages. Growing up without responsible fathers around and witnessing the low priority placed on a father's role, many are understandably confused about the appropriate role for men as parents.
It is one thing to demonize "deadbeat" dads. But what about making positive male role models a priority worth recognizing? Too many societal messages reinforce the idea that men are only familial providers which leaves many men asking a perplexing question -- what is the appropriate role for men?
To support fatherhood Colorado must:
The statistics bear out the experts' concerns. In Colorado, 12,000 children were born last year to unwed mothers -- one in four children born that year. The problem is even more dramatic in specific populations. In Denver, nearly 40 percent of children born last year were born to unwed mothers. Among African Americans, only 43 percent of children live with two parents.
These statistics are especially alarming because they point to a new pattern. In only 15 years, Coloradoans have seen a 36 percent increase in the number of births to single, female-headed households. Fifty years ago, single parenthood was virtually unheard of. In 1940, only two percent of children were born to parents out of wedlock.
The rising divorce rate also leaves many children without fathers. Today, nearly every other marriage ends in divorce and roughly 66 percent of the increase in single parenthood among white families since 1960 has been the result of divorce.
Children who grow up in families without fathers active in their lives are significantly more susceptible to problems. Studies indicate that the proportion of single parent households -- not the community's income or poverty level -- is the strongest predictor of violent crime and burglary. In addition, 60 percent of rapists, 72 percent of adolescent murderers and 70 percent of long term prison inmates were raised without involved fathers.
Children without a second parent -- and generally, without a father -- are more likely to have significant emotional problems, to suffer in school, to commit suicide and to parent children as single parents themselves. In fact, girls who are raised by a single mother are reported by the Urban Institute to be 111 percent more likely to have children as teenagers.
The Colorado Children's Campaign reports that 45 percent of Colorado children with an absent father live in poverty. National statistics indicate that the median income for a two-parent family is almost $50,000 while the median income for a single, female-headed family is only $17,000.
Meanwhile, one of every three Colorado men between the ages of 25 and 34 does not earn enough to keep a family of four out of poverty. Unlike times passed, young men today are less likely to take financial responsibility for their child, in part, because many do not earn enough income to support them.
These are signs of a crisis for children. A society that cannot provide the basic blocking blocks that children need to be successful cannot thrive in the future.
There appear to be many different reasons for the decline in fathers' commitment to their children. In too many cases, young men do not take responsibility for fathering a child In a growing number of cases, young men do not have the financial capacity to take responsibility for a child. In other cases, social obstacles discourage fathers from involvement. Common complaints heard by the Task Force include:
None of these obstacles constitute an excuse for irresponsible behavior. They do, however, begin to explain some of the reasons that some fathers fail to follow through on their responsibilities. The Task Force identified three areas where responsible fathering seems to break down. They were:
Absent fathers are fathers who have never taken a responsible or active role in their child's life. All children need both male and female role models and all children need parents available to them for nurturing and development. Fathers who never take responsibility for their children deprive them of this attention.
While there are many ways that children can interact with male role models, too many Colorado children are simply born into families where a responsible father is never around - making it much harder for children to get adequate contact with parents and especially responsible male role models.
Last year, 40 percent of children born in Denver were delivered to unwed mothers. Between 1980 and 1990 alone, Colorado saw a 36 percent increase in the number of female-headed households - not limited to any single ethnic group. That increase reflects a 31 percent increase among Anglo Americans, a 45 percent increase among African Americans and a 65 percent increase among Hispanics. By the year 2000 it is estimated that nationally, 40 percent of all American children, and 80 percent of minority children, will be born to unwed mothers.
Children who grow up without the benefit of adequate parental support and children who grow up without responsible male role models in their lives are at significant risk. Of children born into families without fathers, almost half (45 percent) live their lives in poverty - six times the rate of children born into families with two parents.
There are a number of factors that appear to contribute to the likelihood of a father's absence. They include:
Economic stability correlates closely with a father's likelihood to be around for his child. In 1968, 86 percent of men in Colorado between the ages of 25 and 34 earned enough to support a family of four above the poverty line. Today, only 68 percent of men in the same age group earn enough to keep a family of four out of poverty. Therefore, lack of adequate income, while not an excuse for avoiding responsibility, certainly is a psychological disincentive for many young men.
