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Fathers’ Views on the Intervention Approach Adopted in the Relais-Pères Project and Its Perceived Effects

The Relais-Pères project proposes an innovative approach to reaching out to and supporting fathers in vulnerable circumstances. Despite the often serious difficulties they may face, such fathers take active steps to improve their situation when provided with informal, flexible, personalized support involving social interchange with a male support worker.

Gamache, Isabelle*, Dubeau, Diane,** Turcotte, Geneviève***

*UQÀM-UQO Joint Program

** Université du Québec en Outaouais

*** Centre Jeunesse de Montréal-Institut Universitaire


Fathers’ Views on the Intervention Approach Adopted in the Relais-Pères Project and Its Perceived Effects

Abstract

Objective: The objective of this study was to gather fathers’ views on their participation in the Relais-Pères project in order to take a critical look at the approach. Methods: This was a qualitative study using thematic life stories to identify participants’ views on: 1) their situation prior to intervention; 2) the support provided by visiting fathers; 3) the changes they observed following intervention; and 4) the role of the intervention process in the changes observed. After an initial inter-subject analysis underscored participant heterogeneity, it seemed more profitable to adopt an intra-subject analysis approach in order to develop a father typology. Results: Three father profiles were identified based on the comments of the 11 fathers interviewed: new immigrant fathers, fathers in crisis and fathers seeking greater social integration. However, there was a certain consensus among all the fathers as to the specific qualities that distinguished this intervention approach from others: the use of male support workers, personalized intervention, the reciprocal nature of discussions, and the informal nature of the intervention approach. Conclusion: The common characteristics identified by participants raise questions about the current range of services and the training provided to workers, and how to improve outreach and support for fathers in vulnerable circumstances.

Key words: Relais-Pères project, fathers in vulnerable circumstances, paternal engagement, intervention with fathers.


Fathers’ Views on the Intervention Approach Adopted in the Relais-Pères Project and Its Perceived Effects

The father, long neglected by the scientific community, is now increasingly considered a full-fledged member of the family (Pleck & Masciadrelli, 2004). Over the past thirty years, studies on fatherhood have shown increased paternal engagement to be beneficial not only to children’s cognitive, emotional and social development, but also to the well-being of the different family members (Lamb, 2004). These observations demonstrate that fathers play an important role in prevention as well as in child adjustment (Dubeau, Devault & Forget, 2009). The relationship between paternal engagement and family well-being poses new challenges for researchers, must develop a better understanding of the factors that foster paternal engagement in order to develop intervention practices better suited to male realities. The literature on factors that may foster or hinder paternal engagement points to no single model. Rather, such engagement is the product of the complex interaction of characteristics of not only the family context, but of the social and economic contexts as well (Turcotte & Gaudet, 2009). The substantial differences observed from one family to another in the realities affecting fathers pave the way for the use of multiple intervention approaches to promote and support paternal involvement.

Despite considerable advances in our understanding of fatherhood, there is a deplorable lack of documentation on the most vulnerable fathers (Arama, 1998; Bolté, Devault, St-Denis, Gaudet, 2002; Coley, 2001, Dubeau, Villeneuve & Thibault, 2011; Forget, Devault, Allen, Bader & Jarvis, 2005 and Zaouche-Gaudron, 2007). It should also be pointed out that most research in this field has been conducted with Caucasian fathers in dual-parent families whose mid- to high socioeconomic status is not representative of the families that would benefit most from support (Dubeau et al., 2011; Lamb, 2004; Zaouche-Gaudron, 2007). In addition, recent demographic data show significant diversification in the family structure, which may have a considerable impact on fathers’ involvement in family life (Dubeau, Clément & Chamberland, 2005; Turcotte & Gaudet, 2009). Like mothers, fathers do not constitute a homogenous group of parents: there are separated or divorced fathers, adolescent fathers, immigrant fathers, gay fathers, disadvantaged fathers, etc. experiencing a broad range of realities. While researchers have recently shown noticeable interest in fathers of less traditional families, there continues to be limited data on the realities of such fathers (Dubeau et al., 2009). However, it is clear that a number of environmental determinants may act as barriers to parental engagement for vulnerable fathers.

It is important to begin by defining what is meant by fathers in vulnerable circumstances. Castel (1994) explains that the term ‘vulnerable circumstances’ was not chosen to place the emphasis on the fathers’ personal vulnerabilities but rather on the vulnerability inherent in the context of their daily lives that makes it more difficult for them to fulfill their paternal role due to obstacles arising from their life situation (e.g. poverty, immigration, isolation, etc.) The term ‘vulnerable’ was also chosen to reflect the fact that the individual father’s reality is not stable but rather evolves in tandem with his life situation.

