Dr. Charles C. Daniels Jr. believes that one of the best ways to support children growing up in fatherless homes is to support their fathers. Towards that end he has launched a successful, evidence-informed approach and the country’s first mental health clinic focused on fathers. By shifting our paradigms for support, spreading the model nationwide, and serving thousands of dads directly, he’s changing countless lives and our culture of care, too.
The New Idea
It’s clear that children growing up in fatherless homes face lifelong adversity. But what if these physically “absent” fathers could nonetheless be emotionally present, available, and supportive? Simply asking this question is a break from the traditional approach. When Dr. Charles C. Daniels Jr. realized that our social services sector systematically fails children by neglecting to helpfully engage their fathers, he set about developing and deploying an effective, evidenced-based solution, one that draws strength from new-and-improved group therapy, holistic coaching, and re-trained social workers and therapists. And he’s proven – through the first clinic in the country to provide mental health counseling, coaching, and advocacy to assist fathers – that helping struggling fathers overcome the barriers, past traumas, and current conditions that prevent them from remaining engaged in their children's lives is an extremely effective, albeit overlooked, intervention.
Within his approach is another important shift: he prioritizes “self-parenting skills” to promote fathers’ healthy regulation of emotions and management of stress. Rather than starting by asking more of men with children, his work first ensures fathers’ own wholeness and wellness are addressed. In American culture, given the way masculinity is currently constructed, it’s safe to say that all dads could use a bit of grace and guidance here. But fathers who are caught up in the U.S. justice system face even longer roads back to repair with their kids, and statistically speaking are far more likely to have experienced hurdles like racism, poverty, trauma, and addiction. Charles therefore deliberately focuses on fathers with incarceration histories. Not only does his success with this most disadvantaged group show the program’s viability, but it helps a large group of dads who are especially hurting.
Charles believes that all estranged fathers across the country are capable of embracing self-care and re-engaging with their children over the long-term. To achieve this goal, then, Charles not only serves thousands of men in Massachusetts directly each year, but he knows he needs to re-tool the helping professions of clinical therapy and social work so that they can better support men with children. Towards this end, he’s building this field nationally by licensing his model to other non-profit clinics and agencies while also designing and offering online continued education and certification courses for social workers anywhere. Individually, thousands now have the chance to assess and improve their work with dads and families. And collectively, Charles is exposing how outdated and biased our notions of fatherhood are in the human services field (and beyond) and how we can – and must – change course.
Twenty million children in the U.S. are growing up without an active and engaged father in their household. The U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data clearly show that children from fatherless homes are four times more likely to be raised in poverty, ten times more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, nine times more likely to drop out of school, and far more likely to suffer from health and emotional problems. More than 70% of adolescents in juvenile correctional facilities come from fatherless homes, and 70% of teen pregnancies are to girls in fatherless homes.
Given the current hardship and lifelong disadvantage these children face, social services flow to these children and their single mothers. While this reaction is obvious and well-intentioned, since these negative outcomes are clearly linked – year after year - to the lack of an active and engaged father, the root of the problem and the dire social and economic outcomes remain unaddressed.
Part of the problem here is that the human services sector has operated too narrowly around the “household” family unit, ignoring or overlooking the fact that “home” and “family” can (and ideally does) extend far beyond those with whom you share four walls.
Another challenge is that, in largely leaving the absent fathers out of the equation, society and the human services sector have unfortunately signaled that we are fine with the idea of the “deadbeat dad,” and in employing “either / or thinking” in determining who deserves our compassion and societal support, or not. In this current calculus, empathy and resources flow to moms and kids but not to dads. Why not both?
Systemic racism and the criminalization of black, male bodies is clearly at play here. So too are ideas, attitudes, expectations, and policies around masculinity, self-sufficiency, poverty, mental health, addiction, and the like. Today these biases are so entrenched in our culture and the landscape of societal support that someone who finds himself at the intersection of these stigmatized identities – someone like a young, poor, Black father with an incarceration history and some unresolved personal trauma – will paradoxically receive a smaller share of services and support, to say nothing of empathy and compassion. To drive this point home, consider this: there are only a handful of homeless shelters nationwide with spaces designed for single dads with children, despite estimates that as many as 15% of parents in single-adult, homeless families are fathers.
Where programming is designed for fathers, the message is universally to encourage better and more active fathering. The implicit message across all these efforts is that fathers must do more for others. Even in popular culture, advice for new dads is to “be there for your partner, be there for your kids.” Parenting programs teach dads how to change diapers and take care of others. There are parenting support groups, fathers groups, and pride-in-Black-fathering groups around the country. But these all tend to be programs you opt into, and assume an ability, willingness, and even eagerness to engage as an active father. If you have the time and energy to work on being a better dad, there is a group out there where you can pick up tips and tricks.
