Abstract

We use longitudinal survey and qualitative information from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study to examine how risk factors such as physical abuse, problematic substance use, and incarceration among unmarried fathers in the study are related to fathers' early involvement with their children. The survey results indicate that nearly half of fathers have at least one risk factor and that each risk is negatively associated with paternal involvement. The results also show that fathers with risk factors are less likely to have romantic relationships with mothers and that relationships between parents mediate associations between risk factors and fathers' involvement. Qualitative interviews with a sub-sample of mothers and fathers in the study illustrate the meaning of risks for parents and the processes through which early family outcomes occur. Parents' accounts suggest that mothers often select out of relationships they deem “unhealthy” and monitor fathers' access to children, particularly in cases of physical abuse. While some fathers with risks withdraw from children, others attempt to maintain their involvement independently or as part of a strategy with the mother to address these risks with varying success. We suggest that policies to promote marriage and responsible fatherhood be mindful that some fathers they are targeting have characteristics that may not be conducive to increased involvement while other fathers face personal and institutional barriers to involvement.

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