This study explored the lack of father engagement in a retrospective case file review of 116 child protection files dated between 1997 and 2005 randomly chosen from a child welfare agency in a mid-size Canadian city. Choice of case files was restricted to those in which the mother was an adolescent (19 years of age or younger) at the time of the birth of at least one child. Within the 116 files, a total of 128 fathers were mentioned.
Results showed that fathers were typically about 2-3 years older than mothers; a majority were Indigenous; many had less than a high school education; and a significant percentage had histories of incarceration, alcohol misuse, or drug misuse. A small, but significant, proportion of young fathers provided either financial or in-kind support to mothers and/or children. Almost 50% of all fathers were considered “irrelevant” to both mothers and children. This assessment was derived from raters’ categorizations of fathers based on a combination of social workers’ expressed description of fathers, actions (or inactions) of the social worker, and the number and types of contacts or attempted contacts with the fathers. Over half (60%) of fathers who were identified as a risk to children were not contacted by social workers. It is interesting to note, however, that about 20% of fathers were considered to be an asset to both mothers and children.
The findings suggest that practitioners need to understand the sources of men’s disengagement, particularly the impact of housing and welfare policies on fathers’ abilities to maintain relationships with their children. There also needs to be continued advocacy for better resources for single mothers in concert with efforts to increase father involvement. Limitations of the study include a lack of generalizability, the retrospective nature of the file reviews, and considerable amounts of missing data.