A Portrait of Father Involvement and Support in the First Three Years after a Nonmarital Birth

CFRP Report | R.003.1013

October 2013  

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Purpose and Introduction

The Texas Office of the Attorney General, Child Support Division (OAG) contracted with the Texas Child and Family Research Partnership (CFRP) to provide recommendations regarding ways to expand paternity education, increase or sustain federal performance of paternity measures, and reduce the incidence of rescissions of paternity establishments. Ultimately, these recommendations should lead to higher and more accurate levels of paternity establishment among unmarried fathers, fewer paternity disestablishments, and improved compliance with child support obligations.

The purpose of this report is to examine the intersection of in-hospital acknowledgment of paternity (AOP), formal child support, informal support, parental relationships, and father involvement. Analyses presented throughout this report are primarily descriptive in nature and aim to give a broad understanding of the characteristics associated with each topic. Future reports by CFRP will build on these findings with the use of multivariate analyses and additional survey waves in an effort to tease out relative effect sizes and causality in the data.

To address the research aims related to this report, CFRP conducted two separate studies: The Paternity Establishment Study (PES) and Checking in with AOP Signers (CAS) Study. Information from the PES and CAS studies are used extensively throughout this report. Detailed information on these studies is available in Chapter One and Appendix A through Appendix C.

Background and Findings

The percentage of nonmarital births in the United States doubled between 1980 and 2011. Currently in Texas, 42 percent of recent births are to unmarried mothers. This dramatic rise in the number of nonmarital births is of growing concern because of the precarious economic status of single parents (most often mothers) and children. Moreover, there are a host of negative social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes associated with children who live in poor single-parent families, especially when those families lack involved and supportive fathers.

One strategy to promote a father’s financial and emotional investment in his child—while also formalizing the legal rights and responsibilities of fatherhood—is to encourage the establishment of paternity. Paternity establishment is the legal determination of fatherhood. It serves as a tool to promote responsibility, encourage father involvement, and provide legal access to a cadre of attendant benefits and rights. Furthermore, research shows that fathers who voluntarily sign an acknowledgment of paternity (AOP) form in the hospital are more likely to be involved and supportive, which can lead to improved child outcomes.

Given the benefits associated with establishing paternity, it is important to understand who establishes paternity and why. To help answer these questions, CFRP conducted two surveys to gather information on the parental characteristics and prenatal factors associated with AOP signers and non-signers. The two surveys were conducted among separate populations of mothers and fathers in Texas approximately 3 months after the birth of their child (PES) and 3 years after the birth of their child (CAS). The following section provides an overview of CFRP’s major findings, a summary of policy recommendations, and a short synopsis of the report by chapter.

Who Signs the AOP

Overall, roughly three-quarters of unmarried fathers in Texas voluntarily sign an AOP form in the hospital when their child is born. The demographic characteristics of fathers who sign the AOP are not significantly different from the characteristics of fathers who do not, with the exception of racial background. A significantly greater proportion of African American fathers decline to sign the AOP, as compared to their White and Latino counterparts. Looking more closely at specific risk factors associated with non-signers, we find that non-signers are more likely to have been incarcerated at birth, exhibit abusive behavior towards the mother and/or child, and have children with multiple partners. In addition, when compared to AOP signers, non-signers are less likely to be romantically involved with the mother, live with the mother and child, or have established paternity with previous children.

Why Parents Sign the AOP

Most parents are driven by legal and personal reasons to establish paternity, including to ensure that the child has a legal father. In the majority of cases in which paternity is not established, it is because the father did not visit the hospital at the time of the child’s birth and was therefore unable to sign the AOP in the hospital. When examining parents’ experiences with the birth registrar – the person responsible for filing a birth certificate and providing information on paternity – CFRP found that most parents learn about paternity establishment in the hospital. However, mothers associated with non-signing fathers are less likely than AOP-signing mothers to report having met with the birth registrar at the hospital. Furthermore, non-signing mothers who met with a birth registrar are less likely than mothers associated with signing fathers to indicate that the birth registrar was helpful.

The Role of Father Involvement and Support

Prior research on nonmarital childrearing reveals that a parent’s romantic relationship, positive coparenting, and parental cohabitation are all positively associated with increased paternal involvement and support. Prior research also provides insight into how paternal risk factors such as domestic violence, incarceration, multipartner fertility, and substance abuse can decrease an unmarried father’s likelihood of being involved with his children.1,2  Drawing on survey data from unmarried Texas parents, CFRP builds on these findings in several ways: 1) examining the intersection and associations between the parental relationship, father involvement, paternal support, and AOP signing, 2) investigating how each of these topics is informed by a web of personal, interpersonal, and environmental factors, and 3) approximating how the parental relationship, father involvement, and paternal support are likely to change over time.

The Mother and Father Relationship

Although most parents in our samples describe relative stability and optimism surrounding their relationship at the child’s birth, many unmarried couples also hinted at signs of relationship fragility even before the child was born. Indeed, many parental relationships dissolve in the years following a nonmarital birth. Three-quarters of AOP-signing couples are cohabiting when their child is born, but by the time the child has reached the age of three, the percentage of cohabiting couples declines to less than 60 percent. Moreover, a mother’s desire for the father to be involved in the child’s life also reportedly decreases over time. The most commonly reported reasons for a relationship ending are infidelity, financial reasons, domestic violence, and drugs or alcohol.