Socio-economic insecurity also appears to increase the difficulty of fulfilling one’s paternal role (Devault, Milcent & Ouellet, 2005). Economic poverty seems to increase fathers’ levels of psychological distress, feelings of worthlessness, and propensity to view their children negatively (Devault & Gratton, 2003). Indeed, Jones (2001) considers that loss of employment and chronic unemployment increase the probability of a father adopting abusive behaviour towards his children as financial insecurity gives rise to various sources of stress. Financial insecurity can also create conflict within a couple due in part to the father’s loss of his status as the provider, while causing him to feel ashamed due to his inability to fulfill his role as provider (Tamis-LeMonda & Cabrera, 1999). Difficulty in meeting their family’s basic needs has a negative impact on fathers’ self-image and how they perceive their paternal role (Devault, Lacharité, Ouellet & Forget, 2003; Zaouche-Gaudron, 2007). Furthermore, such fathers must overcome numerous obstacles in order to be able to engage fully with their children. The principal factors mentioned in the scientific literature are: domestic disputes, non-recognition of paternity, fear of not being up to the job, substance abuse issues, the lack of financial resources and social isolation (Ouellet & Forget, 2002; Zaouche-Gaudron, 2007). The fathers have the impression of being left to their own devices in their role as a parent (Turcotte & Gaudet, 2009).

On the other hand, certain studies indicate that fatherhood is extremely important to fathers in vulnerable circumstances (Allard & Binet, 2002; Ouellet & Goulet, 1999; Zaouche-Gaudron, Euillet, Rouyer & Kettani, 2007). Many cling to the project of “being a good father”. Becoming a father creates an opportunity to change the course of their own lives. Many of them want to avoid reproducing what they experienced in their own families of origin, notably a difficult childhood and turbulent adolescence. They deeply yearn to do a better job than their own fathers, who were often absent, violent, or spurned them. Several speak of having to “invent” their role as a father, as they have never had a solid role model (Turcotte, Forget, Ouellet & Sanchez, 2009). Fatherhood is also seen by them as calling on them to become responsible. They want to take control of their lives and fulfill their financial obligations to their children. [Translation] “The role of the provider is extremely meaningful for fathers and the arrival of a child motivates them to put an end to their occupational instability” (Devault et al., 2005). Furthermore, the child’s arrival permits them to acquire a new social status, that of a father and full-fledged member of society. Some fathers say that the transformation permits them to change their perception of the way others view them. The new role instills in them a desire to become active members of society. In some cases, they adopt a more subdued lifestyle and reduce their at-risk behaviours such as driving at excessive speeds or substance abuse (Ouellet & Goulet, 1999). For most of these fathers, their children clearly seem to have given their lives meaning. It is therefore essential that those responsible for developing intervention programs be made aware of the realities of vulnerable fathers, as fatherhood would appear to be a lever for the social inclusion of such fathers.

While the field of intervention with fathers is relatively new, in recent years surveys of services, programs and projects designed to promote and support fathers’ engagement with their children have become available (Arama, 1998; Bolté, et al., 2002; Dubeau et al., 2011; Forget et al., 2005). It is clear from these field studies that projects have a greater chance of success if recruitment strategies are proactive, and intervention is personalized and builds on the father’s strengths. While organisations have developed a greater awareness of the importance of the father’s position and role in the family, major obstacles persist such as the lack of participation by fathers in programs designed for them and the difficulty of reaching fathers in vulnerable circumstances.

Examination of the documentation on intervention with fathers also points to a variety of avenues for reaching greater numbers of fathers and maintaining participation in programs (Dulac, 2002; Dubeau et al., 2011, Turcotte, Forget, Ouellet, Dubeau & Sanchez, 2012). First, workers should be educated about the male experience and more male workers should be hired as fathers identify more with other males. In addition, intervention programs designed to reach fathers should favour an approach that builds on fathers’ strengths rather than on their weaknesses and allows for sufficient scheduling flexibility to accommodate fathers with day jobs. Programs should also adopt a fairly informal approach to intervention as making a formal request for help is generally viewed by men as a sign of weakness.

In addition to having to cope with the various challenges listed above, the rare intervention programs designed specifically for fathers in vulnerable circumstances must also overcome significant hurdles. The suspicions such fathers may harbour towards services may be a deterrent to participation (Arama, 1998). One of the means suggested by some researchers for earning the trust of fathers in vulnerable circumstances is the use of a proximity approach (Turcotte et al. 2009; 2012) in which intervention is carried out by a worker with first-hand experience of the client’s lifestyle (in this case, that of a father), living in the same neighbourhood as the client, and developing activities based on the father’s immediate needs. Such fathers may also be more difficult to reach because they are isolated. To overcome this obstacle, workers must reach out to these fathers in the community so they can get to know them, create an alliance, and offer them services.

The Relais-Pères project proposes an innovative approach to reaching out to and supporting fathers in vulnerable circumstances. The approach is described as “proximity” because the workers, also known as visiting fathers (being fathers of families themselves), must become known in the community, create alliances, reach out to the fathers, support them and refer them to other services or resources based on their specific needs.

The project has been active in four Montreal neighbourhoods since 2005. It is primarily designed to operate in collaboration with the community to assist fathers of young children (0-5 years) in vulnerable circumstances. Visiting fathers provide one-on-one support targeting several determinants at once to foster paternal engagement as well as social and professional integration. Visiting fathers offer solutions to the fathers’ immediate problems and direct them to specialized resources while familiarizing community organizations with the Relais-Pères project.

