How the Assumption of a Coparenting Frame Will Transform Social Work Practice with Men and Fathers

How the Assumption of a Coparenting Frame Will Transform Social Work Practice with Men and Fathers Abstract Despite incontrovertible evidence documenting effects of fathering on child outcomes, social work practice has unyieldingly resisted the pursuit of father engagement as a requisite outcome of competent clinical child intervention. Reasons behind this resistance are already well understood, and several promising programs have provided reassuring evidence that inclusion of fathers in clinical work with young children in higher-risk families is not only possible, but transformative. Yet despite the fact that the soil has been tilled and essential professional competencies needed for effective work with fathers identified, it is unlikely that comprehensive changes will ever take root without the social work profession embracing a coparenting and triangular perspective in all efforts on behalf of children and their families. In this article, main conceptual distinctions between triangular and “2 + 1” models are drawn, with accounts provided differentiating perfunctory from persistent assumption of a triangular model, calling on an inventive coparenting intervention for unmarried expectant parents as a case in point. This article also focuses on parallel changes in the institutional and community contexts in which social work practice is embedded that will be needed to better support the coparenting family once interventions have met with success in solidifying family triangles in children’s best interests. Although evidence establishing father effects on child outcomes—for good or ill, and whether fathers are attended to clinically, or not—has been accessible for decades, improvements in fathering have not been identified as compulsory outcomes of proficient social work interventions with families. Obstacles impeding this remaking of the definition of capable practice have been articulated (D’Andrade & Sorkhabi, 2016), and professional competencies needed to address these obstacles have been identified (Coakley, Kelley, & Bartlett, 2014). And although the landscape is now dotted with promising programs demonstrating that incorporating fathers in case planning and management with higher-risk families is not, as many professionals feared, unmanageable or disrupting (Malm, Murray, & Geen, 2006; Marczak, Becher, Hardman, Galos, & Ruhland, 2015), efforts to serve fathers and their families are destined to continue meeting with only meek success until one important paradigmatic transformation is embraced. In this article we address this needed conversion: the presumption, and assumption, of a coparenting and triangular perspective as frame for all social work with children and their families. Our aims in this article are threefold. First, we identify what coparenting actually is—for the published literature is, unfortunately, muddied with misunderstandings and distortions of the core concept of coparenting that have led to misuses of time, effort, and energy. Second, we identify why a coparenting and triangular frame in social work practice with young children promises the kinds of advances that marriage and fatherhood programming alone have rarely delivered. And third, we provide illustrative data from an ongoing initiative that has taken the triangular frame seriously and begun to redefine practice, while at the same time contending with challenges inevitably faced when charting previously unknown waters. We close with recommendations about more immediately and more effectively altering existing training programs and agency methodologies so that fathers might truly become, in the words of Zanoni, Warburton, Bussey, and McMaugh (2013), a “core business” for social work practice. Conceptual Underpinnings: What Is Coparenting? Coparenting is a family systems notion that refers to the degree of support and coordination among any two or more adults responsible for a given child’s care and upbringing (McHale, 1995; McHale & Irace, 2011). Seven years ago, the field’s first volume on coparenting as it occurs across diverse family systems and structures was released by the American Psychological Association (McHale & Lindahl, 2011). This milestone work provided both conceptual and empirical arguments for why case formulation, assessment, and intervention that is guided by a coparenting model maximizes the likelihood of favorable outcomes in work with children and families—and why ignoring coparenting can reasonably be viewed as professional negligence. This is a rather dramatic departure from most clinical practice—typically, one caregiver only is chosen as a target for intervention, and that person engages in individual and sometimes dyadic child–parent work with the interventionist on behalf of the child and family. From a family systems standpoint, dyadic relationships in families, be they mother–child, father–child, or mother–father relationships, are each important elements of family functioning and can all be useful intervention targets. But mothers’ and fathers’ individual—and combined—impact on children’s coping and adjustment (Al-Yagon, 2011; Diener, Isabella, & Behunin, 2008; Flouri & Buchanan, 2003), as well as the direct (see, for example, Cummings, Davies, & Simpson, 1994) and indirect (see, for example, Hinde & Stevenson-Hinde, 1988) influences of husband–wife marital quality on child adjustment, constitute in S. Minuchin’s (1974) terms the effects of relationship subsystems. Coparenting systems—one key thrust of S. Minuchin’s (1974) theory of family structure—are always at least triangular in nature. Mother–father–child triangles reflect more than just the sum of their constituent dyadic parts; triangles are distinctive emotional systems (Bowen, 1978; Fivaz-Depeursinge & Corboz-Warnery, 1999), and empirical studies find that triangular systems are irreducible, impossible to describe in individual or dyadic terms without losing their quintessence (McHale, Kuersten-Hogan, Lauretti, & Rasmussen, 2000). Originally studied empirically in families where parents had divorced (Ahrons, 1981), it was the mid-1990s before coparenting in families where parents had not divorced first became a focus of enthusiastic study. Early clinical observations of family triads and groups (Belsky, Crnic, & Gable, 1995; Belsky, Putnam, & Crnic, 1996; McHale, 1995; McHale, Kuersten, & Lauretti, 1996) uncovered several distinguishable coparenting and family-level processes: coparenting cooperation, coparenting competition, family warmth, verbal sparring, degree of disparity in levels of parental engagement (with disconnection and disengagement at the extreme), child-centeredness, and attunement and sensitivity (and at the other extreme, parent-directedness and overstimulation). It is important to note that such dynamics were always documented with reference to a particular child; in families with multiple children the same two coparenting adults can behave cooperatively and exhibit high warmth in their dealings with one child, yet coparent in a more fractured and conflictual manner—and to exhibit a greater imbalance in their levels of mutual emotional engagement and involvement—with that child’s sibling (McHale, 2007). This vital point often eludes practitioners who are attempting to understand each child’s sense of contentment, safety, and security in their family: Any given child’s reality is uniquely shaped by the exclusive coparent–coparent–child interactions the child overtly experiences with his or her two or more coparents (McHale, Johnson, & Sinclair, 1999) and by the child’s exposure to covert communications from each parent concerning the other coparent and the coparenting alliance (McHale, 1997). From the child’s perspective, the triangular (or multicoparent) system that affects and matters to them is inexorably dissimilar from any other sibling’s triangle. This is why an accurate assessment of coparenting for each child in the family is so important when one or both parents have children by multiple partners (Baxter, 2012; Carlson, 2015; Cooper, Beck, Högnäs, & Swanson, 2015). From a child-centric frame, what the clinician needs to understand is how that child’s “people” coordinate, or fail to coordinate, as coparents to him or her. How a child’s half-sibling’s father or mother work together is not really of any concern to the child. Although fathers (and mothers) are our primary focus in this article, responsible coparenting evaluation extends beyond just biological fathers and mothers. The coparenting system in millions of American families involves a kin caregiver or someone else besides just mother and father. When a mother or father is entirely absent from the child’s life (with other important adults taking on responsibility for sharing in the child’s care and upbringing), it is the triangular relationships between these coparenting adults with reference to the child that are every bit as salient and formative for child development. Coparenting is hence decidedly not a dynamic limited just to married or divorced heterosexual mother–father family systems; indeed, it can be argued that between birth and young adulthood, all children will be coparented (McHale, 2009; McHale & Irace, 2011; McHale et al., 2002; McHale & Phares, 2015). Social workers guided by this advanced and more accurate child-centric perspective (that to each child, the relevant coparenting alliance is that set of adults with whom the child has cultivated closest attachment and affiliative bonds) will find themselves better positioned to recognize and support every family system that evolves to coparent children. Although immensely diverse in nature, all coparenting systems can be seen as sharing common core components: (a) degree of support and solidarity between parenting figures, (b) degree of consistency and predictability in the approaches that the different caregivers take in the child’s life, (c) security and integrity of the child’s home base (regardless of whether that home base is a single domicile or spans multiple residences), and (d) degree of mutual empathy and attunement to the child’s needs. By taking pains to see coparenting through the child’s eyes and paying attention to how these core elements function in the child’s family, social workers put themselves in a position to build up coparenting alliances—even in family circumstances where an important coparent is separated from a child, as in the case of incarceration, immigration, deportation, or military deployment of parents. The power and reach of the coparenting metaphor is perhaps best illuminated by the pioneering work of Patricia Minuchin (P. Minuchin, Colapinto, & Minuchin, 2007). Her work with families entangled in the child welfare system, since expanded by the Annie E. Casey Family-to-Family initiative, creatively engendered coparenting alliances between biological and foster families after a child had been removed from the family, but with the anticipation of later reunification. This family-to-family coparenting model defied previous views of biological parents as dangers from which children had to be safeguarded until such time that the parents could prove themselves deserving of contact once again. Moreover, it was borne of attunement to children’s own sensibilities. Young children experience unremitting grief when precipitously separated from their families of origin. By embracing the family that the children saw and loved, interventionists were then able to design means to help bring foster and biological coparents into early and ongoing positive, collaborative contact. By so doing, they tempered children’s deepest fears about their vanished parents and disintegrating families. In summary, coparenting formulations view communication, collaboration, and cooperation among the important coparenting adults in any child’s life as essential to improving the child’s mental health and adaptation. Evidence for this tenet is addressed in the next section. What Is the Evidence That Coparenting Affects Children? The notion that coparenting dynamics within families affect children’s development dates back to the 1950s, when the family therapy movement arose as a new clinical paradigm. Lidz, Cornelison, Fleck, and Terry (1957), studying triadic (mother–father–child) patterns in families with schizophrenic young adults, articulated two dysfunctional patterns that entangled the youths. The first