The complex, misunderstood problem of absent fathers

by Antonio Garcia, Rafael E. Pérez-Figueroa and David Cozart

With Father’s Day upon us, many of us will take a moment today to show our appreciation to our dads. But what is often forgotten is that around 20% of fathers in the United States will likely not hear their child say “Happy Father’s Day.” For a number of reasons, they are absent fathers. For some, this is due to custodial entanglements with mothers; others are homeless, grappling with addiction or incarcerated. 

In 2021 and 2022, as a group of interdisciplinary researchers, we spoke with dozens of fathers who were working day in and day out to enhance connections or relationships with their children. Each of these fathers had been grappling with these challenges — and still struggling to strengthen relationships with their children. From countless hours of interviews and focus groups, one of the key messages we received from these fathers is the need to feel heard. 

Often our society undervalues the role of fathers as loving caretakers and reduces their contributions to meeting their children’s financial needs. The fathers we spoke with face layers of oppression and devaluation. Our respondents noted that they felt that American society, including the family court and legal systems, make assumptions about who they are as fathers based solely upon a skewed, yet entrenched, negative narrative. 

If their children are placed in foster care, for example, fathers are rarely invited to the table to participate in case planning about placement options, though mothers are often included in these conversations. Incarcerated fathers — a disproportionate number of whom are Black and brown — face displacement, heavy fines and fees, and employment barriers once released that create additional challenges for them to reunite with their families and communities. 

We also spoke to more than a dozen social workers, probation officers, public health workers and other experts, all of whom asserted very clearly that the system is broken when it comes to treating fathers as equal co-parents. Instead of penalizing fathers, one of the workers we spoke to asserted that “We have to look at [fathers] who have substance use disorder as…people [who need help]. And if we stop penalizing these low-level drug offenses, I think we would see a big change in keeping families together.”  

Beyond validating these fathers, social workers and advocates want to make a difference. They want to ensure children, families and communities thrive, and to do that, they believe we must do a better job of valuing and healing fathers to end the ongoing cycle of intergenerational paternal absence. 

We need mothers and relatives to join efforts to appreciate fathers for their role in enhancing the lives of their children. We need to train social workers and advocates to tell fathers that they are valued and to look beyond their past missteps. And we need to acknowledge that fathers want to feel a sense of community and purpose in their children’s lives — and the systems, providers and individuals with whom they engage must support that. 

Policy change can help, too. By investing in father-focused programming and services, such as parenting programs tailored for and with fathers, programs for incarcerated fathers, substance abuse support programs and training for workers and leaders, we can create new opportunities to enhance the well-being of families. 

To all the fathers reading this, know that we hear you. The workers we interviewed hear you. And we all wish you a Happy Father’s Day. 

Antonio Garcia is an associate professor at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work. Rafael E. Pérez-Figueroa is associate dean for community engagement and public health practice at Rutgers University School of Public Health. David Cozart is the chief visionary officer for the Commonwealth Center for Fathers & Families in Kentucky.