The ProsPère research team with the Groupe de Recherche et d’Action sur la Victimisation des Enfants (GRAVE) has been following and documenting the project since 2006. The project’s implementation was assessed from 2006 to 2008. The assessment, which was based on interviews with visiting fathers, the steering committee and four participating fathers, had four objectives: 1) to further our scientific understanding of the intervention through a knowledge translation exercise; 2) to identify conditions for success and obstacles to the project’s implementation; 3) to assess the project’s ability to reach out to fathers in vulnerable circumstances; and 4) to establish the effects of the intervention on an initial cohort of fathers. A preliminary examination of the results of the assessment highlighted several of the project’s perceived effects. According to the visiting fathers and the four participating fathers interviewed, Relais-Pères enabled the fathers to break out of their isolation, develop social ties, and take steps to improve their living conditions and those of their family (Turcotte et al., 2009). According to those interviewed, all the fathers said they had improved their relationships with their children. While these results were promising, it was vital to obtain the point of view of the fathers who participated in the Relais-Pères project to develop a better understanding of which of the characteristics of the intervention model had made it possible to reach out to them, create and maintain relationships of trust to support them in their role as fathers, and might explain the perceived effects on their different life trajectories.

The objective of the current study was to take a critical look at the intervention approach by gathering fathers’ points of view on their participation in the Relais-Pères project. This valuable source of data would allow for triangulation of the results previously obtained from interviews with the visiting fathers. More specifically, the study’s objective was to document the effects observed by fathers in different spheres of their lives (paternal, personal, co-parenting, social and professional), and to develop hypotheses concerning the process by which these effects were produced. By acquiring a better understanding of what the fathers considered to be responsible for the changes observed in their diverse life trajectories, it would be possible to determine the program’s potential contribution and the aspects of its implementation that might explain these effects.

Methods

Research method

The present study is a qualitative study based on thematic life stories. The objective of this method of data collection is to examine the lives of the people interviewed from specific angles (Mayer & Deslauriers, 2000). By using interviews consisting of semi-open questions, it was possible to identify the views of Relais-Pères participants on the following four topics: 1) their situation before the beginning of intervention in the different spheres of their lives (paternal, personal, co-parenting, social and professional); 2) the support provided by the visiting fathers (attitudes adopted, type of intervention, facilitating factors and obstacles); 3) the changes they had observed in the different spheres of their lives since the intervention; and 4) the role of the intervention process in the changes observed.

Participants

A total of 12 interviews were carried out, but one was eliminated as the father had difficulty understanding French. Table I details the socio-demographic characteristics of the sample of fathers that took part in the study. It is important to point out here that the group of fathers who had completed high school was comprised of more immigrants than fathers born in Quebec. However, four (4) of the five (5) immigrant fathers with high-school diplomas (or higher) had not managed to have the diploma from their native country recognized in Québec. Table I shows that all the fathers had at least one child between the ages of 0 and 5 years.

Insert Table 1.

Procedure

The research discussed here is part of a larger study funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). For the purposes of a doctoral essay by the article’s lead author, however, only the interviews conducted with the fathers were examined. The study received ethics approval from the Université du Québec en Outaouais. Interviewee recruitment was conducted with the assistance of project workers, who identified the French-speaking fathers who had been followed for at least three months by one of the project’s visiting fathers, and explained to potential interviewees how the study would be conducted. Fathers who were interested in participating were asked to give their consent for their contact information to be given to the researcher, who would then contact them directly to set up an appointment.

Interviews were held at one of the community organizations affiliated with the project. Sessions began with the reading and signing of the consent form, and an explanation of the nature of the study and the importance of the fathers’ participation. Interviewees were also asked to give their authorisation for audio recording of the interview and consultation of their profile sheet. Fathers received $30 financial compensation for their participation. It should be noted that all interviews were conducted by the same person to maximize uniformity of data collection.

Data processing and analysis

All interviews were recorded, transcribed in full as soon as completed, and processed systematically using condensation procedures (Miles & Huberman, 2003) to help researchers explore each of the stories in depth and appropriate them. The condensation method involved identifying significant passages after a careful reading of the transcript by placing them in the context of the interview. The passages were then classified in a coding tree based on original and emergent themes. A memo was then written summarizing each father’s story according to the themes.

Initially, inter-subject analysis was conducted to establish how the four themes originally identified were reflected in the sample. More specifically, the analysis made it possible to detail what the lives of the 11 fathers were like before the intervention in five spheres of their lives, the support provided by the visiting fathers, the changes observed in the different spheres of their lives following the intervention, and the role of the intervention process in the observed changes. Taken as a whole, the results primarily underscored the heterogeneity of the interviewees’ answers. This finding was consistent with the intervention approach adopted for the project, which was designed to be personalized to address the individual participant’s immediate needs. It seemed that it would therefore be more profitable to conduct intra-subject analysis of all the answers provided by a single subject on different themes. A typology was elaborated based on the second analysis.

