Exterior of Nancy Nicholas Hall in the evening, with lamps and windows glowing.
News & Events

Fatherhood needs assessment finds gaps in service, recommends solutions

A smiling child painting with an adult

What do Wisconsin fathers need to create more fulfilling relationships with their children?

That’s a key question the UW–Madison Division of Extension set out to answer recently with its Wisconsin Statewide Fatherhood Needs Assessment. Extension realized it was not serving fathers in outreach programming anywhere near the same extent it was serving mothers and sought to understand the gap.

Margaret Kerr, assistant professor of Human Development & Family Studies and an Extension specialist in Vulnerable and Underserved Children, was a lead author on the project. She worked on the assessment with her colleagues at Extension’s Human Development & Relationships Institute.

“Parenthood means many different things to many different people, but both mothers and fathers want to be successful when it comes to raising their children: being present and attentive to them, and setting them up for the future,” Kerr says. “We found that fathers have real concerns: basic life needs and resources, parenting support, systemic barriers to fatherhood, and challenges related to the legal system.”

Over the course of several focus groups, researchers spoke with 35 fathers in a variety of parenting and custody situations. They also received input from more than 30 community partners, such as family service providers, child protection entities, domestic violence agencies, and jails.

Professional portrait of Margaret Kerr in front of a decorative window with bright colored glass circles and curved lines.
Dr. Margaret Kerr

Researchers found that fathers want to be actively involved in their children’s lives, have nurturing relationships and act as role models.

Fathers said they need more than just parenting support – they want assistance meeting basic needs and successfully navigating the criminal legal and family court systems. They also want help breaking down gender norms and negative attitudes that negatively affect fathers.

So, what should be done? Researchers came away with several recommendations.

Programming should be designed for fathers’ specific needs, and existing programming adapted to be more inclusive and welcoming toward fathers. This should include hiring more fathers in family-serving professions. Spaces, such as peer groups, should be created for fathers to come together around their role as parents.

Mothers and other co-parents should reflect on gatekeeping behaviors that may contribute to barriers some fathers have to positive parenting, and service providers should help fathers advocate for their rights.

Additionally, research and information about the important role fathers play in the well-being of families should be widely disseminated in an effort to break down stigma around fatherhood.

“Fathers need support to engage in their children’s lives in the ways they want and deserve to,” Kerr says.

For a detailed breakdown of the findings and recommendations, or to read the full report, visit parenting.extension.wisc.edu/fatherhood/.