Closer inspection of AOP-signing parents with 3-year-olds reveals that three of the most prominent characteristics associated with low-quality parental relationships are domestic violence, substance abuse, and multipartner fertility. CFRP data also show child support orders or expectations of establishing an order are more common when parental relationships are weak. More than half of parents in a low-quality coparenting relationship have a child support order or are considering establishing one compared to just 11 percent of those in good coparenting relationships, indicating that child support is a valued resource for parents who no longer have a healthy relationship. Moreover, paternal multipartner fertility was reported in nearly 40 percent of low-quality coparenting relationships compared to 25 percent in high-quality coparenting relationships.

The Father and Child Relationship

Three months after a nonmarital birth, most Texas fathers are involved with their child. Roughly 7 out of 10 see their children regularly, participate in shared activities, and help out with basic childrearing duties. These fathers want to play a role in the lives of their children, and for the most part they are following through. Very soon after birth, however, another 3 in 10 fathers are quickly vanishing from the lives of their children. These fathers are disproportionately found in non-romantic relationships with the mother. They are more likely to have children with other partners or be with mothers who have children by multiple fathers. In addition, they are disproportionately unemployed, abusive, and entangled with the criminal justice system. These fathers overwhelmingly declined to establish paternity, and the mothers associated with these fathers are much more likely to be already considering child support.

In cases where the father signed an AOP, the vast majority of mothers report that the father’s participation with his child has remained stable or even flourished over the first several years of the child’s life. The underlying data, however, depict a somewhat less genial narrative. Three years after a nonmarital birth, the proportion of AOP-signing fathers who remain accessible and responsible to their children has fallen noticeably in relation to a similar group of fathers examined shortly after birth. The result is a non-trivial decline in the involvement of many unmarried fathers over time.

Statistical analyses reveal that these uninvolved fathers are significantly more likely to be in nonromantic relationships with the mother, have problems maintaining steady employment, and have children with other partners—risk factors that are similarly associated with poor quality parental relationships. In addition, AOP-signing fathers who did not finish high school or who have a history of domestic violence also have statistically higher odds of being uninvolved in their children’s lives.

Child Support

For many mothers, the financial support provided by a child’s father can mean the difference between making ends meet and living below the poverty line. For those families who are not lifted out of poverty by formal child support payments, the assistance can still help close the “poverty gap” that these families face.3 In addition to the economic benefits, child support payments are associated with greater academic achievement and fewer externalizing problems in children.4,5,6 Previous research also shows that fathers who voluntarily establish paternity are more likely to pay child support (despite being less likely to have a child support order), to pay more over the long term, and to increase their payments over time.7 

Drawing on survey data from Texas parents, CFRP finds that financial support arrangements vary widely by parental relationship and often change over time. Formal support arrangements (i.e. child support orders) are most common among parents with no romantic relationship, whereas the vast majority of parents who are cohabiting or dating rely on informal support arrangements. Three months after a nonmarital birth, 77 percent of parents rely exclusively on informal support arrangements, whereas three years after an AOP is signed, 69 percent of parents rely exclusively on informal arrangements.

Parents who do not sign an AOP are most likely to have neither informal nor formal support arrangements—three months after a nonmarital birth, 48 percent of non-signing fathers provide no financial support at all.  Three years after an AOP is signed, 1 in 10 Texas fathers provides no financial support. A number of risk factors, including multipartner fertility, domestic violence, incarceration, substance abuse, and employment instability are associated with a father’s failure to provide financial support.

Many of the same risk factors associated with a failure to provide financial support informally are also associated with entrance into the child support system. Overall, multipartner fertility, incarceration, domestic violence, and substance abuse are more prevalent among fathers in the child support system than fathers not in the child support system. Once a family is in the formal child support system, these same risk factors are associated with non-compliance with child support orders. Non-compliant fathers are also much more likely to be in non-cohabiting, nonromantic relationships and to be uninvolved with their children. 

Child Outcomes

Research shows that high-quality father involvement and support are associated with a number of positive child outcomes, including decreased delinquency and behavioral problems, improved cognitive development, increased educational attainment, and better psychological wellbeing.Children with involved fathers, on average, perform better in school, have higher self-esteem, and exhibit greater empathy, emotional security, curiosity, and pro-social behavior.

Moreover, for low-income families, a father’s financial support can significantly reduce material hardship and parental stress, improvements which may have collateral benefits on positive parenting and parental investments in children.9  Formal financial support provided through the child support system is also associated with positive child outcomes, including improved emotional wellbeing and academic achievement.10 Although the effect of paternal financial support on child outcomes varies by type (informal, formal, or both), amount, and whether the father is resident or nonresident, research has established a clear link between support and a wide range of positive cognitive and emotional outcomes for children.