Mastering the skills and responsibilities inherent in fatherhood is not necessarily intuitive. Many who are absent fathers now, never learned important life skills like child development, child care, child health and financial responsibility because they didn't have a consistent male role model in their own life. Children who are raised without a father are significantly more likely to abandon their own children if they are male and more likely to be a teen mother if they are female.
During the course of their work, the Task Force identified several key observations about what seems to work in reconnecting absent fathers with their children. For starters, it is critically important to help new fathers to identify with the child as their own.
In Colorado, recent changes in the paternity establishment law have made it easier to establish legal paternity. One example is a program established in 1990 designed to work with hospitals to permit maternity nurses to help government officials identify fathers of children born to single mothers. The program enables nurses, at the time of birth, to take steps with a new father in the hospital to officially establish paternity. Since 1990, the program has improved the identification rate of fathers of children born to single mothers from 13 percent to 63 percent.
A number of programs exist in local communities that seek out absent fathers and help them learn parenting skills, understand the importance of their involvement in their child's life and to help them assume responsibility for their child. These programs show promise although, given the increasing demand, they are only scratching the surface of a very serious problem.
While there is reason for concern about fathers who choose not to take responsibility for their children, there is also reason for concern about the obstacles faced by some fathers who are trying to be responsible. These obstacles come in a number of forms, both in statute and more often in societal assumptions or individual behaviors. Some are legal, such as the difficulty a father faces in establishing that he is fit to parent; others are social, such as the difficulty a single father might find in overcoming the deadbeat dad stereotype.
Many fathers report that they feel unreasonably obstructed from access to their children. Although the obstructed parent can be a father or a mother, depending upon who is awarded custody of the child, most often the obstructed parent is a father. The legal system awards custody to women significantly more often than it does to men.
Many men also report a social bias against men as parents. Men are more susceptible to accusations of child abuse, to assumptions that as a single father they are more likely to be "deadbeat" and that as a father they do not have what it takes to be a successful parent. These stereotypes work against fathers who choose to take responsibility for their children.
The most common complaints hinge on the legal system. Once custody is awarded, the legal and state systems are generally structured to be very strong at enforcement of financial support -- to collect from "deadbeat dads," and track down and punish absent fathers. However, the system is not as well organized when it comes to supporting parental access such as adjusting, arranging or enforcing visitation rights. Since women are most often awarded custody and less emphasis is placed upon establishing parenting access, men often report that the system is structured against them as parents.
One example is that it takes only a one time, twenty dollar payment to mobilize state child support enforcement services to track down, establish and enforce child support payments. However, there is no similar resource for parents who want assistance establishing contact with their children. An obstructive parent can create a real obstacle to a non-custodial parent who wants to be involved with their children. Even if an individual has a court order for visitation, their only alternative to enforce access is to return to the courts -- which is often costly, unreasonably time consuming and unfair to the child. Often it is reported by both men and women that the burden of proof is on the father to prove in legal proceedings that the father is legally and emotionally fit as a father. Even then, leading family law experts report that the odds weigh heavily in favor of mothers winning custody of their children.
Complaints about the court system are difficult to substantiate because the response of the courts depends so heavily upon the nature of the case. A father who asserts he was unfairly barred from his children may not be sharing all of the circumstances that lead to the decision. However, the large number of complaints -- by both men and women -- about the perceived inertia in the legal system against men as fathers is difficult to discount. The most common complaints include:
While state statute clearly prohibits the use of gender as a factor in determining the best interests of the child, these perceptions of bias persist. The Governor's Task Force has not completed a scientific review of the court system or state law, but the frustration on the part of both men and women about perceived bias in the system is enough to warrant further exploration. Even if the system is not necessarily biased against men as parents, any obstacles -- or perceived obstacles -- against fathers who are genuinely committed to fulfilling their parenting responsibilities should be removed.
Other fathers report that the child support system creates similar disincentives by reducing the father to the role of breadwinner. Fathers report that the emphasis on dad as either deadbeat or breadwinner ignores a father's role as a nurturing parent and creates unfair stereotypes against men as fathers.
The emphasis in the system seems to be on money, not parental contact. Many fathers complain about how little is required to establish a child support payment order given the difficulty many face in establishing visitation rights.