was openly antagonistic, wherein partners undermined one another’s efforts with the child and competed openly for the child’s affection and loyalty. The second was an imbalance wherein one parent displayed overbearing parenting that was not countered, but rather acquiesced to, by the other. From this work grew both theory and research positing the detrimental aftereffects of failures in coparenting solidarity, epitomized in S. Minuchin’s (1974) structural family theory. Minuchin’s work with urban poor families was both inclusive and appropriately flexible, honoring multigenerational family systems and structures as much as mother–father coparenting systems. Minuchin viewed the coparenting adults, be they two biological parents, parent and stepparent, or parent and grandparent as heads of the family hierarchy. These coparents operated as an “executive subsystem” that ideally possessed and wielded mutual and shared decision-making authority, rather than triangulating children into inappropriate positions of influence. When cross-generational coalitions involving minor children did materialize, problem behaviors inevitably ensued. Resolution of the family balance required returning the child to the position of child and letting the adults reclaim shared leadership and authority, exemplified by open and continuous communication about and on behalf of the child and his or her best interests. The term “coparenting” first gained widespread usage in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as children in postdivorce family systems began developing behavior problems owing to stalemates their parents had in working together as parents (Ahrons, 1981; Hetherington, 1989). By the mid-1990s, these lines of thought had prompted empirical study of the influences and aftereffects of both positive and problematic coparenting for children in nonreferred community families. The first study to show that child adjustment problems are foreshadowed by hostile and competitive coparenting dynamics in the family discovered cross-time links between antagonistic coparenting during the infant years and poor impulse control, dysregulation, and aggression once children reached the preschool years (McHale & Rasmussen, 1998). That same study linked imbalanced parental involvement with the child during infancy to higher levels of anxiety and depression during the preschool years. From the viewpoint of infant mental health, the notion that coparents’ unsupportive and undermining behavior kindles dysregulated behavior in the child is expectable. Young children, particularly from birth to age three, require consistent and predictable responsivity from parents to develop internal rhythms, self-soothe, manage frustration, and regulate behavior and emotions under duress. Dissimilar child-rearing and disciplinary practices by caregivers can undermine children’s self-regulation (Harvey, 2000). For these reasons, clinical interventions that target just a single caregiver and ignore other caregivers who are also coparenting the child often run into problems. If no effort is made to develop intercaregiver consistency, the child’s situation can remain erratic and unpredictable. Since McHale and Rasmussen’s (1998) report, over two dozen studies have replicated the original findings that poor coparenting awakens problem behavior in young children (see Mangelsdorf, Laxman, & Jessee, 2011, and Teubert & Pinquart, 2010, for comprehensive reviews of this work). The link between greater discrepancies in parental engagement and children’s sadness and anxiety has also been echoed in relevant related reports on the impact of father absence (East, Jackson, Power, Woods, & Hutchinson, 2014; McLanahan, Tach, & Schneider, 2013; Stover, Van Horn, Turner, Cooper, & Lieberman, 2003), although it is also clear that other situational factors and family adaptations can amplify or mitigate this connection. Absenteeism in general and paternal incarceration in particular are associated with increases in child aggression and attentional problems, even for children who did not live with the father prior to his incarceration (Geller, Cooper, Garfinkel, Schwartz-Soicher, & Mincy, 2012). In studies of incarcerated mothers, child symptomatology postrelease has been linked to quality of coparenting between the incarcerated mother and the coparenting grandmother (McHale, Salman, Strozier, & Cecil, 2013), suggesting that negative effects of parental incarceration on children’s postreunification adjustment might be mitigated if dedicated attention were to be paid to improving coparenting alliances between the incarcerated and custodial coparents during the weeks and months the parent is away. We emphasize that what we are focused on here is evidence that the coparenting alliance, and not the typically studied fathering or mothering effects, is what is crucial. In virtually all of the work summarized here, quality of coparenting explained unique variance in child outcomes over and above effects of parenting. That is, the dynamics of the triadic family unit were not simply echoing or replicating processes obvious in dyadic assessments of mother with child or father with child. In practice, this means that if coparenting difficulties are identified, targeted interventions are in order to help address the impediments to coparenting. Interventions with just mother, or just father, are not sufficient. Despite all we have learned thus far, the field of coparenting theory and research is in many ways still in its infancy. Most empirical studies of coparenting have enrolled coresidential married heterosexual families and divorced heterosexual families. Far less information is available about coparenting in nonresidential and unmarried families, as studies typically only examine how support by fathers, and not coparenting per se, benefits children. But fathering studies (summarized by Zanoni et al., 2013) do provide requisite evidence that higher-risk fathers not identified as violent or unfit to parent can play a protective role and be a resource in the lives of children, even in child protection–involved families (Coady, Hoy, & Cameron, 2013; Lee, Bellamy, & Guterman, 2009; Malm & Zielewski, 2009; Storhaug & Øien, 2012). A noteworthy exception to the virtual absence of studies of coparenting by unmarried and noncoresidential fathers and mothers, guided by a truly triangular father–mother–infant frame, is a novel intervention supporting unmarried African American parents in the cultivation of an intentional and positive coparenting alliance. Figuring It Out for the Child (FIOC), a six-session adaptation of McHale and Irace’s (2010) Focused Coparenting Consultation, is described next. Strengthening Coparenting Alliances It is rather troubling that even in the face of undeniable evidence that children growing up in father-absent families face exponentially greater risk for poorer life outcomes, standard social work and nursing practices direct nearly all education and supports to higher-risk unmarried mothers, neglecting their babies’ fathers (Olds et al., 2007). For men, Responsible Fatherhood groups do exist in most urban areas, but initiatives that intentionally bring nonresidential mothers and fathers together to talk about and plan their family situation are uncommon (although initial efforts are afoot to try to include otherwise marginalized men in home visiting; see McHale & Phares, 2015). The dearth of family-sensitive coparenting programming is certainly not to say that there have been no attempts to bring mothers and fathers together as couples. In 2012, McHale, Waller, and Pearson summarized the state of the field with respect to interventions for unmarried parents. Their review devoted considerable attention to the federal Healthy Marriages initiative, and in particular Relationship and Marriage Education (RME) programs, including the Building Strong Families (BSF) program. Alhough BSF was not without some minor successes, the overall conclusion from the work was that intervention families fared no better as coparents than did control group families (Wood, Moore, Clarkwest, & Killewald, 2014)—a situation further complicated by the fact that the majority of families receiving Healthy Start and Healthy Families services (mothers-to-be who did not self-identify as being in a committed relationship with their baby’s father) were actually ineligible to take part in BSF at all (Dion, Avellar, & Clary, 2010). Given the now well-documented positive impact of harmonious, coordinated coparenting on child development, the failure of BSF and of other small- and larger-scale efforts to successfully bring nonresidential parents together around issues of coparenting (rather than relationship enhancement) has been disheartening. Positive coparenting alliances between unmarried parents who are not in committed relationships are attainable, but such alliances are achieved most readily if and when parents bridge impasses to communicate, coordinate, and problem solve in the child’s best interests. It is curious that although noncoresidential parents themselves have articulated more need for help with coparenting relationships than programs currently offer, the use of existing services such as mediation—especially by custodial parents—has been poor (Martinson & Nightingale, 2008). Parents harbor mistrust of governmentally sponsored programs, and interadult conflict in on-again, off-again relationships is a further impediment to parents using services well-meaningly designed to help promote better communication. Perhaps for these reasons FIOC, designed as a preventive family-strengthening alternate method to mediation, Responsible Fatherhood, and RME programs, has struck a new chord. FIOC eschews an educational stance in favor of a combined experiential and skill-building approach, and takes on the real-life circumstances confronting lower-income, unmarried and uncoupled parents that impede them from coordinating to coparent their babies. Details of the FIOC intervention are described elsewhere so will be only briefly summarized here; readers may refer to informative reports by Gaskin-Butler and colleagues (Gaskin-Butler et al., 2015; McHale, Gaskin-Butler, McKay, & Gallardo, 2013). When family interventions are culturally grounded, they have greater credibility with parents. Perhaps key to the FIOC intervention’s early successes is that it was codesigned by experienced African American activists, interventionists, and educational leaders in the community where the intervention was piloted. Collaborating with university-based family clinicians experienced in couples and family therapy approaches, community leaders helped design a program that honored fathers and mothers equally as permanent partners in the care and upbringing of their shared child. Unfortunately, the “father and mother coparenting as a team, regardless of residential and life circumstance” dispatch was a foreign one that did not readily resonate within the social services community where FIOC was field-tested. Considerable groundwork was needed for potential referral agents to feel at ease communicating to both the mother and the father not only that father participation in the family-strengthening work of FIOC was required—but that the work itself could not proceed, at all, without his presence. Questions from several frontline professionals serving pregnant mothers quickly surfaced, as anticipated, about what precautions the FIOC project was taking to safeguard mother and fetus from dangers the father may introduce. Addressing these concerns took time and effort; collaboration with respected leaders in the domestic violence community and with individuals who specialized in batterer interventions and in anger management were necessary to help assure questioners that there were robust safety plans in place should any concerns arise during the course of the intervention. Moreover, following best practice guidelines, we did not bring parents together for the mother–father intervention in circumstances where a preintervention screening completed with the mother alone signaled levels of danger exceeding the degree of support that could be provided within a brief coparenting consultation. Mothers and fathers were also not seen in the intervention together if mothers voiced concerns for their own safety participating with the father. Safety became the primary focus for screening. As it happened, however, the field test disqualified no family because