Fighting for Parenting Time: The Myth of Fragile Families

By Robert Ferrer

Archivist and Principle Researcher, Children’s Rights Council of Illinois

I mentioned in my previous column how misinformation prevails among those who are responsible for the next generation of policy in family law even though they claim that their views are formed after “careful study.”

Objections to a proposal for a rebuttable presumption of 35% parenting time came mainly from those who pointed out that more than 35% of births are now from unwed parents.

That is true. It is a growing trend especially among poor minorities (Pew Research Center Report 2007).

However, what is not true is their characterization of these “Fragile Families.”

They claimed that for “Fragile Families”:

  • More than 70% of fathers from this group are not in a relationship with the mother at the time of birth.
  • Fathers from this group are deadbeats; they would not know what to do with the time.
  • As a result, having such a presumption would  be a disaster, especially  for low-income people

I was particularly interested in the first comment. I asked for the source of information. I was told that it was reported from one of the neutral exchange site coordinators in DuPage County, Illinois.

I would like to share with you some of the research I’ve done in reviewing the current literature on “Fragile Families.” You’ll see why I found the comments made above by our policymakers disconcerting.

Let’s start with a few salient points. These points are derived from two articles from the 5th edition of “The Role of the Father in Child Development” edited my Michael E. Lamb.  One is “Fathers in Fragile Families” by Carlson and the other is by Tamis-Lemonda and McFadden: “Fathers from Low-Income Backgrounds, Myths and Evidence.”


Myth: Unmarried dads are not interested in being involved with their children.

“In terms of fathers’ presence and interaction with children, at the time of their baby’s birth, most unmarried fathers are around and want to be involved in their child’s life.” (Carlson, p. 256)

“The pervasive characterization of low-income fathers as deadbeat has been invalidated by studies that find the majority of low-income fathers to be highly accessible to their children and involved in a range of activities with them, ranging from bathing and feeding to play and reading. Moreover, relatively high rates of father involvement are also displayed by fathers who do not reside with their children, although the quality of the mother-father relationship can alter these patterns.” (Tamis-Lemonda, p.306)


Myth: Fathers from “fragile families”/”low income” are unimportant to the child’s development.

“In terms of low-income fathers’ influence in children’s development, studies over the past 2 decades highlight the importance of positive father involvement for virtually all aspects of children’s development.” (Amato & Gilbreth, 1999; Barth & Parke, 1996; Belsky, 1996; Clarke-Stewart, 1980; Furstenberg & Harris, 1993; Lamb, 1981; 1997; Parke, 1996; 2002; TamisLeMonda & Cabrera, 2002; Yeung, Duncan, & Hill, 2000)

“Children who grow up without a father in the home are at risk for low school achievement, school dropout, delinquency, and other problem behaviors.” (Furstenberg & Harris, 1993; McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994; Perl off & Buckner, 1996)


Myth: These fathers do not value marriage.

“Contrary to popular perceptions that unmarried parents are not interested in family commitment, most unmarried fathers say that they value marriage, expect to marry the baby’s mother, and want to be involved in rearing their children. These hopes and positive attitudes provide an encouraging starting point from which policy could help unmarried parents strengthen their family relationships.” (Carlson, p.262)

The main idea is that the same diversity that characterizes U.S. fathers applies to fathers from “fragile families.” The problem is that popular beliefs about these fathers tend to depict them uniformly in a negative context.

I know there are instances where there is no bond (or desire for one) between a parent and child. However, it would be inaccurate to say “parentage case = disinterested parent.”

In fact, studies on fragile families make the contrary finding. For example, never married African-American nonresident fathers are more involved with their children than are nonresident fathers of other races (Maldonado, p. 1007).

According to policymakers, however, African-American fathers are the most absent, abandoning their children at disproportionately high rates and never looking back.

Why are policymakers unaware of the higher rate of paternal involvement amongst low-income, nonresident African-American fathers?

Could it be that in compensation for not being able to make monetary payments many support their children by making in-kind contributions and by parenting them? (Note: Please see Maldonado’s seminal article “Deadbeat or Deadbroke” for a discussion on this. The report from Iowa State on non-pecuniary support from low-income parents is also instructive.)

The problem is that the state doesn’t value non-pecuniary contributions as “child support.”  Interestingly, many African-American mothers would rather forego child support than lose the presence of the father due to fear of incarceration by the state for arrears (Maldonado, p. 1014).

Ironically, even when the father pays child support the mother rarely sees the money since it is used to reimburse the state for welfare (Maldonado, p. 1016).


So what can we do via policy?

For me, two things stand out from the literature.

1. Most of these fathers are present at baby’s birth; and

2. Most of these fathers are in a romantic relationship with the mother at time of birth.

It makes sense that the best time to intercede would be at birth.