Three years after an AOP is signed, the vast majority of Texas fathers are still involved, living with the mother, and providing informal support to their children. For many of these children, the emotional and financial investments of their fathers are likely to yield a host of positive outcomes. Still, three years after a nonmarital birth a sizable fraction of Texas fathers have begun to withdraw from the lives of their children both emotionally and financially.

By the time their child has reached the age of three, nearly 1 out of 7 AOP-signing fathers is in the formal child support system and no longer living with the mother or meaningfully participating in the life of the child. Moreover, less than half of these fathers are meeting their formal child support obligations. Another 8 percent of fathers are providing no support, not living with the mother, and not involved with the child. The findings suggest that a significant proportion of Texas children are failing to receive adequate levels of involvement and support from their fathers, and as a consequence, will likely suffer from the host of negative outcomes that accompany paternal withdrawal.

Policy Considerations

A father’s failure to sign the in-hospital AOP serves as a red flag for a range of potential risk factors that may wield significant influence on future child outcomes. Increasing the rate of voluntary paternity establishment, therefore, may improve child outcomes for this at-risk population. However, efforts to increase voluntary paternity establishment should be mindful of the prevalence of domestic violence, substance abuse, multipartner fertility, and other threats to positive outcomes for these families. Failing to take these factors into consideration is likely to significantly affect the success of policies intended to increase voluntary in-hospital paternity establishment. Moreover, increasing the rate of paternity establishment among fathers with antisocial behaviors such as domestic violence may not be ideal given the potential for increased harm to the mother and child. Under these circumstances, court-ordered paternity establishment may offer an avenue for restricting a father’s visitation access through legal parameters that afford better protection to the mother and child.

Programs currently in place to improve family and child welfare, including coparenting instruction and employment initiatives, might provide an example for future programs to assist single-parent families receiving both formal and informal support. In addition, many mothers reported inadequate or poorly timed provisioning of information regarding paternity establishment. Improving the timing and channels for this information may empower parents to make decisions about paternity establishment before, rather than after, arriving at the hospital. Future surveys and ongoing analyses by CFRP will build on the findings of this report, especially with regard to the process of AOP signing and the ways in which paternity establishment can be improved throughout the state of Texas.

Organization of the Report

Chapter One provides general background information on the prevalence of nonmarital births, the influence of fathers on child outcomes, and how these topics relate to paternity establishment in Texas. It also provides a detailed description of the two separate surveys conducted by CFRP, including methodology and basic demographic information. Additional information on these surveys and the demographic characteristics of respondents can be found in Appendix A through Appendix C.

Chapter Two focuses on paternity establishment and the associated benefits of establishing paternity. It discusses the characteristics of parents who voluntarily establish paternity through signing the Acknowledgement of Paternity (AOP) form in the hospital, those who do not, and the reasons for these decisions. Particular attention is given to distinct motivations for establishing paternity among mothers and fathers. The primary goal of this chapter is to better understand the motivations of those who do and do not voluntarily establish paternity in Texas and to gain insight into how knowledge of the AOP influences paternity establishment.

Chapter Three examines the parental relationship over time, through the lens of paternity establishment and relevant risk factors. The data provide snapshots of relationships among unmarried Texas parents during pregnancy, shortly after birth, and three years after a nonmarital birth. This chapter charts the course of unmarried parental relationships over this time period, explores how relationships differ by AOP signing, and investigates the risk factors that threaten to derail many of these relationships along the way.

Chapter Four begins by surveying the relevant literature on father involvement, including a discussion of how involvement varies by fathers’ characteristics and how it is likely to change over time. The chapter draws on data collected by CFRP to examine the ways in which Texas fathers are involved three months after a nonmarital birth and how that involvement differs by various characteristics of the mother and father. The chapter also examines the involvement of AOP-signing fathers three years after a nonmarital birth and analyzes the relative impacts of various paternal risk factors in an effort to understand which characteristics have the most influence on a father’s odds of being uninvolved.

Chapter Five examines the ways in which fathers who are not in the child support system support their children, with a specific focus on risks to mothers and fathers successfully navigating an informal support agreement. The chapter also discusses the fathers who have a formal child support order in place and examines related issues of compliance. Additionally, the chapter discusses maternal expectations of support and how they are correlated with the type of support mothers actually receive.

Chapter Six begins with a review of the literature linking paternal involvement and support to improved outcomes for children. The literature review is followed by a presentation of overarching father typologies, which broadly classify AOP-signing fathers with 3-year-olds into distinct categories based on their level of involvement and the means by which they provide financial support. The father typologies are then analyzed for the prevalence of risk factors to understand how various characteristics may threaten the viability of a father’s emotional and financial contributions. This chapter concludes with a discussion of the relevant considerations for public policy, with particular emphasis on the policy levers most likely to influence paternal involvement, AOP signing, and child support.

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5 Knox, V. W. (1996). The effects of child support payments on developmental outcomes for elementary school-age children. Journal of Human Resources, 816-840.
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10 Knox, V. W. (1996). The effects of child support payments on developmental outcomes for elementary school-age children. Journal of Human Resources, 816-840.

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