of disclosed concerns about danger; this may have been because parents contending with intimate partner violence (IPV) elected not to present themselves for a dyadic intervention. Among the families actually served, over 90% completed the intervention with no safety issues raised. This was one important lesson learned from the field test; the expectant fathers who came forward to participate in the dyadic FIOC intervention to figure things out for their child were in fact all motivated, optimistic men who saw the project as an opportunity to bring benefits to their child’s life. As a group, they did not pose dangers to their children, as referral agents had anticipated they might. Having plans in place to address IPV in the event it did surface unexpectedly was necessary to enjoin the goodwill of referral agents in guiding parents to the intervention. A more arduous and ongoing challenge to the work has been persuading parents themselves to take part in the intervention. Unlike Responsible Fatherhood programs, FIOC is brought to the attention of mothers and not fathers as the point of first contact. Fathers are contacted only after mothers deliberate the pros and cons and then decide to take part. For many frontline professionals, the notion of connecting a mother to programming that will serve both herself and her baby’s father simultaneously remains a foreign one, so agents who actually have the opportunity to help mothers ponder about coparenting often fail to do so. When mothers are made aware of programming and do self-refer, engaging fathers is often even more challenging. Motivated mothers are frequently unable to persuade skeptical fathers to answer phone calls from program staff poised to provide more information about FIOC. Unless referral agents have direct access to fathers and mothers (which few do), many families who might benefit from the intervention are not reached. As McHale and Phares (2015) have detailed, men regularly receive implicit messages from service systems and agents that services actually only exist for mothers, not for them. Further disinclining fathers from self-referring is their wariness over misinformation promulgated about family-support programs that, unfortunately, often end up portraying the father as a negligent family provider or incompetent parent. An important reason why FIOC outreach to men is successful, when it is, is that FIOC outreach staff are fully sold on the value of engaging fathers with their children. This personal value underlies any success social workers are likely to have in addressing fathers’ questions and concerns and attracting them to take part in a family service with their baby’s mother. Interventionists who deliver FIOC include both social workers and paraprofessionals (supervised by a licensed clinician). We learned early on that not all interventionists were themselves fully sold on messages that they were giving parents about the importance of fathers to children, for many had themselves grown up without involved fathers or knew others doing well without having had an active father or father figure. Hence new interventionists learning the curriculum partake in the same experiential exercises parents do to raise consciousness about the role and meaning of fathers to children. This step may be indispensable for interventionists who will be working with both fathers and mothers to promote solidarity. Fathers are able to perceive the lack of sincerity when professionals are saying one thing about the essential nature of father involvement and coparenting but actually believing another. Convincing parents of fathers’ importance must begin with convincing the interventionist. The FIOC approach makes use of both male and female interventionists, working together. It also begins the interventionist–parent relationship in a unique fashion. Rather than commencing with the joint mother–father work immediately, one or more individual informal mentorship sessions are scheduled between male interventionists and fathers and between female interventionists and mothers. Only once parents indicate that they feel ready to begin do the four individuals meet. And when they do, they break bread together. Although an unfamiliar occurrence in customary social work practice, the meal introduces an effective means of building relationship trust and rapport. At the outset, parents and interventionists all commit to creating a safe environment for the work, and all sign commitment statements to this effect. The statements are not legally binding documents, but rather symbolize each person’s commitment to the child and family. Sessions then proceed through the three stages of Focused Coparenting Consultation—consciousness-raising, skill building, and guided enactments. Interventionists actively intervene when parents get stuck but respect parents’ needs to go at their own pace and individually tailor exercises to meet their own preferences and communication styles. The genuine respect for fathers and the dogged determination to see parents through were key elements in the first test of the FIOC intervention. Perhaps as a result, that field test found tenacity and commitment among the parents. Specifically, no parents who completed a first FIOC session dropped from the intervention, and one in four completers referred friends or family members to participate in the project. Acceptability surveys completed by independent assessors after the intervention established consistently high levels of maternal and paternal buy-in and satisfaction. Earlier, we commented on implicit and explicit messages that parents have received from existing programming about their own worth as parents and about the halfhearted reception that fathers receive if they do express interest in being part of family life. By parents’ own accounts, the FIOC model was unlike any support service they had previously experienced. What ultimately mattered to parents? Key components included the welcoming and honoring of both father and mother, the interventionists’ stance of accepting and meeting both of the parents “where they were,” the benign acceptance and offering of help to work through resistance, the opportunity to talk openly and honestly with interventionists knowledgeable and savvy about the community in which the intervention was being delivered, and above all the unwavering message that there was no challenge too great to be surmounted if there was shared resolve and goodwill to stick it out for the child. Collectively, these elements cut through many common challenges that professionals face in engaging fathers in any kind of sustained way in family-centered programming with their child’s mother. As a result, consistent with findings from Marriage and Relationship Enhancement programs that have largely served committed couples (see McHale et al., 2012, for a review), this coparenting-only focused intervention yielded statistically significant and meaningful gains in parents’ communication skills (decreases in verbal aggressiveness and coercion; greater support and solidarity observed during videotaped problem-solving discussions; McHale, Salman-Engin, & Coovert, 2015). Most important, beyond communicating respectfully about the child, all FIOC completers were also actually coparenting together at three months postpartum, regardless of whether the parents were now living together or not. Moreover, systematic observations of triangular interactions between father, mother, and baby revealed discernable signs of strength and comradery. They also revealed affinity for and knowing of the father by the three-month-old, attunement and reciprocity by the father to his baby’s overtures, and support of father–baby interactions by mothers (McHale & Coates, 2014). The family dynamic was a cohesive one. A randomized controlled trial to test the efficacy and longitudinal impact of the intervention—not only on family but on infant mental health outcomes—is now underway in St. Petersburg, Florida, with a new cohort of unmarried, first-time African American parents. In summary, although FIOC is an intervention guided by a manualized curriculum, it is the manner in which families are first approached, and subsequently engaged, that epitomizes the paradigmatic shift in social work practice we advocate in this article. The very frame for the FIOC intervention is triangular in nature. Both coparents are presumed to be essential to the work, and messaging is consistent from the beginning that fathers need to be involved. Both parents not only hear this message, but they hear it lovingly, and relentlessly. When challenges to the work occur, and they inevitably do, interventionists stand ready to allow parents to work through the impediments. This sometimes necessitates a temporary moratorium on sessions until one or both parents can resolve substantive issues. Appropriate referrals are made when individual or couples counseling, anger management, or other services will benefit the family—the focus and thrust of the FIOC work stays on the child and on successfully resolving issues that prevent the adults from coparenting effectively together. The improvements in coparenting resolve and resilience generated in the FIOC pilot provide promising evidence of what is possible given a change in attitude and in practice. Challenges and Recommendations As we have reiterated, approaches that welcome fathers to traditional mother-only service systems have not always been well-received by fathers. Men as a rule are less apt to seek help than women, fathers rightfully view many community programs as support services intended for mothers, and mothers who themselves appreciate having individual supports do not always disabuse fathers of their viewpoints. One analysis indicates that satisfaction or gains by fathers involved in existing parenting services are less than those realized by mothers (Lundahl, Tollefson, Risser, & Lovejoy, 2008). McHale and Phares (2015) have provided a detailed analysis of ways that services can transform to appreciate the sensibilities of men and fathers—shoehorning men into service delivery programs designed by and for women will not accomplish desired aims. Rather, a stance that an intervention cannot begin without both mother and father being present signals from the start that both are of equal importance and value to the child and that neither is considered “less than.” Fathers may also be troubled by unemployment, insufficient income, child support demands, and lack of housing (Goldberg & Carlson, 2015)—in part because culturally they are expected to shoulder responsibility for resolving these issues (Gadsden, Davis, & Johnson, 2015). Hence practical connections with community supports must be researched and available to support the family’s sustenance needs (Dion, Zaveri, & Holcomb, 2015). Equally, however, we caution that social workers’ maintenance of stereotypical views of men as benefactors first and fathers second will remain damaging, reinforce the 2 + 1 status quo, and stifle efforts made to strengthen the triangle and promote coparenting. Moreover, purposeful efforts to respect and involve fathers (and mothers) as coparents even as they are going through mental health or substance abuse treatment or face incarceration, although challenging, can pay off if the structure guiding the work remains a robust coparenting frame (Loper, Phillips, Nichols, & Dallaire, 2014). Enhancements in technology (FaceTime, Skype), improved sensitization among leadership in many institutions and facilities to the needs of children to stay connected to coparents, and innovations in connecting parents to children through personal visits or through distance methods and media are now raising the possibilities that the strains young children experience during prolonged separations from parents can be lessened. But practitioner efforts to help at-home caregivers connect children to coparents while they must be separated have enduring effects only to the extent that due attention is also given to solidifying coparenting during the separation at the same time as attention is given to parenting. Efforts to strengthen family functioning must obviously never give up on or replace parent–child programming, even as they embrace a coparenting frame. Many fathers who do successfully connect and team with their children’s mothers also need interventions that strengthen their own parenting efficacy, skills, and confidence (Dubowitz, Black, Kerr, Starr, & Harrington, 2000). And discounting the mental health needs of young and new fathers can have serious ramifications; interviews with fathers who participated in the national Fragile Families and Child Well-Being study revealed that depressed fathers were approximately three times more likely to report having spanked their one-year-old infant in the last month compared with nondepressed fathers (Davis, Davis, Freed, & Clark, 2011). Maternal postpartum depression is now on most agencies’ radar; paternal depression, far less so. Although fathers are sometimes affronted by the suggestion that they possess less parenting knowledge and skill than mothers (O’Donnell, Johnson, D’Aunno, & Thornton, 2005), fathers who took part in the FIOC intervention who had grown up without fathers themselves were open to furthering their own competencies as fathers after completing the program. Trust had been built, and with that trust came self-reflection and greater openness. Unfortunately, as it currently stands, social services programs, child care programs, mental health services, and other community agencies may not themselves stand fully ready to embrace such fathers’ motivations or welcome them as equal and contributing partners in their child’s health, education, and welfare. Although recommendations in this article speak to adjustments in the individual practices of social workers themselves, a parallel and broader community dialogue about supporting the triangle also needs to be kept front and center. Certainly, the conversation must address the need for more father-specific resources and interventions. The need for such resources is an acute one (Saleh, 2013) as men favor activity-based services designed specifically for fathers that afford them opportunities to interact with their children, preferring skills-based exercises and approaches (Maxwell, Scourfield, Holland, Featherstone, & Lee, 2012). But as we have emphasized, community parenting services for fathers—although as essential as services for mothers—are not the same as supports for coparenting. Hence in a closing section, we briefly describe some of the community-level changes that can nurture these broader systems adjustments, changes that will be necessary if the positive gains realized through programming such as that described in this article are to have lasting benefit for the families and children. Embedding Coparenting Initiatives in a Broader Community Conversation In Pinellas County, Florida, at the University of South Florida (USF) St. Petersburg’s Family Study Center, we have been working assiduously for over a decade to broadly educate community partners about coparenting and how coparenting work differs from the 2 + 1 models that guide most agencies’ policies and operations. Although the going has sometimes been slow, we have seen community-level change in openness to the future paradigm shift. Individual practitioners’ and agencies’ definitions of coparenting sometimes do tend to be idiosyncratic, and coparenting efforts are implemented in some programs, but not others. Some of the community-level messaging that has helped move the needle are described in the following sections. Messaging about Coparenting at One-Off and Recurring Trainings and Consortia Family Study Center efforts have involved over 100 in-services, agency trainings, day-long conferences, Grand Rounds, and other consultations for local agencies, running the full gamut from Healthy Start to Head Start to child welfare to pediatric, nursing, and medical consortia, and all other entities serving children and families. For the better part of 10 years, we have chaired the county’s Early Childhood Mental Health Committee, which meets monthly and includes representatives from all infant- and toddler-serving agencies in the county. Family Study Center staff message about coparenting at community gatherings, neighborhood events, task force meetings, and legislative forums. Yet even with all this coordinated effort, significant changes often come from lone one-on-one conversations at opportune times; a Healthy Start–sponsored Community Baby Shower in St. Petersburg, which had historically drawn only mothers, transformed dramatically in October 2015 when the agency staff who invited the babies’ mothers began asking them to bring fathers along to the shower. Nearly 40% of attending women had the baby’s father with them at the event—which also had a dedicated table and giveaways for the men in honoring their attendance. We reiterate here that father friendliness is not the same as development and provision of comprehensive coparenting support, but it is a prerequisite. A Community-Based Infant–Family Mental Health Center Although preventive services abound in Pinellas County, more intensive services for families already upset by toxic stress and trauma have been few and far between and seldom accessible to lower-income families. Moreover, when such services have been offered on a limited scale basis, they have tended to exclude fathers, again guided by the premise that the toxic stress or trauma experienced by the child may have been at the father’s hands. Although data do not support the presumption of widespread paternal threat, it is not the policy or approach of most infant mental health programming to involve the entire family in case formulation, planning, and intervention. A new Infant–Family Center that we established in partnership with Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital offers families in the community a first-of-its-kind service including coparenting-centered consultation and therapeutic support to all families as a matter of standard practice (except when there are imminent safety concerns that would preclude engagement of one of the parents). Noncoresidential and residential fathers are engaged; other live-in coparents involved with the care and upbringing of the child are also explicitly sought for intake assessments and included in case planning (see McHale & Phares, 2015). Although work with abusive men is beyond the scope of services that the center’s hospital-based outpatient clinic is positioned to provide, partnerships with other community agencies allow abusive behavior to be addressed with focus on the men’s role as fathers, a powerful motivator to change (Featherstone & Peckover, 2007; Fox, Sayers, & Bruce, 2001; Rivett, 2010; Stover, 2015). Batterer programs designed specifically for men who are fathers (Crooks, Scott, Francis, Kelly, & Reid, 2006; Pennell, 2012; Scott & Lishak, 2012) are promising intervention services (Bancroft & Silverman, 2002; Featherstone, Rivett, & Scourfield, 2007), addressing men’s control-based parenting, sense of entitlement, and failures of empathy for their children (Scott, Francis, Crooks, Paddon, & Wolfe, 2006). As Zanoni and colleagues (2013) eloquently argued, engaging with domestically violent fathers and holding them fully culpable for their behavior and its effect on their children will provide better outcomes for children and mothers, and can potentially benefit the abusive fathers themselves (Douglas & Walsh, 2010; Featherstone & Peckover, 2007; Fox et al., 2001). Conversely, avoiding biological fathers who are perpetrators of IPV places children at sizable risk, for fathers most often remain an ongoing existence in their lives. In one study by Israel and Stover (2009), 68% of women who had been victims of domestic violence reported an attachment between their child and the aggressive father. Other work found higher levels of depression and anxiety among preschool-age children who had limited or no contact with their previously violent fathers than among preschoolers who had frequent (at least weekly) visits (Stover et al., 2003). Of particular note, preschool-age children, especially boys, who saw their fathers more regularly had fewer negative representations of their mothers (Stover, Van Horn, & Lieberman, 2006). These data highlight the reality that perpetrator fathers often continue their presence within the family following domestic violence and play an important role not just in parenting their children, but in supporting or undermining coparenting even when not physically associated with children’s mothers. To adequately protect children, it is crucial to identify and engage all relevant coparenting and father figures in family interventions (Cavanagh, Dobash, & Dobash, 2007; Klevens & Leeb, 2010). In most cases an Infant–Family Center will stand ready to meet this challenge; when it is not, strong partnerships with collaborating community agencies will help to serve children’s and families best interests by seeking family system–level, and not just mother–infant, recovery and transformation. Intensive Training in Infant–Family Mental Health In a survey examining the educational preparation that Canadian undergraduate students receive for work with fathers, specifically the fathering content found in the required readings of child welfare, family practice and family therapy, human development and human behavior, Aboriginal studies, and child and youth social work courses (Walmsley, Strega, Brown, Dominelli, & Callahan, 2009), explicit content on fathers and fathering was found to be minimal. Perhaps not surprising, frontline personnel acknowledge a need for training in how to engage fathers and address father-specific issues—although few relevant training curricula exist (Huebner, Werner, Hartwig, White, & Shewa, 2008). In 2013, USF St. Petersburg opened its doors to a first-of-its-kind year-long infant–family mental health graduate certificate program, offered fully online. Although several excellent infant mental health certificate programs, notably in Minnesota and in Boston, also exist, the USF St. Petersburg program is unique in being guided fully by a coparenting framework from beginning to end. Case conceptualization, assessment, intervention, and work within systems are all approached from a coparenting frame. With a new Diagnostic Classification of Mental Health and Developmental Disorders of Infancy and Early Childhood (Zeanah et al., 2017) now calling on those who work with infants and young children to provide an assessment of the family’s coparenting system (on Axis II) as part of routine diagnostic practice, high quality and state-of-the-field training in coparenting and family systems frameworks are needed more than ever. The time has finally arrived to revolutionize training of all clinicians and professionals to provide each practitioner with more adequate skills to carry out the work of strengthening coparenting in diverse family systems. Concluding Comments As attested to by an upsurge of topical articles calling for the transformation of clinical practice to involve fathers in clinical case formulations and intervention in all work with young children, we are approaching a new tipping point wherein a long-sought paradigmatic shift may soon occur. But to transcend current social work practices that already invite fathers to partake of services if they are readily reachable and accessible, but move methodically forward without them if children’s mothers (but not they) are promptly available, concerted effort will be needed. To transform from a dyadic to a family systems model, where all social work efforts seek to integrate fathers and other coparenting adults in standard care, comprehensive examination of standing policies, practices, and procedures is called for. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the embracing of a triangular framework that treats mothers and fathers as coparenting partners and allies will better serve children. The questioning of existing practices that systematically exclude fathers from the mother–father–child triangle must come from every agency, institutional and organizational leader, male and female alike, or the transformation needed will never come to fruition. We hope that this article provides a road map that might help this change to finally begin taking hold. James P. McHale, PhD, is director and Lisa S. Negrini, LCSW, is assistant director, Family Study Center, University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Address correspondence to James P. 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How the Assumption of a Coparenting Frame Will Transform Social Work Practice with Men and Fathers

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Oxford University Press
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© 2017 National Association of Social Workers