Many complain that it is unfair for mothers to expect payments if fathers are prohibited from seeing their children on a regular and predictable basis.
The cost and length of custody hearings drive fathers away. Fathers who are genuinely committed to being active in their children's lives report that the difficulty in the legal system of establishing parenting access can either drive them away or prevent them from establishing visitation rights.
The cost of legal proceedings to establish or adjust custody or visitation can be prohibitive for many fathers.
Not all fathers who don't pay child support do so because they don't care. Many avoid paying because they do not have adequate income or they are impeded from visitation by their ex-spouse.
Fathers of children on public assistance complain that the present system of paying only $50 of the father's child support payment to the family (and using the rest to reimburse the state for AFDC payments) is a disincentive to pay child support.
Arrearages can lead to a criminal record which creates a "downward spiral" for the father who wants to gain responsibility for his children.
The "system" often doesn't see the complexity of the family relationship effectively.
The child support payment system constitutes one of the state's biggest income transfer programs, with almost no accountability for how the money is spent. Non-custodial parents complain that child support amounts to "taxation without representation" because they pay for child support but have no way of verifying how the money is spent.
Parenting contact (custody/visitation) should remain separate from child support.
Studies indicate that fathers who have contact with their children are far more likely to pay child support. Joint custody fathers pay 90 percent of court ordered child support payments while fathers with visitation rights pay 79 percent and fathers with no contact pay only 44 percent. Still, it is unclear which came first - the interest in the child or the child support payment.
It is important to recognize that Colorado has already made important policy changes, largely with fathers in mind. The child support and custody laws clearly state that decisions are to be made without preference being given on the basis of the gender of the parent. Also, the state has made changes to move to a legislatively determined schedule for child support to deal with some of the gender bias against fathers.
There are also many factors that are beyond the control of policy makers, most importantly, the relationship between the parents of the child. One of the primary obstacles an "obstructed parent" faces is from the child's other parent -- especially when the two parents are not getting along. There is little the state or the community can do to intervene when parents have decided not to cooperate.
The ideal solution would be for parents to get along and continue raising their child in a responsible manner - whether or not they live together. But divorce is a real and all too familiar obstacle. In Colorado, the divorce rate is approximately 10 percent higher than the national average. Five marriages for every 1,000 people end in divorce in Colorado - a rate higher than the national average. In El Paso County alone, about 200 couples get married every month - and the same number file for divorce.
Courts that presently require counseling to help disarm conflict in divorce situations have had success at reducing the impact of a divorce on children. Also, counseling for parents that is designed to teach about responsible parenting when separated has been used with promising success in some court districts.
Any case that divides custody of a child between parents is going to be difficult and complex. Although a certain amount of standardization is necessary to process caseload, state officials should remember that "one size does not fit all cases."
Some fathers are obstructed for good reason (either they pose a threat to the family or they have been imprisoned) and should not have regular or unsupervised contact with their children.
More than half of all Colorado children grow up with a father in the home. Unfortunately, too many of those children lack the benefit of a father's active involvement in their lives. This population is different from either the obstructed or the absent dad. These fathers are generally in the home but are not effectively engaged in their children's lives.
These fathers are more difficult to identify, but in many cases the impact of their absence is comparably hard on children. A father who chooses not to model responsible relationships with the child's mother or who chooses not to engage constructively in the child's life deprives the child of a tremendously important opportunity for parental nurturing and guidance.
In some cases, these fathers are just apathetic. More often, the traditional demands of the work force and social expectations combine to discourage his taking an actively involved role in the child's life. Some fathers in this category lack the confidence or the skills to be involved as parents to their children. Still others believe that they are doing the best they can by diligently bringing home the paycheck.
Again, it is hard to know which comes first, the father who chooses not to be involved in his child's life, or the society that tells him his skills as a parent aren't valued as much as his paycheck. It is clear, however, that fathers who grew up without fathers active in their own lives are less likely to be active fathers in their children's lives. If the community around the man does not make fathering a priority, he is not likely to do so either.
In this case, the solution may not hinge so much upon identifying these fathers, as it does upon changing cultural assumptions about father's roles with children. In the workplace, in the home and in public fathers should get a consistent message that they are a valued part of their children's lives.
Resource CentersAnnie E. Casey Foundation