Evaluating the Impact of Father Involvement Programming: The SFI Model

By The SFI Development & Evaluation Team
Carolyn Pape Cowan, PhD and Philip A. Cowan, PhD, University of California, Berkeley

Marsha Kline Pruett, PhD, ABPP, Smith College School of Social Work

Kyle D. Pruett, MD, Yale School of Medicine

As we celebrate Men’s Health Month and Father’s Day, there is no better time than the present to consider the unique impact of a positively engaged father on child, maternal, family, and community health. A growing body of research points to the beneficial outcomes of father involvement; however, the majority of programs that serve families with young children, especially low-income families, tend to focus almost exclusively on mothers. Agencies and organizations serving the MCH community may wish to consider their father-friendliness and how they enable father involvement to maximize program outcomes. This article describes the Supporting Father Involvement (SFI) Program, a practice and research intervention currently being disseminated across the state of California and internationally, as a method of fostering organizational development and growth for agencies and professionals serving at-risk families.

The SFI Program began in 2003 as a research and intervention study in five counties in California. It is the first systematically evaluated father involvement intervention program using a randomized clinical trial design, created specifically for low-income families from various cultural backgrounds. The study was funded by the California Department of Social Services, Office of Child Abuse Prevention and the implementation of the intervention includes a partnership between the agency and local Family Resource Centers and university faculty (University of California, Berkeley, Yale and Smith College). The program is based on the fundamental belief that most fathers wish to be positively involved in their child’s life, and is guided by five interconnected family domains:

  1. Individual characteristics of the parents
  2. Parent-child relationship quality
  3. Couple or co-parenting relationship quality
  4. Intergenerational transmission of family patterns [parent-child involvement] and relationships
  5. External influences, such as employment, and the balance between life stresses (especially those outside of the family) and social supports

The intervention is a 32-hour curriculum, typically delivered over 16 weeks for groups that include either only fathers or couples. It is designed for agencies serving primarily low-income families, delivered by experienced clinicians and case managers and coordinated by designated program staff. The SFI curriculum includes activities, discussions, and open-ended time for participants to raise immediate concerns for group discussion and problem solving. Demonstrating a core value of the program, group leaders do not prescribe specific behaviors for men and women as partners or as parents. Instead, they offer a group environment in which partners can explore their own preferences, goals and ways of relating to each other as partners and parents based on their own culture and values.

The intervention study 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 domains. 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 the father role in family life at each Family Resource Center and its affiliated local, county, and state agencies.

The multiphase research study has enrolled nearly 900 families and findings from the study have been published in peer-reviewed journals. In summary, the team found that parents participating in the groups experience reduced stress and anxiety, are more satisfied with their relationship, and employ less harsh discipline. Additionally, their children become less hyperactive and aggressive than the children of parents in the control group. Of those families that participated in the third phase of the study, which included families referred to the Child Welfare System, preliminary results suggest that participation in the groups resulted in significant decreases in couple violence and harsh parenting, and a breaking of the connection between substance use and marital difficulties. These findings are consistent with studies showing the importance of fathers’ positive involvement for children’s and families’ healthy development and well-being. Agencies housing the SFI project have shown a number of positive changes maintained over multiple years, including improvement in reputation for serving fathers, father-inclusive policies and procedures, and staff preparation to provide services to fathers.

The success of the program has led to a statewide dissemination effort, as well as interest from international governments for its replication. For example, the British government recently decided to fund the implementation of the program in five boroughs of London, and a public-private partnership in Alberta, Canada has funded the program in four provincial sites, with two additional sites implementing the program on their own resources. Today, agencies may contact the SFI program to learn how to participate on multiple levels, including networking, organizational assessments and technical assistance regarding father-friendliness and formal training on implementing the SFI program, including the fathers and couples groups. The program dissemination in California is managed by Strategies, and the SFI Research and Development Team supports dissemination in states and countries outside of California.

To learn more about how you can become involved in the SFI Program and engage fathers in your MCH efforts, contact Danny Molina, statewide project manager, Drs. Phil and Carolyn Cowan or Drs. Kyle and Marsha Pruett.

To learn more about AMCHP work in father involvement or to share related projects or suggestions, please contact Andria Cornell, program manager, women’s and infant health.