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1070-5309
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1545-6838
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10.1093/swr/svx024
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Abstract

Abstract Despite incontrovertible evidence documenting effects of fathering on child outcomes, social work practice has unyieldingly resisted the pursuit of father engagement as a requisite outcome of competent clinical child intervention. Reasons behind this resistance are already well understood, and several promising programs have provided reassuring evidence that inclusion of fathers in clinical work with young children in higher-risk families is not only possible, but transformative. Yet despite the fact that the soil has been tilled and essential professional competencies needed for effective work with fathers identified, it is unlikely that comprehensive changes will ever take root without the social work profession embracing a coparenting and triangular perspective in all efforts on behalf of children and their families. In this article, main conceptual distinctions between triangular and “2 + 1” models are drawn, with accounts provided differentiating perfunctory from persistent assumption of a triangular model, calling on an inventive coparenting intervention for unmarried expectant parents as a case in point. This article also focuses on parallel changes in the institutional and community contexts in which social work practice is embedded that will be needed to better support the coparenting family once interventions have met with success in solidifying family triangles in children’s best interests. Although evidence establishing father effects on child outcomes—for good or ill, and whether fathers are attended to clinically, or not—has been accessible for decades, improvements in fathering have not been identified as compulsory outcomes of proficient social work interventions with families. Obstacles impeding this remaking of the definition of capable practice have been articulated (D’Andrade & Sorkhabi, 2016), and professional competencies needed to address these obstacles have been identified (Coakley, Kelley, & Bartlett, 2014). And although the landscape is now dotted with promising programs demonstrating that incorporating fathers in case planning and management with higher-risk families is not, as many professionals feared, unmanageable or disrupting (Malm, Murray, & Geen, 2006; Marczak, Becher, Hardman, Galos, & Ruhland, 2015), efforts to serve fathers and their families are destined to continue meeting with only meek success until one important paradigmatic transformation is embraced. In this article we address this needed conversion: the presumption, and assumption, of a coparenting and triangular perspective as frame for all social work with children and their families. Our aims in this article are threefold. First, we identify what coparenting actually is—for the published literature is, unfortunately, muddied with misunderstandings and distortions of the core concept of coparenting that have led to misuses of time, effort, and energy. Second, we identify why a coparenting and triangular frame in social work practice with young children promises the kinds of advances that marriage and fatherhood programming alone have rarely delivered. And third, we provide illustrative data from an ongoing initiative that has taken the triangular frame seriously and begun to redefine practice, while at the same time contending with challenges inevitably faced when charting previously unknown waters. We close with recommendations about more immediately and more effectively altering existing training programs and agency methodologies so that fathers might truly become, in the words of Zanoni, Warburton, Bussey, and McMaugh (2013), a “core business” for social work practice. Conceptual Underpinnings: What Is Coparenting? Coparenting is a family systems notion that refers to the degree of support and coordination among any two or more adults responsible for a given child’s care and upbringing (McHale, 1995; McHale & Irace, 2011). Seven years ago, the field’s first volume on coparenting as it occurs across diverse family systems and structures was released by the American Psychological Association (McHale & Lindahl, 2011). This milestone work provided both conceptual and empirical arguments for why case formulation, assessment, and intervention that is guided by a coparenting model maximizes the likelihood of favorable outcomes in work with children and families—and why ignoring coparenting can reasonably be viewed as professional negligence. This is a rather dramatic departure from most clinical practice—typically, one caregiver only is chosen as a target for intervention, and that person engages in individual and sometimes dyadic child–parent work with the interventionist on behalf of the child and family. From a family systems standpoint, dyadic relationships in families, be they mother–child, father–child, or mother–father relationships, are each important elements of family functioning and can all be useful intervention targets. But mothers’ and fathers’ individual—and combined—impact on children’s coping and adjustment (Al-Yagon, 2011; Diener, Isabella, & Behunin, 2008; Flouri & Buchanan, 2003), as well as the direct (see, for example, Cummings, Davies, & Simpson, 1994) and indirect (see, for example, Hinde & Stevenson-Hinde, 1988) influences of husband–wife marital quality on child adjustment, constitute in S. Minuchin’s (1974) terms the effects of relationship subsystems. Coparenting systems—one key thrust of S. Minuchin’s (1974) theory of family structure—are always at least triangular in nature. Mother–father–child triangles reflect more than just the sum of their constituent dyadic parts; triangles are distinctive emotional systems (Bowen, 1978; Fivaz-Depeursinge & Corboz-Warnery, 1999), and empirical studies find that triangular systems are irreducible, impossible to describe in individual or dyadic terms without losing their quintessence (McHale, Kuersten-Hogan, Lauretti, & Rasmussen, 2000). Originally studied empirically in families where parents had divorced (Ahrons, 1981), it was the mid-1990s before coparenting in families where parents had not divorced first became a focus of enthusiastic study. Early clinical observations of family triads and groups (Belsky, Crnic, & Gable, 1995; Belsky, Putnam, & Crnic, 1996; McHale, 1995; McHale, Kuersten, & Lauretti, 1996) uncovered several distinguishable coparenting and family-level processes: coparenting cooperation, coparenting competition, family warmth, verbal sparring, degree of disparity in levels of parental engagement (with disconnection and disengagement at the extreme), child-centeredness, and attunement and sensitivity (and at the other extreme, parent-directedness and overstimulation). It is important to note that such dynamics were always documented with reference to a particular child; in families with multiple children the same two coparenting adults can behave cooperatively and exhibit high warmth in their dealings with one child, yet coparent in a more fractured and conflictual manner—and to exhibit a greater imbalance in their levels of mutual emotional engagement and involvement—with that child’s sibling (McHale, 2007). This vital point often eludes practitioners who are attempting to understand each child’s sense of contentment, safety, and security in their family: Any given child’s reality is uniquely shaped by the exclusive coparent–coparent–child interactions the child overtly experiences with his or her two or more coparents (McHale, Johnson, & Sinclair, 1999) and by the child’s exposure to covert communications from each parent concerning the other coparent and the coparenting alliance (McHale, 1997). From the child’s perspective, the triangular (or multicoparent) system that affects and matters to them is inexorably dissimilar from any other sibling’s triangle. This is why an accurate assessment of coparenting for each child in the family is so important when one or both parents have children by multiple partners (Baxter, 2012; Carlson, 2015; Cooper, Beck, Högnäs, & Swanson, 2015). From a child-centric frame, what the clinician needs to understand is how that child’s “people” coordinate, or fail to coordinate, as coparents to him or her. How a child’s half-sibling’s father or mother work together is not really of any concern to the child. Although fathers (and mothers) are our primary focus in this article, responsible coparenting evaluation extends beyond just biological fathers and mothers. The coparenting system in millions of American families involves a kin caregiver or someone else besides just mother and father. When a mother or father is entirely absent from the child’s life (with other important adults taking on responsibility for sharing in the child’s care and upbringing), it is the triangular relationships between these coparenting adults with reference to the child that are every bit as salient and formative for child development. Coparenting is hence decidedly not a dynamic limited just to married or divorced heterosexual mother–father family systems; indeed, it can be argued that between birth and young adulthood, all children will be coparented (McHale, 2009; McHale & Irace, 2011; McHale et al., 2002; McHale & Phares, 2015). Social workers guided by this advanced and more accurate child-centric perspective (that to each child, the relevant coparenting alliance is that set of adults with whom the child has cultivated closest attachment and affiliative bonds) will find themselves better positioned to recognize and support every family system that evolves to coparent children. Although immensely diverse in nature, all coparenting systems can be seen as sharing common core components: (a) degree of support and solidarity between parenting figures, (b) degree of consistency and predictability in the approaches that the different caregivers take in the child’s life, (c) security and integrity of the child’s home base (regardless of whether that home base is a single domicile or spans multiple residences), and (d) degree of mutual empathy and attunement to the child’s needs. By taking pains to see coparenting through the child’s eyes and paying attention to how these core elements function in the child’s family, social workers put themselves in a position to build up coparenting alliances—even in family circumstances where an important coparent is separated from a child, as in the case of incarceration, immigration, deportation, or military deployment of parents. The power and reach of the coparenting metaphor is perhaps best illuminated by the pioneering work of Patricia Minuchin (P. Minuchin, Colapinto, & Minuchin, 2007). Her work with families entangled in the child welfare system, since expanded by the Annie E. Casey Family-to-Family initiative, creatively engendered coparenting alliances between biological and foster families after a child had been removed from the family, but with the anticipation of later reunification. This family-to-family coparenting model defied previous views of biological parents as dangers from which children had to be safeguarded until such time that the parents could prove themselves deserving of contact once again. Moreover, it was borne of attunement to children’s own sensibilities. Young children experience unremitting grief when precipitously separated from their families of origin. By embracing the family that the children saw and loved, interventionists were then able to design means to help bring foster and biological coparents into early and ongoing positive, collaborative contact. By so doing, they tempered children’s deepest fears about their vanished parents and disintegrating families. In summary, coparenting formulations view communication, collaboration, and cooperation among the important coparenting adults in any child’s life as essential to improving the child’s mental health and adaptation. Evidence for this tenet is addressed in the next section. What Is the Evidence That Coparenting Affects Children? The notion that coparenting dynamics within families affect children’s development dates back to the 1950s, when the family therapy movement arose as a new clinical paradigm. Lidz, Cornelison, Fleck, and Terry (1957), studying triadic (mother–father–child) patterns in families