Finding therapy and emotional support programming for men in general and struggling fathers in particular is another story. The little that is on offer is hard to access and falls prey to similar masculine biases and stigmas, with an emphasis on “anger management,” but never – as Charles will point out - “sadness management” or how to deal with overwhelm, depression, or even joy or happiness.
Even where programs do exist explicitly for disengaged, estranged, or “absent” fathers with poor coping strategies and histories of trauma, they put more demands on these men in challenging them to show up for their kids. And for those who don’t ‘willingly’ step up to the plate? Laws in this country ensure that working dads at least support their children financially. All of which is an understandable response. But Charles believes that when we lead with asking for more of struggling fathers, we fail. And for every generation we get this wrong, these failures and their impact on future dads compounds.
Charles believes that our problems start when we write off “absent,” “deadbeat” fathers and apply band-aid solutions only elsewhere. Over the years - including at times throughout his own childhood - he’s wondered how things might be different if we as a society supported the dads, too.
Indeed, Charles himself grew up in a fatherless home. And so did his wife and Fathers’ Uplift co-founder Samantha. Now while they both grew up without their dad’s at home, the fact that Samantha was still able to experience her father as a long-distance but nurturing and supportive force in her life – and reap all the emotional and life-long benefits – fascinated Charles. And to Charles’ family’s credit, while he didn’t have his dad around, his grandmother, mother, and others instilled in him a strong sense that home and family is a much bigger concept than just the people who share your address. Over time, what Charles realized was that while many absent dads today are currently stuck (for all kinds of reasons), a more expansive view of home and a flexible framework for how to be an engaged father can nonetheless help far more dads have a meaningful presence and positive impact in the lives of their children.
Charles knows that to even have a hope of asking more of these dads, he had to first acknowledge the major but often overlooked (or ignored) barriers that absent fathers face starting with stressors connected to racism, masculine stereotypes, and histories of trauma including – often – their own experience of fatherlessness. And on top of this, incarceration and the shame and stigma associated with it intensifies these negative impacts. So while these nuanced insights can improve all fatherhood programming, Charles is focused explicitly on Black fathers caught up in the justice system because, as he states in the introduction to his PhD dissertation on efficacy of his novel approach and the focus on this particular (and statistically significant) demographic, “Black fathers with histories of incarceration and trauma have multiple stressors that interfere with their ability to navigate life in the community, parent their children, and develop self-parenting skills that promote healthy regulation of their emotions.”
To make the case for helping dad, Charles first needed to prove to the social services sector that focusing on these dads, addressing their histories of trauma, and improving their overall wellbeing was worthwhile and effective. In 2010 he developed the novel approach and clinical model and in 2014 set up the first non-profit outpatient mental health center for child, paternal health, and male engagement to advance it. Then, just this year, he used his PhD program and dissertation to rigorously evaluate and defend his novel approach as an “Evidenced Informed Fatherhood Program (EIFP) that was proven to measurably reduce recidivism and life distress while increasing parental engagement, emotional regulation, and basic need attainment.” In all this he’s proven that “improving these skills has potential to put fathers in control of their response to life distress instead of feeling controlled by life distress.”
Men engage with Fathers’ Uplift as part of a “village” of other fathers, ambassadors, and clinicians. (The ambassadors are fathers who’ve benefited from the program and stick around to continue to get and offer support, like an AA “sponsor.”) The Fathers’ Uplift social workers and clinicians specialize in trauma, group counseling, individual counseling, and child and family counseling and provide clinical support to fathers and their families. They also lead fathers’ retreats and provide coaching to fathers to help them overcome the challenges and barriers they may encounter that would prevent them from remaining engaged in their children’s lives.
New dads can join the “village” at any time, and those coming from the prison system or with case managers will often have time-bound case management plans and state funding that contributes to Fathers’ Uplifts’ costs. But even when their “cases” close and funding dries up, the dads are able and encouraged to stay part of the Fathers’ Uplift village, unlike more transactional support services that end. Individual coaching to compliment group work is also offered. Not only do increasing numbers of state insurance programs reimburse for this mental health offering, but Charles was just able to secure a commitment from national insurance provider Beacon Health Options that they, too, will treat recovery coaching offered by a Fathers’ Uplifted licensed coach as reimbursable.
There currently aren’t any competitors in the field of paternal health and mental health. Fathers’ Uplift is the first agency in the country offering clinical services to offer services to guide both men and families through three stages of fatherhood: pre-father education, fatherhood preparation, and fatherhood re-engagement. While there are agencies that provide mental health services and weeks-long parenting programs exclusively, specifically psychiatric services, family partner stabilization and therapeutic mentoring services, Fathers’ Uplift is leading the field of paternal health and mental health.
