Supporting Father Involvement: An Evidence Based Program

In contrast to current public discussion of father involvement, which assumes that men’s family involvement is a matter of having appropriate family values and motivation, the Supporting Father Involvement (SFI) Program is based on an empirically-supported family systems model of the central factors associated with fathers’ family involvement, and on a belief that most fathers wish to be positively involved in their children’s lives.

The SFI research and intervention program is based on five interconnected family domains known to affect family health, mental health, and child abuse outcomes:

  • individual characteristics of the parents
  • parent-child relationship quality
  • couple or co-parenting relationship quality
  • the intergenerational transmission of parent-child involvement and relationships
  • external influences such as employment, environmental stressors, and social supports.

The SFI model specifically addresses each of these areas through a variety of modalities designed to meet the needs of culturally diverse, low-income families.

SFI is the first evidence-based program designed for families from various cultural backgrounds that reaches fathers by also reaching mothers or other co-parents.  When either parent cannot attend, the other parent is encouraged to bring a co-parent (relative, friend, etc.) with whom they could share parenting responsibilities.

The SFI Groups

The SFI intervention consists of semi-structured groups of fathers only or couples. 8-10 fathers or four to six couples who are raising at least one young child together meet weekly for 16 weeks, typically 2 hours per week (32 hours). In two of the weeks, mothers and fathers meet separately; fathers bring their youngest child for a play session to highlight the men’s parenting ideas and experiences without the women present; at the same time, mothers meet to share their experience of encouraging fathers’ parenting while honoring their parenting ideas and attending to their health and well-being as individuals.

Group leaders are male-female teams, with (at least one of them having) the equivalent of Master’s level education or beyond and experience in counseling or conducting therapy individually or in groups with individuals, couples, or children, with additional training and consultation with the SFI Development team. After the first introductory meeting with the parents, co-leaders begin each subsequent session with a half-hour check-in during which couples are invited to bring issues that arose during the week or as they tried to do the “homework” suggested at the end of the previous session. The remaining time in each two-hour session focuses on a topic related to the two targeted risk factors – fathers’ involvement and parenting (4 sessions) and couple relationship and co-parenting quality (5 sessions) – and three content areas closely related to these risk factors: fostering parents’ well-¬being as individuals (3 sessions); preventing the transmission of negative intergenerational parenting cycles (2 sessions); and finding help in dealing with external stresses (including employment) and building more social support (2 sessions).

If we think of types of group process on a continuum ranging from open-ended group therapy on one end to didactic psychoeducational skills training on the other end, our intervention is located in-between. Clinically trained co-leaders teach parenting or couple communication skills in the context of a setting in which partners are encouraged to examine their ideas and goals, confide rather than attack or withdraw from each other when they disagree, and rely on each other and the group for help and support to try more effective problem solving strategies — all with the goal of trying to move closer to the partners and parents they hope to be. Although topics are offered by the group leaders from the curriculum, much of the explicit content originates from the parents themselves. We believe that this is why the program has been helpful to couples from varied economic and ethnic backgrounds (see M. Pruett et al., 2009). Our goals were to provide fathers and mothers with a space in which they could be more reflective about themselves and their relationship with each other and their child (see Fearon et al., 2006, for a discussion of how parents’ self-reflection and mentalizing fosters behavioral change in parenting).

SFI is the first evidence-based program designed for families from various cultural backgrounds that reaches fathers by also reaching mothers or other co-parents.  When either parent cannot attend, the other parent is encouraged to bring a co-parent (relative, friend, etc.) with whom they could share parenting responsibilities.

Research Underlying the SFI Program

The Supporting Father Involvement intervention was developed through The Supporting Father Involvement Program, a research and intervention study that began in 2003 in Family Resource Centers in five California counties. The program was based on earlier studies showing the importance of fathers’ positive involvement for children’s and families’ healthy development and well-being, and it was developed by researcher-clinicians with extensive experience in family-based preventive interventions. With funding from the California Office of Child Abuse Prevention in the Department of Social Services, the program was designed and carried out through a partnership among the Department of Social Services, local Family Resource Centers, and University faculty (University of California, Yale, and Smith College).

The Supporting Father Involvement Program represents the first randomized, controlled clinical trial focused on father involvement in low-and middle-income families, and in community agencies serving families.

SFI participants were recruited in urban and rural areas, with primarily Hispanic but also Caucasian and African American families. Over 800 families have participated in California. The first evaluation study of SFI compared father-only and father-mother interventions with each other and against a control group, and evaluated the impacts on families and children in the five targeted family life domains: individual, couple, parenting, families of origin, and outside stresses and social supports (e.g., employment).  In addition to evaluating the effects of the intervention on the participants, the study assessed changes in outreach to fathers and in the provision of services to support fathers’ role in family life at each Family Resource Center and its affiliated local, county, and state agencies.

Foundational Research Prior to SFI

The SFI Program was based on previous research by two of the designers of SFI (Drs. Philip and Carolyn Cowan), who demonstrated the importance of involved fathering on the lives of families through two studies of working- and middle-class couples – the Becoming a Family Project for couples making the transition to parenthood and the Schoolchildren and their Families Project for parents with a first child making the transition to elementary school. Both of these earlier intervention studies compared the well-being and distress over time of randomly assigned couples group participants and similar couples with no intervention. Results revealed that couples groups for parents of young children, meeting weekly with clinically trained leaders over four months to work on challenging family issues, had long-term positive effects on the quality of the parents’ relationships as couples, their parenting and co-parenting strategies, and the children’s adaptation from kindergarten through high school. A third study, The Collaborative Divorce Project, led by Dr. Marsha Kline Pruett, revealed positive effects of similarly structured professionally led groups during or after divorce; parents’ cooperation increased, conflict levels declined, and the fathers’ involvement with their children increased.