with schizophrenic young adults, articulated two dysfunctional patterns that entangled the youths. The first was openly antagonistic, wherein partners undermined one another’s efforts with the child and competed openly for the child’s affection and loyalty. The second was an imbalance wherein one parent displayed overbearing parenting that was not countered, but rather acquiesced to, by the other. From this work grew both theory and research positing the detrimental aftereffects of failures in coparenting solidarity, epitomized in S. Minuchin’s (1974) structural family theory. Minuchin’s work with urban poor families was both inclusive and appropriately flexible, honoring multigenerational family systems and structures as much as mother–father coparenting systems. Minuchin viewed the coparenting adults, be they two biological parents, parent and stepparent, or parent and grandparent as heads of the family hierarchy. These coparents operated as an “executive subsystem” that ideally possessed and wielded mutual and shared decision-making authority, rather than triangulating children into inappropriate positions of influence. When cross-generational coalitions involving minor children did materialize, problem behaviors inevitably ensued. Resolution of the family balance required returning the child to the position of child and letting the adults reclaim shared leadership and authority, exemplified by open and continuous communication about and on behalf of the child and his or her best interests. The term “coparenting” first gained widespread usage in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as children in postdivorce family systems began developing behavior problems owing to stalemates their parents had in working together as parents (Ahrons, 1981; Hetherington, 1989). By the mid-1990s, these lines of thought had prompted empirical study of the influences and aftereffects of both positive and problematic coparenting for children in nonreferred community families. The first study to show that child adjustment problems are foreshadowed by hostile and competitive coparenting dynamics in the family discovered cross-time links between antagonistic coparenting during the infant years and poor impulse control, dysregulation, and aggression once children reached the preschool years (McHale & Rasmussen, 1998). That same study linked imbalanced parental involvement with the child during infancy to higher levels of anxiety and depression during the preschool years. From the viewpoint of infant mental health, the notion that coparents’ unsupportive and undermining behavior kindles dysregulated behavior in the child is expectable. Young children, particularly from birth to age three, require consistent and predictable responsivity from parents to develop internal rhythms, self-soothe, manage frustration, and regulate behavior and emotions under duress. Dissimilar child-rearing and disciplinary practices by caregivers can undermine children’s self-regulation (Harvey, 2000). For these reasons, clinical interventions that target just a single caregiver and ignore other caregivers who are also coparenting the child often run into problems. If no effort is made to develop intercaregiver consistency, the child’s situation can remain erratic and unpredictable. Since McHale and Rasmussen’s (1998) report, over two dozen studies have replicated the original findings that poor coparenting awakens problem behavior in young children (see Mangelsdorf, Laxman, & Jessee, 2011, and Teubert & Pinquart, 2010, for comprehensive reviews of this work). The link between greater discrepancies in parental engagement and children’s sadness and anxiety has also been echoed in relevant related reports on the impact of father absence (East, Jackson, Power, Woods, & Hutchinson, 2014; McLanahan, Tach, & Schneider, 2013; Stover, Van Horn, Turner, Cooper, & Lieberman, 2003), although it is also clear that other situational factors and family adaptations can amplify or mitigate this connection. Absenteeism in general and paternal incarceration in particular are associated with increases in child aggression and attentional problems, even for children who did not live with the father prior to his incarceration (Geller, Cooper, Garfinkel, Schwartz-Soicher, & Mincy, 2012). In studies of incarcerated mothers, child symptomatology postrelease has been linked to quality of coparenting between the incarcerated mother and the coparenting grandmother (McHale, Salman, Strozier, & Cecil, 2013), suggesting that negative effects of parental incarceration on children’s postreunification adjustment might be mitigated if dedicated attention were to be paid to improving coparenting alliances between the incarcerated and custodial coparents during the weeks and months the parent is away. We emphasize that what we are focused on here is evidence that the coparenting alliance, and not the typically studied fathering or mothering effects, is what is crucial. In virtually all of the work summarized here, quality of coparenting explained unique variance in child outcomes over and above effects of parenting. That is, the dynamics of the triadic family unit were not simply echoing or replicating processes obvious in dyadic assessments of mother with child or father with child. In practice, this means that if coparenting difficulties are identified, targeted interventions are in order to help address the impediments to coparenting. Interventions with just mother, or just father, are not sufficient. Despite all we have learned thus far, the field of coparenting theory and research is in many ways still in its infancy. Most empirical studies of coparenting have enrolled coresidential married heterosexual families and divorced heterosexual families. Far less information is available about coparenting in nonresidential and unmarried families, as studies typically only examine how support by fathers, and not coparenting per se, benefits children. But fathering studies (summarized by Zanoni et al., 2013) do provide requisite evidence that higher-risk fathers not identified as violent or unfit to parent can play a protective role and be a resource in the lives of children, even in child protection–involved families (Coady, Hoy, & Cameron, 2013; Lee, Bellamy, & Guterman, 2009; Malm & Zielewski, 2009; Storhaug & Øien, 2012). A noteworthy exception to the virtual absence of studies of coparenting by unmarried and noncoresidential fathers and mothers, guided by a truly triangular father–mother–infant frame, is a novel intervention supporting unmarried African American parents in the cultivation of an intentional and positive coparenting alliance. Figuring It Out for the Child (FIOC), a six-session adaptation of McHale and Irace’s (2010) Focused Coparenting Consultation, is described next. Strengthening Coparenting Alliances It is rather troubling that even in the face of undeniable evidence that children growing up in father-absent families face exponentially greater risk for poorer life outcomes, standard social work and nursing practices direct nearly all education and supports to higher-risk unmarried mothers, neglecting their babies’ fathers (Olds et al., 2007). For men, Responsible Fatherhood groups do exist in most urban areas, but initiatives that intentionally bring nonresidential mothers and fathers together to talk about and plan their family situation are uncommon (although initial efforts are afoot to try to include otherwise marginalized men in home visiting; see McHale & Phares, 2015). The dearth of family-sensitive coparenting programming is certainly not to say that there have been no attempts to bring mothers and fathers together as couples. In 2012, McHale, Waller, and Pearson summarized the state of the field with respect to interventions for unmarried parents. Their review devoted considerable attention to the federal Healthy Marriages initiative, and in particular Relationship and Marriage Education (RME) programs, including the Building Strong Families (BSF) program. Alhough BSF was not without some minor successes, the overall conclusion from the work was that intervention families fared no better as coparents than did control group families (Wood, Moore, Clarkwest, & Killewald, 2014)—a situation further complicated by the fact that the majority of families receiving Healthy Start and Healthy Families services (mothers-to-be who did not self-identify as being in a committed relationship with their baby’s father) were actually ineligible to take part in BSF at all (Dion, Avellar, & Clary, 2010). Given the now well-documented positive impact of harmonious, coordinated coparenting on child development, the failure of BSF and of other small- and larger-scale efforts to successfully bring nonresidential parents together around issues of coparenting (rather than relationship enhancement) has been disheartening. Positive coparenting alliances between unmarried parents who are not in committed relationships are attainable, but such alliances are achieved most readily if and when parents bridge impasses to communicate, coordinate, and problem solve in the child’s best interests. It is curious that although noncoresidential parents themselves have articulated more need for help with coparenting relationships than programs currently offer, the use of existing services such as mediation—especially by custodial parents—has been poor (Martinson & Nightingale, 2008). Parents harbor mistrust of governmentally sponsored programs, and interadult conflict in on-again, off-again relationships is a further impediment to parents using services well-meaningly designed to help promote better communication. Perhaps for these reasons FIOC, designed as a preventive family-strengthening alternate method to mediation, Responsible Fatherhood, and RME programs, has struck a new chord. FIOC eschews an educational stance in favor of a combined experiential and skill-building approach, and takes on the real-life circumstances confronting lower-income, unmarried and uncoupled parents that impede them from coordinating to coparent their babies. Details of the FIOC intervention are described elsewhere so will be only briefly summarized here; readers may refer to informative reports by Gaskin-Butler and colleagues (Gaskin-Butler et al., 2015; McHale, Gaskin-Butler, McKay, & Gallardo, 2013). When family interventions are culturally grounded, they have greater credibility with parents. Perhaps key to the FIOC intervention’s early successes is that it was codesigned by experienced African American activists, interventionists, and educational leaders in the community where the intervention was piloted. Collaborating with university-based family clinicians experienced in couples and family therapy approaches, community leaders helped design a program that honored fathers and mothers equally as permanent partners in the care and upbringing of their shared child. Unfortunately, the “father and mother coparenting as a team, regardless of residential and life circumstance” dispatch was a foreign one that did not readily resonate within the social services community where FIOC was field-tested. Considerable groundwork was needed for potential referral agents to feel at ease communicating to both the mother and the father not only that father participation in the family-strengthening work of FIOC was required—but that the work itself could not proceed, at all, without his presence. Questions from several frontline professionals serving pregnant mothers quickly surfaced, as anticipated, about what precautions the FIOC project was taking to safeguard mother and fetus from dangers the father may introduce. Addressing these concerns took time and effort; collaboration with respected leaders in the domestic violence community and with individuals who specialized in batterer interventions and in anger management were necessary to help assure questioners that there were robust safety plans in place should any concerns arise during the course of the intervention. Moreover, following best practice guidelines, we did not bring parents together for the mother–father intervention in circumstances where a preintervention screening completed with the mother alone signaled levels of danger exceeding the degree of support that could be provided within a brief coparenting consultation. Mothers and fathers were also not seen in the intervention together if mothers voiced concerns for their own safety participating with the father. Safety became