Results

Three father profiles were identified based on analysis of the contents of the interviews with the 11 fathers: new immigrant fathers (n=4), fathers in crisis (n=5) and fathers seeking greater social integration (n=2). These profiles were defined based on: 1) the socio-demographic characteristics of the father (or family); 2) the way the father had come into contact with the project; 3) the father’s principal difficulties in the five spheres of life initially identified; 4) the intervention received; and 5) the effects observed following participation in the project.

  1. New immigrant fathers (n=4)

The new immigrant fathers were of diverse origin, and had recently immigrated, having been in the country less than a year. Their average age was 41 years, making them the oldest fathers in the sample. These fathers lived with the mothers of their children, and thus had regular contact with the children. Few difficulties were reported in the co-parenting or fathering spheres of their lives. Parental roles in these families were consistent with a patriarchal family model. The mothers remained at home to raise the children while the fathers assumed the role of the provider. In general, the fathers felt they fulfilled their role adequately and did not see where there might be room for improvement other than in finding a job to enable them to meet their families’ needs. The following father’s comments are representative of this profile:

[Translation] “Because, where we come from, the woman generally is the one who looks after the kids. Here, there’s a little bit of the dad sometimes helping the mom look after the kids… Because what I’m worried about is finding a job, figuring out how to manage our budget. It’s not easy to keep from running out of money to pay the bills and the rent…” (P08)

The problems reported by this group of fathers involved the social and professional spheres of their lives. Although they had high school diplomas (or higher), their diplomas were not recognized when they arrived in Quebec, which was a handicap for them when looking for work. These fathers were in a precarious financial situation. Some had arrived in the country without a cent to their name, others with the bare minimum to be able to look after their families for a few days. They waited for their first social assistance check to find a place to live. At the start of intervention, all of these fathers were on income security, placing them below the low income cut-off, according to Statistics Canada. Furthermore, three of the fathers had arrived in Quebec without an informal social support network. They felt isolated and marginalized. They wanted to integrate into society, but did not know where to ask for help. None of these fathers knew how to find a job, as the process in Quebec was extremely different from in their countries of origin. The difficulties of integrating socially and professionally generated a certain level of psychological distress. These fathers experienced stress, discouragement, and diminished self-esteem, as they lost the status they had in their countries of origin while experiencing difficulty fulfilling their role of provider. All described this period as being very difficult. The following excerpt sums up the types of difficulties experienced by new immigrant fathers:

[Translation] “When we arrived, we lived off social assistance…But I also have to say that without social assistance, we wouldn’t have been able to manage because we didn’t have much money with us when we arrived, and one has to eat…And then, we arrived in September and it was starting to get cold. Here, it is autumn in September, that’s how it is. So, we didn’t have the proper clothes for autumn. We were in a bind, a real bind…. So, we made do with the little money we had. We got settled in. I started looking for work, but I didn’t find any.… And I was also lost socially, because I didn’t know where to go, how or what to do, or where to get information. So, that’s it more or less. We stayed at home, shut off from the world and turned in ourselves.” (P02)

Different approaches were successful in reaching out to this group of fathers. Two fathers were referred by a visiting mother, one father was reached through “reaching-out” techniques, and another through a health and social services centre (CSSS). They viewed their participation in the project as an opportunity to integrate into the community. In general, they had no qualms about receiving assistance. Intervention with these fathers focused primarily on their social and work lives. The visiting fathers introduced them to neighbourhood services as well as resources that could help them, as well as providing them with support in looking for work. Once their principal concerns had been addressed, the fathers seemed more receptive to receiving advice from visiting fathers about other spheres of their lives. One father noted that [Translation] “once the visiting father had shown that he was serious about helping him with the burden of finding himself a job” his “expectations became more about sharing experiences, seeing what he knew about family life, about fathers with children” (P04). With fathers belonging to this profile, the intensity of support was generally greater at the beginning of intervention, and decreased over time.

Collected data indicated that these fathers saw themselves as being better integrated, and felt less isolated after the intervention. They participated in community activities and used services in the neighbourhood where their families lived. Also, several mentioned having improved their employment situation by having found a job or gained a better understanding of how to look for work in Quebec. One father recounted how his participation in the Relais-Pères project permitted him to integrate into his new host society:

[Translation]

“He [visiting father X], helped me integrate. I wanted to look for work. He told me how to do it. I wanted to have something for the children. He helped me find enough recreational activities for the children.… He helped us find our way around too. I can tell you, it was good. He helped me get my bearings, and find another job. That’s what he did.” (P02)

Another father reported that the visiting father helped him look for work:

[Translation]

“He really helped me. I didn’t know of many places I could go to see the human resources manager and hand in my resumé. And he helped me do that resumé too, with his machine and all that, because I didn’t yet have a computer at home. So, he was there to help me in that sort of situation.” (P04)

Although initially few problems related to co-parenting or fathering were reported by these fathers, several of them observed the effects of the project on these aspects of their lives. One father explained that it was [Translation] “through my contact with [visiting father X] that I came to understand we don’t always realize that we’re missing a lot of things” (P04) necessary to truly fulfill one’s role as a father. Several new immigrant fathers also saw their relationships with their children improve by following visiting fathers’ advice regarding their involvement as a father. This was the case for the following two fathers in particular: [Translation] “That was really a positive aspect of my experience, the other things he gave me, because I feel closer to my daughter. (P01)

