Obama’s Father’s Day Criticism of Dads Misses Mark

By Glenn Sacks and Robert Franklin

President Obama marked Father’s Day 2008 and 2007 by calling attention to the importance of fathers and the damage caused by their absence. He also placed the blame for fatherlessness squarely on men, saying father absence is caused by fathers who have "abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men."

Obama is correct that involved fathers—even divorced or separated ones with little income—provide their children with substantial benefits. A recent Boston College study of low-income minority families found that when nonresident fathers are involved in their adolescent children’s lives, the incidence of substance abuse, violence, crime, and truancy decreases markedly. Lead author professor Rebekah Levine Coley, says the study found involved nonresident fathers to be "an important protective factor for adolescents."

Dr. Perry Crouch, a gang intervention specialist in South-Central Los Angeles, negotiates peace treaties between warring gangs. When asked recently how many of the gang members he deals with have fathers in their lives, he replied "About half of one percent."

Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox has examined hundreds of pre-sentencing reports detailing the family histories of convicted criminals, and found one common denominator—"Uniformly, there was a parent, usually the father, missing from the home."

Approximately 750,000 teenagers become pregnant each year, and 3 in 10 teenage girls become pregnant at least once before age 20. MSNBC health and science writer Linda Carroll, describing a new Coley/Boston College study on teen pregnancy, explains:

"When it comes to preventing risky teen sex, there may be no better deterrent than a doting dad. Teenagers whose fathers are more involved in their lives are less likely to engage in risky sexual activities such as unprotected intercourse, according to a new study…While an involved mother can also help stave off a teen’s sexual activity, dads have twice the influence."

Fathers and educational performance are also strongly linked. In Growing Up With a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps, sociologists Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur analyzed data from five different studies. They concluded that boys and girls of single parent families are more than twice as likely to drop out of high school as their peers with two parents. They’re also less likely to go to college if they do finish high school, and more likely to be both out of school and out of work.

Obama is correct that kids need their fathers. However, he makes a serious and harmful error in placing all blame for family breakdown on men. Family courts, child welfare agencies and mothers themselves often erect barriers to father involvement that even the most devoted fathers sometimes can’t overcome.

For example, Professors Kathryn Edin of Harvard and Timothy Nelson of the University of Pennsylvania recently conducted a study of low-income, unmarried fathers and found that most strive to be good parents, and are often thwarted by the children’s mothers’ interference.

Edin’s subsequent research analyzes data from the large-scale Fragile Families & Child Wellbeing study and reaches similar conclusions. For example, she found that when a mother moves on to have new partners, her actions are "strongly associated with increases in the probability that the biological father will have no contact with his child." Contrary to anti-father stereotypes, when fathers move on to have subsequent romantic partners and children, they largely retain their desire to be in their original children’s lives. According to Edin:

"[T]he evidence points more strongly to the role of mothers ‘swapping daddies’ than it does to the role of fathers ‘swapping kids.’"

Edin also found that mothers’ and fathers’ subsequent partners often interfere with father involvement. Dad may be kept away because his presence makes mom’s current partner jealous. Similarly, dad’s new partner may pressure him to spend his time and resources on her and the child they have together, as opposed to his child with his former partner.

Moreover, according to Edin, a mother’s new partnership "may provide strong motivation [for her] to put the new partner in the ‘daddy’ role." The biological father is then less likely to be involved because the mother is more likely to exclude him and/or because he may feel he’s now redundant.

In broken families, when a mother does not want her children’s father around anymore, she can usually push him out. Family courts tilt heavily towards mothers in awarding custody, and often fail to enforce fathers’ visitation rights. In most states, mothers are able to move their children hundreds or thousands of miles away from their fathers, often permanently destroying the fathers’ bonds with their children.

Moreover, women are increasingly having children with no intention of ever having a father in their kids’ lives. Newly-released data from the National Center for Health Statistics show that 40% of children born in the United States are born out of wedlock, a 26% increase from just five years ago. Even if a couple is cohabiting at the time of the child’s birth, three in 10 will split up within only two years.

The child welfare system also pushes fathers away from their children. When a child welfare agency removes children from a single mother’s home for abuse or neglect, an offer of placement to the father, barring unfitness, should be automatic. Yet the Urban Institute report What About the Dads? contains a shocking finding: even when fathers inform child welfare officials that they would like their children to live with them, the agencies seek to place the children with their fathers in only a small percentage of cases. The children are instead pushed into the foster care system.

The explosion of divorce, out of wedlock births, and post-break-up father absence has greatly harmed our children. This tragedy has largely been blamed on fathers. While fathers do deserve some blame, mothers and the family law and child welfare systems have also done much to separate children from the fathers they love and need.