the primary focus for screening. As it happened, however, the field test disqualified no family because of disclosed concerns about danger; this may have been because parents contending with intimate partner violence (IPV) elected not to present themselves for a dyadic intervention. Among the families actually served, over 90% completed the intervention with no safety issues raised. This was one important lesson learned from the field test; the expectant fathers who came forward to participate in the dyadic FIOC intervention to figure things out for their child were in fact all motivated, optimistic men who saw the project as an opportunity to bring benefits to their child’s life. As a group, they did not pose dangers to their children, as referral agents had anticipated they might. Having plans in place to address IPV in the event it did surface unexpectedly was necessary to enjoin the goodwill of referral agents in guiding parents to the intervention. A more arduous and ongoing challenge to the work has been persuading parents themselves to take part in the intervention. Unlike Responsible Fatherhood programs, FIOC is brought to the attention of mothers and not fathers as the point of first contact. Fathers are contacted only after mothers deliberate the pros and cons and then decide to take part. For many frontline professionals, the notion of connecting a mother to programming that will serve both herself and her baby’s father simultaneously remains a foreign one, so agents who actually have the opportunity to help mothers ponder about coparenting often fail to do so. When mothers are made aware of programming and do self-refer, engaging fathers is often even more challenging. Motivated mothers are frequently unable to persuade skeptical fathers to answer phone calls from program staff poised to provide more information about FIOC. Unless referral agents have direct access to fathers and mothers (which few do), many families who might benefit from the intervention are not reached. As McHale and Phares (2015) have detailed, men regularly receive implicit messages from service systems and agents that services actually only exist for mothers, not for them. Further disinclining fathers from self-referring is their wariness over misinformation promulgated about family-support programs that, unfortunately, often end up portraying the father as a negligent family provider or incompetent parent. An important reason why FIOC outreach to men is successful, when it is, is that FIOC outreach staff are fully sold on the value of engaging fathers with their children. This personal value underlies any success social workers are likely to have in addressing fathers’ questions and concerns and attracting them to take part in a family service with their baby’s mother. Interventionists who deliver FIOC include both social workers and paraprofessionals (supervised by a licensed clinician). We learned early on that not all interventionists were themselves fully sold on messages that they were giving parents about the importance of fathers to children, for many had themselves grown up without involved fathers or knew others doing well without having had an active father or father figure. Hence new interventionists learning the curriculum partake in the same experiential exercises parents do to raise consciousness about the role and meaning of fathers to children. This step may be indispensable for interventionists who will be working with both fathers and mothers to promote solidarity. Fathers are able to perceive the lack of sincerity when professionals are saying one thing about the essential nature of father involvement and coparenting but actually believing another. Convincing parents of fathers’ importance must begin with convincing the interventionist. The FIOC approach makes use of both male and female interventionists, working together. It also begins the interventionist–parent relationship in a unique fashion. Rather than commencing with the joint mother–father work immediately, one or more individual informal mentorship sessions are scheduled between male interventionists and fathers and between female interventionists and mothers. Only once parents indicate that they feel ready to begin do the four individuals meet. And when they do, they break bread together. Although an unfamiliar occurrence in customary social work practice, the meal introduces an effective means of building relationship trust and rapport. At the outset, parents and interventionists all commit to creating a safe environment for the work, and all sign commitment statements to this effect. The statements are not legally binding documents, but rather symbolize each person’s commitment to the child and family. Sessions then proceed through the three stages of Focused Coparenting Consultation—consciousness-raising, skill building, and guided enactments. Interventionists actively intervene when parents get stuck but respect parents’ needs to go at their own pace and individually tailor exercises to meet their own preferences and communication styles. The genuine respect for fathers and the dogged determination to see parents through were key elements in the first test of the FIOC intervention. Perhaps as a result, that field test found tenacity and commitment among the parents. Specifically, no parents who completed a first FIOC session dropped from the intervention, and one in four completers referred friends or family members to participate in the project. Acceptability surveys completed by independent assessors after the intervention established consistently high levels of maternal and paternal buy-in and satisfaction. Earlier, we commented on implicit and explicit messages that parents have received from existing programming about their own worth as parents and about the halfhearted reception that fathers receive if they do express interest in being part of family life. By parents’ own accounts, the FIOC model was unlike any support service they had previously experienced. What ultimately mattered to parents? Key components included the welcoming and honoring of both father and mother, the interventionists’ stance of accepting and meeting both of the parents “where they were,” the benign acceptance and offering of help to work through resistance, the opportunity to talk openly and honestly with interventionists knowledgeable and savvy about the community in which the intervention was being delivered, and above all the unwavering message that there was no challenge too great to be surmounted if there was shared resolve and goodwill to stick it out for the child. Collectively, these elements cut through many common challenges that professionals face in engaging fathers in any kind of sustained way in family-centered programming with their child’s mother. As a result, consistent with findings from Marriage and Relationship Enhancement programs that have largely served committed couples (see McHale et al., 2012, for a review), this coparenting-only focused intervention yielded statistically significant and meaningful gains in parents’ communication skills (decreases in verbal aggressiveness and coercion; greater support and solidarity observed during videotaped problem-solving discussions; McHale, Salman-Engin, & Coovert, 2015). Most important, beyond communicating respectfully about the child, all FIOC completers were also actually coparenting together at three months postpartum, regardless of whether the parents were now living together or not. Moreover, systematic observations of triangular interactions between father, mother, and baby revealed discernable signs of strength and comradery. They also revealed affinity for and knowing of the father by the three-month-old, attunement and reciprocity by the father to his baby’s overtures, and support of father–baby interactions by mothers (McHale & Coates, 2014). The family dynamic was a cohesive one. A randomized controlled trial to test the efficacy and longitudinal impact of the intervention—not only on family but on infant mental health outcomes—is now underway in St. Petersburg, Florida, with a new cohort of unmarried, first-time African American parents. In summary, although FIOC is an intervention guided by a manualized curriculum, it is the manner in which families are first approached, and subsequently engaged, that epitomizes the paradigmatic shift in social work practice we advocate in this article. The very frame for the FIOC intervention is triangular in nature. Both coparents are presumed to be essential to the work, and messaging is consistent from the beginning that fathers need to be involved. Both parents not only hear this message, but they hear it lovingly, and relentlessly. When challenges to the work occur, and they inevitably do, interventionists stand ready to allow parents to work through the impediments. This sometimes necessitates a temporary moratorium on sessions until one or both parents can resolve substantive issues. Appropriate referrals are made when individual or couples counseling, anger management, or other services will benefit the family—the focus and thrust of the FIOC work stays on the child and on successfully resolving issues that prevent the adults from coparenting effectively together. The improvements in coparenting resolve and resilience generated in the FIOC pilot provide promising evidence of what is possible given a change in attitude and in practice. Challenges and Recommendations As we have reiterated, approaches that welcome fathers to traditional mother-only service systems have not always been well-received by fathers. Men as a rule are less apt to seek help than women, fathers rightfully view many community programs as support services intended for mothers, and mothers who themselves appreciate having individual supports do not always disabuse fathers of their viewpoints. One analysis indicates that satisfaction or gains by fathers involved in existing parenting services are less than those realized by mothers (Lundahl, Tollefson, Risser, & Lovejoy, 2008). McHale and Phares (2015) have provided a detailed analysis of ways that services can transform to appreciate the sensibilities of men and fathers—shoehorning men into service delivery programs designed by and for women will not accomplish desired aims. Rather, a stance that an intervention cannot begin without both mother and father being present signals from the start that both are of equal importance and value to the child and that neither is considered “less than.” Fathers may also be troubled by unemployment, insufficient income, child support demands, and lack of housing (Goldberg & Carlson, 2015)—in part because culturally they are expected to shoulder responsibility for resolving these issues (Gadsden, Davis, & Johnson, 2015). Hence practical connections with community supports must be researched and available to support the family’s sustenance needs (Dion, Zaveri, & Holcomb, 2015). Equally, however, we caution that social workers’ maintenance of stereotypical views of men as benefactors first and fathers second will remain damaging, reinforce the 2 + 1 status quo, and stifle efforts made to strengthen the triangle and promote coparenting. Moreover, purposeful efforts to respect and involve fathers (and mothers) as coparents even as they are going through mental health or substance abuse treatment or face incarceration, although challenging, can pay off if the structure guiding the work remains a robust coparenting frame (Loper, Phillips, Nichols, & Dallaire, 2014). Enhancements in technology (FaceTime, Skype), improved sensitization among leadership in many institutions and facilities to the needs of children to stay connected to coparents, and innovations in connecting parents to children through personal visits or through distance methods and media are now raising the possibilities that the strains young children experience during prolonged separations from parents can be lessened. But practitioner efforts to help at-home caregivers connect children to coparents while they must be separated have enduring effects only to the extent that due attention is also given to solidifying coparenting during the separation at the same time as attention is given to parenting. Efforts to strengthen family functioning must obviously never give up on or replace parent–child programming, even as they embrace a coparenting frame. Many fathers who do successfully connect and team with their children’s mothers also