[Translation]

“I’d say it’s magic because it makes me so happy to see that she is happy and that she likes playing with me. It makes me realize I’m a daddy, I’m a father and it’s wonderful.” (P04)

The very fact that the fathers were more involved with their children had an effect on the co-parenting sphere of their lives, as the mothers enjoyed more free time while the fathers took care of the children. One father observed:

[Translation]

“With my family, I would say that my wife was able to breathe a little. When [visiting father X] comes on Saturdays, we go to the rec. centre; we go out. Even if my wife didn’t come with us, the children weren’t at home, and she could breathe a little. She got a break. She had a little time to relax.” (P02)

  1. Fathers in crisis (n=5)

Almost all of the fathers in this group were born in Canada. Only one father had immigrated to the country, over ten years ago. They ranged in age from 22 to 40 years. Three of the fathers had not completed high school. Sources of income were varied and included social assistance, employment, gambling, extended family and illegal activities. These fathers were described as being in crisis, because they were undergoing a major, frequently unexpected, life event (such as unplanned pregnancy, non-recognition of parental rights, or housing loss) that had led them to seek out community services. They also exhibited difficulties in many spheres of life. Almost all (n=4) were wary of receiving assistance due to bad experiences, past or present, with institutions. Contrary to the new immigrant fathers, the problems reported by these fathers concerned the co-parenting, fathering and personal spheres of their lives.

In general, these fathers had a conflictual relationship with their children’s mother, whether they were separated (n=3) or living together as a couple (n=2). Principal irritants concerned the presence of domestic violence in the couple, shared custody, alcohol or drug abuse and communication problems. The intensity of the conflicts varied from father to father. Some described their conjugal relationships as “extremely difficult”, while others spoke of relationships that had their “ups and downs”.

The fathering difficulties reported could be divided into two distinct categories. Two fathers had difficulty having their parental rights recognized. In fact, they had first heard of the Relais-Pères project through the youth protection agency (Direction de la protection de la jeunesse—DPJ), which had strongly advised them to improve their parenting abilities if they wanted to maximize their chances of obtaining custody of their children. One father mentioned that he had to [Translation] “take dad courses” (P03) to be able to see his son again as he had had lost custody of him. One of the fathers reported having a rather difficult relationship with youth protection workers. Two other fathers in this group, who were expecting their first children, were having doubts about their parenting skills. Never having had a father role model, they felt unprepared to take on such a role. They were worried and at a loss as to how to deal with the unplanned pregnancies as their conjugal relationships were already difficult. One father stated, [Translation] “When she got pregnant, I didn’t even know. I said ‘Crud, I’m going to become a dad. What’s going to happen?’ I don’t know. I had never held a child in my arms.” (P09)

In addition, a number of the fathers in this group had a combination of problems involving self-esteem issues, substance abuse, lifestyle instability, mental health issues, violence and, more rarely, physical health issues. The following two excerpts are a good illustration of the personal problems fathers in crisis may experience:

[Translation] “There was a point when if I hadn’t met [visiting father Y], I was going to kill myself. I was thinking of it. You live with a woman and she’s pregnant, and she hits you every day. I’m the one who makes the food; I’m the one who does the housecleaning. I don’t know my rights.” (P09)

[Translation]

“I wasn’t working at all. We were both depressed. We’d just had a child…. We had drug problems…. We really didn’t have any goals in life then. We were really unhappy. We never had anything to eat, Christ. If we didn’t spend our money on dope, we spent it on stupid shit…. When our little girl was born, neither one of us had any i.d. We hadn’t done our taxes in years.” (P10)

Intervention with this group of fathers focused on parenting skills, helping fathers in their dealings with government services, and putting them in touch with specialized services to find solutions to personal difficulties. Visiting fathers were sometimes more confrontational with these fathers to push them to start making a change, but they were also careful to focus on the fathers’ strengths. Visiting fathers helped these fathers get through the crisis by helping them meet their immediate needs and encouraging them to adopt healthier lifestyles. Support was therefore more intensive at the beginning of intervention during the crisis, and then would diminish over time.

Generally speaking, the data indicate that the fathers had successfully come through the crisis and adopted a more stable lifestyle. The fathers noted several effects on the various spheres of their lives. With regard to co-parenting, some of the fathers saw an improvement in their relationship with the mother. One father (P10) mentioned that, due to having a healthier lifestyle, he smiled more, was not as mean, and was less violent with his spouse. Other fathers had separated from the mothers of their children during the intervention, a move that was beneficial for them. That was the case for one of the fathers in this group who had been the victim of domestic violence. With the visiting father’s assistance, he separated from the mother, and obtained shared custody of his son:

[Translation] “I left and it’s thanks to the help of [visiting father Y] and the police as well as the help of an organisation called IVAC that’s for victims of domestic violence. They also helped me a lot to get through it. It was thanks to all those things. I got through it. I don’t have a criminal record. I have my boy.” (P09)