To date 6,000 fathers in Massachusetts have participated, with 95% of those served reporting improved sense of self and improved relations with their kids. Over a one-year engagement with a cohort of 80 ex-offenders, three quarters did not return to prison while in the Fathers’ Uplift programs, saving the public over $1.22M in tax dollars from those fathers who did not recidivate. Charles’ work, now, is to spread the model to other geographies and to systematically re-direct current support systems (mental health providers, social workers, state-funded insurance programs, etc) so that they increasingly focus “upstream” on these men’s own experiences and traumas first, and then help them help others.
According to Charles, “our approach is extremely unique in that we treat fatherlessness and potential disconnects or barriers between fathers and their children as root contributors to mental health, for better or worse. By addressing a father’s presence (or lack thereof) as a root contributor to mental health and long-term wellness, we are able to lessen societal ills that are massively contributed to by disconnections between fathers and their families. We’ve found that our interventions are also a natural fit for returning citizens, as mending and building relationships with family provide powerful incentives to reform and set habits to pursue a meaningful personal future, leading to significantly lower recidivism rates among the men we serve.”
How does the Fathers’ Uplift model address a barrier like unhealthy masculinities in our culture? In general, Charles believes that there is only so much you can learn from a book, so in challenging barriers like this the Fathers’ Uplift approach encourages hands-on practicing of new ways of being: “hugging our guys, telling them that we love them, remembering birthdays, and sending texts to say that we are thinking of them” (and in all of that, building up muscles that these dads can flex when showing affection for their own kids in meaningful ways). And while their group work will touch on anger management, Charles believes it’s important to understand that ideas about masculinity influence the full range of other emotions, too. So they work on how to manage sadness, depression, anxiety, joy, and happiness. In fact, Charles points out that, “a lot of our guys don’t deal well with happiness, because they don’t recognize it or know how to trust it.” In that case, clinicians will remind these dads that they won’t feel happy all they time, but it’s helpful to understand where it’s coming from and okay to enjoy it when it’s happening.
This year Fathers' Uplift has begun state-by-state licensing to partners in states that already reimburse for mental health care. (In states where these services are still not covered, they indirectly offer advocates a compelling case for what could be on offer.) The “licensee” in this case is an individual who’s likely already in an organization or men-serving role, but who feels their current curriculum or approach isn’t going far enough. After a recruitment and engagement period, Charles expects 15 new organizations or agencies to license Fathers’ Uplift in 2021, which means they will pay a licensing fee and then have access to trainings, materials, and support, and submit updates and information on a quarterly basis. Going forward, Fathers' Uplift will also continue to build the field by offering online continuing course credits to accredited social workers. The course covers the specifics of the Father’s Uplift approach, but also general guidance on how to engage men of color. This is critical because white women make up the majority of the mental health field, and the average social worker not only works directly with an average of 25-30 families but makes recommendations and care plans that can have life-long impacts on Black families.
Charles’ vision is that all fathers coming home from incarceration (and in general!) have a community to go to, meaning that there is a Fathers’ Uplift “village” in every state run by licensees, plus – over time - Fathers’ Uplift hub offices in larger cities like DC, Baltimore, Providence, LA, and Atlanta. At this level of penetration of this father-centric approach, Charles believes that the rest of the human services sector will be positively influenced by rethinking notions of the nuclear family, the household, deservedness, and, indeed, contemporary fatherhood.
Charles considers the founding of Fathers’ Uplift to be the result of a “courageous act of love.” While he harbored resentment and hurt feelings over the absence of his own father in his life, he allowed himself to consider “the things he was going through that prevented him from remaining active in my life.” This led Charles to wonder what might have been different if someone had been there to help his dad. “Looking back, I realized that if someone had been there to help my father overcome [his] barriers, it might have made a tremendous difference in both of our lives. That’s exactly the sort of difference Fathers’ Uplift is designed to deliver.”
Charles initially started Fathers’ Uplift as a weekly initiative based at The Dimock Center Head Start program in Massachusetts focused on supporting low-income fathers as they work to remain engaged in their children’s lives. Insights from his wife about the impact of long-distance fathers and a growing awareness of the extra stress of incarceration on absent fathers further informed the Fathers’ Uplift approach, resulting in what it is today.
In addition to developing, deploying, and now licensing the model and offering training to social workers nationwide, Charles has throughout the years maintained his focus on the 20 million children growing up in a home without a father across the country and presented his novel approach to groups around the country. He’s the author of a book on “pre-natal care for fathers” and just completed his PhD as an effort to shore up his approach. When he was getting started the funding landscape wasn’t geared towards working with older Black men, fatherhood as a topic was not popular, and they were the first to break open up funding from state contracts and insurance reimbursement for these professional help services.
He and his with Samantha have two children (and by all accounts he’s a great dad).