The SFI Research Program

Phase I (Cowan, Cowan, Pruett, Pruett, & Wong, 2009) included 289 families, mostly low-income and Mexican-American, with youngest children aged birth to 7 years (average age 2.3 years), and with no open Child Protective Services case within the last year. The results have been reported at a number of scientific meetings in the U.S. and abroad and in four published papers describing the qualitative and quantitative results.

The findings are clearly positive, particularly for participants in the couples groups.

  • For parents in the control condition (a single meeting focused on the importance of fathers for children’s development), father involvement remained stable, couple relationship satisfaction declined, and parents described their children as having significantly more internalizing and externalizing behavior problems over 18 months.
  • According to parent reports, men and their partners in the fathers groups did not show the same increase in stress and anxiety over time that the control couples did, and their children did not show increases in problem behaviors as the control couples’ children did. Fathers and mothers satisfaction with their relationship went down in comparison to the couples groups where it remained unchanged.
  • Parents in the couples groups showed (1) significantly increased father involvement in care of the children and psychological involvement in parenthood, (2) couple satisfaction maintained over time (when it typically declines), (3) lower parenting stress, (4) no increases in their children’s problem behavior (aggression/ hyperactivity or social withdrawal) compared to children of parents in the control condition, and (5) couples also reported using fewer violent problem solving strategies.
  • The intervention effects reported above held across ethnic group membership, income level, and marital status, and were maintained 2.5 years after entering the study.
  • During the first year, the agencies housing the SFI Project showed a significant improvement in their reputation for serving fathers, father-inclusive policies and procedures, the staff’s preparation to provide services to fathers, and programs for fathers. These positive changes were maintained over the next five years.

Both intervention groups reduced risk factors that research shows are directly related to child abuse and neglect.

Phase II (Cowan, Cowan Pruett, Pruett, & Gillette, 2014) of the study involved adding 257 new families to the SFI Program, including an African American sample of families.  The composition of the new Phase II families did not necessarily include two biological parents and the age of the children ranged from birth to 11.  In Phase II, there was no control condition, but we used the data from Phase 1, the randomized control trial, as a benchmark comparison.

  • Of 11 measures in the Phase II study, 10 revealed statistically significant positive changes. Father involvement increased for couples group participants. These couples showed positive changes on six measures that were statistically similar to Phase I results (decline in parenting stress, psychological symptoms, and both partners reported a significant reduction in avoidant patterns and violent problem solving behavior, such as yelling, throwing things, and slamming doors, when they disagreed with each other; stability in couple relationship satisfaction, and stability in children’s aggression/hyperactivity and social withdrawal.
  • Three of the findings should be underlined: (1) Both men and women maintained their relationship satisfaction over 18 months; (2) both partners reported a significant reduction in avoidant patterns and violent problem solving behavior, such as yelling, throwing things, and slamming doors, when they disagreed with each other; and (3) family income increased significantly over the course of the study. By repeating, and sometimes exceeding the positive results from Phase I, the Phase II results reinforced the conclusion that the Supporting Father Involvement intervention was effective in enhancing fathers’ engagement with their children and improving relationships in the family as a whole.

Phase III of the Supporting Father Involvement Program began in July of 2009 in the original five counties. The goal in this phase was to offer help to families who had already come in contact with the Child Welfare System because of concern about the children’s well-being – to determine whether the SFI Program benefits families encountering greater stress and challenges than those who had already found the program helpful.

About to be published results from Phase III are similarly promising:

  • The intervention effects in phase 3 were tested by examining the differences at the 18-month post-test between families who took part in an SFI group immediately and those who were not offered a group until seven months after their initial assessments (a delay control group). Preliminary analyses are showing that the earlier results hold up with these families too, with even stronger positive results for couples referred by Child Protective Services staff. The intervention appears to reduce risk factors commonly associated with domestic violence and child abuse: alcohol use, couple conflict, violent problem solving (yelling, throwing things, hitting), parenting stress, harsh parenting, and children’s behavior problems. And, here too, the CPS-referred couples who participated in the intervention increased their annual household incomes, whereas those in the delay condition did not.
  • Agencies housing the SFI program showed another increase in father-friendliness and father-inclusiveness five years after the program began, indicating that the positive changes reported in Phase I took a deeper hold on the agencies.

The results of all three phases confirm that both the couples and fathers group interventions – especially the couples groups – are effective with families from a range of ethnic backgrounds, income levels, and levels of risk (K. Pruett, Pruett, Cowan, & Cowan, 2016; M. Pruett, Pruett, Cowan, & Cowan, 2017).

  SFI Replications: National and International

The Supporting Father Involvement intervention model has been implemented in Hartford, CT and is being launched in four new California communities: San Francisco, Orange County, and Santa Cruz, and San Luis Obispo. It has been incorporated into Calgary, Alberta communities in Canada and into programs for low-income families in London and many other UK settings.