The fathers in crisis also observed significant changes in the fathering sphere of their lives after the visiting fathers’ intervention. One of the fathers obtained full custody of his son by improving his parenting skills. Another father had managed to change his relationship with government workers. With the visiting father’s assistance, he had learned how to communicate better with the workers. While he had not been able to obtain custody of his daughter, he had not lost hope and continued to try to demonstrate his commitment to the child to government workers so that he might one day be able to fully assume his role as a father. Here he tells how, without the assistance of the visiting father, he would have given up long ago:

[Translation]

“Then, I am going to give a photo album to the social worker and she is supposed to give it to my daughter. I’m not sure they’re going to do it, but that was one of the pieces of advice [visiting father Y] gave me. I am going to continue to follow his advice because, if it were up to me, I would have given up on it all.” (P12)

The fathers who expressed doubts as to their ability to be good fathers developed a greater sense of parenting competence by taking part in the project. [Translation] “I discovered I could be a father and that it’s probably the most important job a man will ever have in his life.” (P11)

In the personal sphere of their lives, all the fathers took steps to adopt healthier lifestyles. The two fathers who presented with mental health issues took part in therapy for anger management, self-esteem or substance abuse issues. In discussing his psychological difficulties, one father noted how his progress in that area had helped him have a better relationship with his son: [Translation] “Well, let’s say that the better it’s going in your head, the better it goes with your child, that’s how it is.” (P03) In addition, two fathers ceased all involvement in illegal activities. They felt more responsible now that they had acquired a certain status in society as a father. Another father stated that he became an adult during the course of the intervention: [Translation] “I learned to be a man with my boy’s help, with [visiting father Y’s] help. Before, I was this young guy who was just waiting for the weekend to figure out where I’d be hanging out this weekend.” (P09)

Finally, some fathers in the group also observed effects in the social and professional spheres of their lives. Two fathers mentioned having cut ties with certain people they felt belonged to “the wrong crowd”. Indeed, one of the fathers stated that spending time with visiting father X had caused him to start doing volunteer work, which meant that, on top of feeling useful, he was establishing a new social network for himself. At the time of the interview, another father in this group was planning to go back to school in order to become a full-fledged member of society.

  1. Fathers seeking greater social integration (n=2)

The fathers seeking greater social integration were born in Quebec. Their average age was 30 years and they had completed high school. One was living with the children’s mother and the other was separated but met a new partner during the intervention. Contrary to the fathers in crisis, these fathers reported few problems in the co-parenting, personal or fathering spheres of their lives. They each had two children whom they saw regularly. These were already committed fathers, who viewed their relationships with their children positively. The only need they expressed was that of meeting people to do more activities with their children. The following excerpt illustrates the situation experienced by one of the fathers during his separation:

[Translation] “I was all alone when I separated [from the children’s mother]. I had no friends with children the same age to do activities with and stuff like that with little children like I had. It was a real drag.” (P05)

The fathers seeking greater social integration came into contact with the program as a result of “reaching-out” techniques. They both met a visiting father by taking part in activities in their neighbourhood. These fathers had no qualms about receiving help, and saw it instead as a means of expanding their social network.

These fathers were described as “seeking greater social integration”, because they had already taken concrete steps to improve their professional and social situations by going back to school and taking part in neighbourhood activities. They did not see themselves as fathers with financial difficulties. They had the money they needed to meet their families’ needs, as one father explains here: [Translation] “I felt we were managing. We weren’t in any messes. We immediately put our money in the right place, milk for the child, Pablum, the jars of baby food, this and that.” (P06). While these fathers had social support networks (family, friends), they wanted to expand their networks by taking part in activities in their community. The integration process had already begun. Their participation in the Relais-Pères project simply acted as a catalyst for their social integration process.

Intervention with these fathers targeted the social sphere of their lives, and was less intensive from the onset. They would meet up approximately once a week to do sports or cultural activities with their children. The role of the visiting fathers was more to provide social support to help them expand their networks, thus enhancing their integration into the community. The fathers said they appreciated the voluntary nature of their participation.

The data nonetheless reveal the effects of the program on the personal, co-parenting and paternal spheres of their lives, as well as the changes that had occurred in the social sphere. One father commented that by doing more activities with his children, he expanded his view of what a father’s role encompassed:

[Translation] “I realized I liked being a father. Being a father isn’t necessarily just being a provider; it can be other things. It’s being involved in playing, it’s also being there for the good times, but also the bad, like the mother basically. That is what [visiting father X] helped me with in that area.” (P05)

He also explained how the intervention helped him escape his isolation:

[Translation] “It was the social side that [visiting father X] offered me…. That’s really what helped me come out of my cocoon…. With (visiting father X), I was really able to come into my own, as they say. That’s where I really saw that I liked doing activities with my children.” (P05)

Following the intervention, one of the fathers became less overprotective. Meeting other parents helped him adjust his way of dealing with his son, which was good for the child’s autonomy. That was one of the things he took away from his participation in the project. [Translation] “It allowed me to take a step back from the mother hen, father hen role. I don’t know how to explain that in male terms but that’s what I was. I had a tendency to be overprotective.” (P06) The same father also reported effects in the co-parenting sphere of his life, because when he took part in activities organized in the community with his son, it gave his spouse a break.