need interventions that strengthen their own parenting efficacy, skills, and confidence (Dubowitz, Black, Kerr, Starr, & Harrington, 2000). And discounting the mental health needs of young and new fathers can have serious ramifications; interviews with fathers who participated in the national Fragile Families and Child Well-Being study revealed that depressed fathers were approximately three times more likely to report having spanked their one-year-old infant in the last month compared with nondepressed fathers (Davis, Davis, Freed, & Clark, 2011). Maternal postpartum depression is now on most agencies’ radar; paternal depression, far less so. Although fathers are sometimes affronted by the suggestion that they possess less parenting knowledge and skill than mothers (O’Donnell, Johnson, D’Aunno, & Thornton, 2005), fathers who took part in the FIOC intervention who had grown up without fathers themselves were open to furthering their own competencies as fathers after completing the program. Trust had been built, and with that trust came self-reflection and greater openness. Unfortunately, as it currently stands, social services programs, child care programs, mental health services, and other community agencies may not themselves stand fully ready to embrace such fathers’ motivations or welcome them as equal and contributing partners in their child’s health, education, and welfare. Although recommendations in this article speak to adjustments in the individual practices of social workers themselves, a parallel and broader community dialogue about supporting the triangle also needs to be kept front and center. Certainly, the conversation must address the need for more father-specific resources and interventions. The need for such resources is an acute one (Saleh, 2013) as men favor activity-based services designed specifically for fathers that afford them opportunities to interact with their children, preferring skills-based exercises and approaches (Maxwell, Scourfield, Holland, Featherstone, & Lee, 2012). But as we have emphasized, community parenting services for fathers—although as essential as services for mothers—are not the same as supports for coparenting. Hence in a closing section, we briefly describe some of the community-level changes that can nurture these broader systems adjustments, changes that will be necessary if the positive gains realized through programming such as that described in this article are to have lasting benefit for the families and children. Embedding Coparenting Initiatives in a Broader Community Conversation In Pinellas County, Florida, at the University of South Florida (USF) St. Petersburg’s Family Study Center, we have been working assiduously for over a decade to broadly educate community partners about coparenting and how coparenting work differs from the 2 + 1 models that guide most agencies’ policies and operations. Although the going has sometimes been slow, we have seen community-level change in openness to the future paradigm shift. Individual practitioners’ and agencies’ definitions of coparenting sometimes do tend to be idiosyncratic, and coparenting efforts are implemented in some programs, but not others. Some of the community-level messaging that has helped move the needle are described in the following sections. Messaging about Coparenting at One-Off and Recurring Trainings and Consortia Family Study Center efforts have involved over 100 in-services, agency trainings, day-long conferences, Grand Rounds, and other consultations for local agencies, running the full gamut from Healthy Start to Head Start to child welfare to pediatric, nursing, and medical consortia, and all other entities serving children and families. For the better part of 10 years, we have chaired the county’s Early Childhood Mental Health Committee, which meets monthly and includes representatives from all infant- and toddler-serving agencies in the county. Family Study Center staff message about coparenting at community gatherings, neighborhood events, task force meetings, and legislative forums. Yet even with all this coordinated effort, significant changes often come from lone one-on-one conversations at opportune times; a Healthy Start–sponsored Community Baby Shower in St. Petersburg, which had historically drawn only mothers, transformed dramatically in October 2015 when the agency staff who invited the babies’ mothers began asking them to bring fathers along to the shower. Nearly 40% of attending women had the baby’s father with them at the event—which also had a dedicated table and giveaways for the men in honoring their attendance. We reiterate here that father friendliness is not the same as development and provision of comprehensive coparenting support, but it is a prerequisite. A Community-Based Infant–Family Mental Health Center Although preventive services abound in Pinellas County, more intensive services for families already upset by toxic stress and trauma have been few and far between and seldom accessible to lower-income families. Moreover, when such services have been offered on a limited scale basis, they have tended to exclude fathers, again guided by the premise that the toxic stress or trauma experienced by the child may have been at the father’s hands. Although data do not support the presumption of widespread paternal threat, it is not the policy or approach of most infant mental health programming to involve the entire family in case formulation, planning, and intervention. A new Infant–Family Center that we established in partnership with Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital offers families in the community a first-of-its-kind service including coparenting-centered consultation and therapeutic support to all families as a matter of standard practice (except when there are imminent safety concerns that would preclude engagement of one of the parents). Noncoresidential and residential fathers are engaged; other live-in coparents involved with the care and upbringing of the child are also explicitly sought for intake assessments and included in case planning (see McHale & Phares, 2015). Although work with abusive men is beyond the scope of services that the center’s hospital-based outpatient clinic is positioned to provide, partnerships with other community agencies allow abusive behavior to be addressed with focus on the men’s role as fathers, a powerful motivator to change (Featherstone & Peckover, 2007; Fox, Sayers, & Bruce, 2001; Rivett, 2010; Stover, 2015). Batterer programs designed specifically for men who are fathers (Crooks, Scott, Francis, Kelly, & Reid, 2006; Pennell, 2012; Scott & Lishak, 2012) are promising intervention services (Bancroft & Silverman, 2002; Featherstone, Rivett, & Scourfield, 2007), addressing men’s control-based parenting, sense of entitlement, and failures of empathy for their children (Scott, Francis, Crooks, Paddon, & Wolfe, 2006). As Zanoni and colleagues (2013) eloquently argued, engaging with domestically violent fathers and holding them fully culpable for their behavior and its effect on their children will provide better outcomes for children and mothers, and can potentially benefit the abusive fathers themselves (Douglas & Walsh, 2010; Featherstone & Peckover, 2007; Fox et al., 2001). Conversely, avoiding biological fathers who are perpetrators of IPV places children at sizable risk, for fathers most often remain an ongoing existence in their lives. In one study by Israel and Stover (2009), 68% of women who had been victims of domestic violence reported an attachment between their child and the aggressive father. Other work found higher levels of depression and anxiety among preschool-age children who had limited or no contact with their previously violent fathers than among preschoolers who had frequent (at least weekly) visits (Stover et al., 2003). Of particular note, preschool-age children, especially boys, who saw their fathers more regularly had fewer negative representations of their mothers (Stover, Van Horn, & Lieberman, 2006). These data highlight the reality that perpetrator fathers often continue their presence within the family following domestic violence and play an important role not just in parenting their children, but in supporting or undermining coparenting even when not physically associated with children’s mothers. To adequately protect children, it is crucial to identify and engage all relevant coparenting and father figures in family interventions (Cavanagh, Dobash, & Dobash, 2007; Klevens & Leeb, 2010). In most cases an Infant–Family Center will stand ready to meet this challenge; when it is not, strong partnerships with collaborating community agencies will help to serve children’s and families best interests by seeking family system–level, and not just mother–infant, recovery and transformation. Intensive Training in Infant–Family Mental Health In a survey examining the educational preparation that Canadian undergraduate students receive for work with fathers, specifically the fathering content found in the required readings of child welfare, family practice and family therapy, human development and human behavior, Aboriginal studies, and child and youth social work courses (Walmsley, Strega, Brown, Dominelli, & Callahan, 2009), explicit content on fathers and fathering was found to be minimal. Perhaps not surprising, frontline personnel acknowledge a need for training in how to engage fathers and address father-specific issues—although few relevant training curricula exist (Huebner, Werner, Hartwig, White, & Shewa, 2008). In 2013, USF St. Petersburg opened its doors to a first-of-its-kind year-long infant–family mental health graduate certificate program, offered fully online. Although several excellent infant mental health certificate programs, notably in Minnesota and in Boston, also exist, the USF St. Petersburg program is unique in being guided fully by a coparenting framework from beginning to end. Case conceptualization, assessment, intervention, and work within systems are all approached from a coparenting frame. With a new Diagnostic Classification of Mental Health and Developmental Disorders of Infancy and Early Childhood (Zeanah et al., 2017) now calling on those who work with infants and young children to provide an assessment of the family’s coparenting system (on Axis II) as part of routine diagnostic practice, high quality and state-of-the-field training in coparenting and family systems frameworks are needed more than ever. The time has finally arrived to revolutionize training of all clinicians and professionals to provide each practitioner with more adequate skills to carry out the work of strengthening coparenting in diverse family systems. Concluding Comments As attested to by an upsurge of topical articles calling for the transformation of clinical practice to involve fathers in clinical case formulations and intervention in all work with young children, we are approaching a new tipping point wherein a long-sought paradigmatic shift may soon occur. But to transcend current social work practices that already invite fathers to partake of services if they are readily reachable and accessible, but move methodically forward without them if children’s mothers (but not they) are promptly available, concerted effort will be needed. To transform from a dyadic to a family systems model, where all social work efforts seek to integrate fathers and other coparenting adults in standard care, comprehensive examination of standing policies, practices, and procedures is called for. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the embracing of a triangular framework that treats mothers and fathers as coparenting partners and allies will better serve children. The questioning of existing practices that systematically exclude fathers from the mother–father–child triangle must come from every agency, institutional and organizational leader, male and female alike, or the transformation needed will never come to fruition. We hope that this article provides a road map that might help this change to finally begin taking hold. James P. McHale, PhD, is director and Lisa S. Negrini, LCSW, is assistant director, Family Study Center, University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Address correspondence to James P. 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Social Work ResearchOxford University Press

Published: Mar 1, 2018

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