How about at the hospital a social worker meets with the couple to establish paternity (Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity), explain the legal process, provide information regarding available resources, and if not cohabitating, set-up a temporary visitation schedule and assess temporary child support – both non-pecuniary and pecuniary, where possible.

Since the literature confirms that there are many benefits for children having the full participation of both parents as well as many challenges facing these families the social worker can play a helpful role by maintaining a continuing relationship with the new family.

If the factors that prevent stable family formation can be addressed it seems that the relationship between the mother and father can be strengthened (perhaps leading to marriage?), and thus result in a healthier environment for the child.

I hope the above gets the conversation going.


shared parenting advocateMy name is Robert Ferrer. I am a researcher and archivist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Although it is in Computer Science, I also apply the same heuristic principles in my interests in child development and family law. As such I’ve been working with the Children’s Rights Council of Illinois and Illinois Fathers in providing the background information in law and child development research for various endeavors. I have been collecting, reading and pondering the wealth of information dealing with divorce and children from many perspectives, including child development, family studies and law.

I’ve been attending the sessions of the Illinois Family Law Study Committee where they are currently reviewing current statutes for massive revisions. I’ve been in communications with many of its members and have established a collegial relationship. I have attended conferences on Contemporary Families, PAS and ADR. I have written several proposals in the attempt to mitigate parental loss, more fully integrating current research with proposed policy.

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14 comments on “Fighting for Parenting Time: The Myth of Fragile Families

    Excellent article and well supported. Unfortunately, myths/stereotypes often prevail in both policy making and the courtroom, despite research to the contrary. Additionally, there are well funded special interest groups and political pressures that guide legislation. All these make it difficult, even for the best legislation, to come to a vote.

    All I can suggest, go to your elected official, well armed with research, and press the facts.

    “Myth” = Stereotyping of fathers at the cost of children
    It is the 21st century and our society is progressing, laws should not be based on myths.

    Good, well supported refutation of of myths
    Well written, well researched and so clearly another chink in the armor of “genereally held’ misconceptions regarding father’s involvment in their children’s lives

    “Myth” = Stereotyping of fathers at the cost of children
    It is the 21st century and our society is progressing, laws should not be based on myths.

    Child Support & Visistation rights
    First and foremost NOT All fathers are dead bit dads. The circumstances of not being married and having a child out of wedlock already place a negative cloud above you. The court system isn’t perfect but must understand that there are fathers like myself who work hard and is providing child support through the courts to my child and still the mother find excuses for me not to spend quality time with my child. She will lie just to keep my child from me. I love my daughter dearly and since I reside in NY and my daughter in Florida, makes it twice hard for me to see her! But when i decide to spend some quality time alone with my daughter now 7 1/2 years old , the mother resist our meeting together, claiming that I’m a stranger to my child which is false! I need advice and help on that matter!:(

    Robert, Thanks for the putting out this EXTREMELY good information.

    I can’t even comprehend how a statement such as “Most fathers would not know what to do if given more time with their children ” can be taken into consideration by policy makers. Appalling !

    Fit, able and caring fathers go out of their way, put careers on hold and give up a lot to be with their children.

    [b]Policies based on misinformed information ultimately hurts children in every aspect.[/b]

    “Myth” = Stereotyping of fathers at the cost of children
    It is the 21st century and our society is progressing, laws should not be based on myths.

    Executive Director/Founder
    Thanks so much for the vital information,Robert. It mirrors much of what I’ve known for over 20 years working with disadvantaged African-American fathers. Your input certanly helps to dispel those stereo-typing myths.

    I appreciate your column. Keep up the good work.[i][/i]

    Archivist and Principal Researcher, CRC-IL
    Dear General:

    You hit the nail on the head. Furthermore, popular beliefs tend to be very persistent even in the face of contradictory facts.

    Check out: New Federalism: National Survey of America’s Families. The Urban Institute, Series B, No. B-44, March 2002. Table 2. Proportion of Children Living with Single Mother Who Visited their Nonresident Fathers in the Previous Year. Ethnicity: Hispanic 55%, African-American 73%, White 63%.

    “Myth” = Stereotyping of fathers at the cost of children
    It is the 21st century and our society is progressing, laws should not be based on myths.

    This is an excellent article but you still didn’t answer the question:

    “Why are policymakers unaware of the higher rate of paternal involvement amongst low-income, nonresident African-American fathers?”

    Although policymaker’s may not realize In-Kind contributions (they should because during the divorce settlement these same activities are valued in dividing assets), they still refuse to ackowledge evidence and research when presented to them.

    I don’t think they are unaware of the higher rates of involvement of fathers. I think they just refuse to acknowledge any all information that is contrary to policies they have already set in place for whatever their reasons may be.

    Beating back the myths
    Thanks Robert, for shedding some light on this prevailing set of myths about ‘paternity dads’!! Much appreciated!

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