On a more personal level, one father mentioned no longer being afraid to ask for help, and having fewer prejudices against those who use community services.

[Translation] “Honestly, I am no longer afraid to go looking for resources that can help me. I am not ashamed any more. I wouldn’t be afraid to go look for them anymore. It also made me aware that other fathers have difficulty. Like I said earlier, I had prejudices. I’d say to myself: “If you’re in shit, it’s because you’re a fucking welfare bum.” Except I realized that, for some of them, it’s not necessarily that they want to be on welfare. It’s that they don’t really have a choice, financially speaking.” (P05)

In sum, three father typologies were identified based on the interviews with fathers conducted for this study. The typology highlighted a certain level of heterogeneity among participants. In addition to this typology, the data helped underscore the value of specific qualities of the intervention approach adopted in the Relais-Pères project. There was a certain consensus among the fathers as to the specific qualities that set this intervention approach apart. First, each father mentioned having developed a special relationship with the visiting father. The relationship went well beyond a professional relationship, as the worker was often a father role-model for the father, hence the importance of using male support workers. Almost all the fathers mentioned wanting to remain in contact with their visiting father, even those who were no longer receiving support, which speaks to the uniqueness of the relationship. Next, personalized intervention adapted to the fathers’ needs would seem to have been key to creating a bond of trust. By specifically responding to their concerns, the visiting fathers become resource people on whom they could count in case of need. They were seen as “facilitators”. One father described his experience with the following metaphor: [Translation] “It’s like someone who teaches you how to fish instead of giving you a fish.” (P02) The fathers also said they appreciated the social interchange with the visiting fathers. Sharing personal experiences helped deepen the bond, and distinguished the relationship with the visiting father from other helping relationships they had previously experienced. Finally, the informal nature of the intervention was important to all participants. The visiting fathers took into account the men’s interests in coming up with original, unconventional means to intervene with the fathers, such as using taking a drive together as an opportunity to have a chat. The following excerpt clearly illustrates how the informal nature of the support relationships helped deepen the bond:

[Translation] “As soon as we get together, we start laughing. Sometimes even, there’s nothing to do and he has to go somewhere to get something, and he’ll say to me, “Come for a drive with me.” Well, we have a coffee in the car while he’s driving around. I wait in the car and then we leave again. Sometimes, we do that just to get out of the house, as friends…. Well, instead of two dads talking, it’s me and him talking, about more personal things I’d say.” (P03)

Discussion

The objective of the current study was to collect fathers’ views on their participation in the Relais-Pères project and the effects they observed on different spheres of their lives, in order to take a critical look at the intervention provided. Generally speaking, the results confirm those of previous studies reporting that intervention projects wishing to reach fathers in vulnerable circumstances have a greater chance of being successful if they adopt a proximity approach (Turcotte et al., 2009; 2012). The fact that visiting fathers position themselves as men and fathers seems to allow the other fathers to identify with them more readily, which facilitates the establishment of a relationship.

The results indicate that, as vulnerable fathers do not form a homogenous group, support must be personalized to the individual father’s immediate needs. The previously elaborated typology reflects the differences in this group of fathers. As a result, visiting fathers must be flexible in terms of both the support offered and intervention intensity. For fathers in crisis, it is clearly essential to provide more sustained support at the beginning of intervention to maximize the chances of resolving the crisis. Thus, visiting fathers must make themselves more available during this period to create and maintain a bond of trust with this group of fathers while taking concrete steps to help them. The visiting father becomes a sort of resource person for such fathers. It is therefore vital that programs for this clientele adopt a flexible intervention framework so the fathers can communicate with the visiting fathers as the need arises. Yet, the flexibility required for this type of intervention is often incompatible with the realities of intervention settings that must contend with what are frequently significant economic and administrative constraints (e.g. underfunding, staff turnover, etc.).

The results highlight certain intervention characteristics that seem to make a difference to vulnerable fathers. First, the reciprocal nature of the social interchange with the visiting father seems to be greatly appreciated by fathers. Indeed, many consider this characteristic to be what sets the relationship apart from previous therapeutic relationships. Next, a winning formula for working with vulnerable fathers would appear to be the adoption of an informal approach in order to ensure continued participation. Even nowadays, most men view making a formal request for assistance as a sign of weakness that must only be considered as a last resort, as was observed to be the case for the fathers in crisis in this study. It is therefore important that support activities focus on their interests, for example, sports, having coffee together, or going for a drive; in other words, that such activities do not focus on their difficulties. [Translation] “The activity is seen as a pretext for initiating discussions about their situation or specific issues” (Dubeau, et al., 2011). This would appear to be a promising means of maintaining participation in services. Finally, although not explicitly mentioned by fathers, it would appear important that the visiting fathers be male, because they become role models with whom the fathers feel comfortable sharing. The characteristics of visiting fathers that are commonly appreciated by participants highlight a number of interesting issues concerning academic training programs for future psychosocial professionals. First, very few university social science or humanities programs include courses on male realities or on current practices designed to provide support for men and fathers (Dubeau, Houle, Pontbriand & Gauthier, 2010). Another topic that receives little attention, and is even discouraged by certain instructors, is the notion of “relational proximity” between helpee and helper. The results in this study underscore the positive effects of the proximity developed with the visiting father. It would seem that a certain degree of flexibility in the therapeutic context is also a contributing factor to the development of a bond of trust with the visiting father. For these fathers, the sharing of experiences (one-on-one discussions or activities) plays an important role in fostering the creation of a special relationship.

Strengths

The qualitative approach is certainly one of the methodological strengths of the present study as the objective was to gain an in-depth understanding of the experience of fathers who had participated in the Relais-Pères project, a point of view that had never yet been explored. The results support the comments made by the workers during the assessment of the project’s implementation, strengthening our understanding of intervention with vulnerable fathers (Turcotte et al., 2009). This study also adopted an integrative approach, as the opinions collected from fathers concerned all aspects of the analytical framework. Fathers were asked about their situation prior to participation in the project, the intervention itself, the effects they observed in various spheres of their lives, and the relationship between the intervention and observed changes. Finally, it is important to point out that the changes observed would not seem to be attributable to any one visiting father in particular but rather to the intervention approach given the consensus among all the fathers interviewed as to the characteristics of the approach they especially appreciated.

Limitations

Unfortunately, all studies have their limitations. While the objective here was not to be able to generalize the results, it would be interesting to expand the subject sample in a future study to see whether the previously developed typology continues to apply or whether there are other father profiles that have not been identified in this study. Also, the way in which participants were recruited, which was on a voluntary basis and through the visiting fathers, could have biased the results. The fathers who felt like sharing their experience may share certain characteristics that may not be representative of the participating fathers as a whole. Finally, it should be remembered that the results are a snapshot of the fathers’ situation at a specific moment. Under no circumstances can the observed changes be presumed to have continued to the present. For the purposes of the lead author’s doctoral essay, fathers were interviewed only once. However, the expanded project designed to evaluate the impact of Relais-Pères will include a second interview to assess the permanence of the effects of the intervention, just as it will triangulate the information collected from the fathers with the views of the mothers when they are present in the fathers’ lives.

Conclusion

The current study enabled us to take a critical look at the intervention provided by Relais-Pères, using one of the most important sources to consider in evaluating intervention: the clients. This study confirmed that Relais-Pères offers an intervention approach that makes it possible to reach out to and provide support to fathers in vulnerable circumstances. Despite the often serious difficulties they may face, such fathers take active steps to improve their situation when provided with informal, flexible, personalized support involving social interchange with a male support worker. In view of these results, it would be important to re-examine the range of services currently offered as it does not seem to fulfill the needs of this clientele. The training provided for support workers and the at-times rigid intervention programs that currently exist should be revisited to better address to the needs of vulnerable fathers.


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Table 1. Sample Characteristics

Variable n % Average Standard Deviation

Age 34.7 5.4

Ethnic origin

Canadian 6 54.5

Other 5 45.5

Family Type

Dual parent 8 72.7

Single parent 3 27.3

Number of children

Expecting first child 3 27.3

1 child 5 45.5

2 children 2 18.2

3 children or more 1 9.1

Education

High school not completed 3 27.3

High school diploma 8 72.7

Sources of income

Employment 1 9.1

Loans and bursaries 1 9.1

Income security 7 63.6

Other sources 2 18.2

Résumé

Objectif : Cette recherche a pour objectif de recueillir le point de vue des pères concernant leur participation au projet Relais-Pères afin de poser un regard critique sur l’intervention. Méthodologie : Il s’agit d’une étude qualitative qui repose sur le récit de vie thématique permettant d’identifier les perceptions des participants concernant: 1) leur situation avant le début de l’intervention; 2) le soutien apporté par le père visiteur; 3) les changements qu’ils perçoivent suite à l’intervention et; 4) le rôle du processus d’intervention dans les changements observés. Suite à une première analyse inter sujets où l’hétérogénéité des participants est ressortie, il est apparu plus riche d’adopter une approche d’analyse intra sujets afin d’élaborer une typologie de pères. Résultats : À partir du discours des 11 pères interrogés, trois profils de pères ont été identifiés : les pères nouveaux immigrants, les pères en crise et les pères en quête d’intégration sociale. Au-delà de cette typologie, un certain consensus existe entre les pères concernant des qualités spécifiques qui ont permis à cette approche d’intervention de se démarquer : la présence d’un intervenant de sexe masculin, l’intervention personnalisée, la réciprocité des échanges et le caractère informel de l’approche d’intervention. Conclusion : Les caractéristiques communes nommées par les participants permettent de questionner l’offre de service actuelle et la formation des intervenants pour mieux rejoindre et soutenir les pères qui vivent en contexte de vulnérabilité.

Mots clés : Le projet Relais-Pères, Pères vivant en contexte de vulnérabilité, Engagement paternel, Intervention auprès des pères.

Copyright © 2012 Used with permission.



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