Fairfax County Provides Tools to Help Fathers

One in four children live without a biological father, stepfather or adoptive father in the home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More than 340,000 of those children reside in Virginia, and 34,000 reside in just Fairfax County, according to the county, the U.S. Census Bureau notes.

Fairfax County resident Carlos Sanchez recently spoke to Alexandria Living about the challenges of dealing with custody issues after he separated from his wife in 2019. 

He got help from Fairfax County’s Parenting Education Programs, which includes classes on how to handle co-parenting. In addition, one of the most helpful programs for Sanchez was the Dads Parenting Classes offered through the Father Engagement Unit. These are two of several child welfare programs within the Department of Family Services, alongside adoption, foster care and other services. 

The supervisor of the unit, Champana Bernard, explained that “our agency needed to do more to ensure that fathers are at the table and make decisions when they come to us.” 

The Father Engagement Unit’s journey began in 2007, when Bernard worked in the quality assurance program within Fairfax County, conducting case reviews with child protection services and adoption to ensure a safe family environment. After reviewing some of the cases, he realized that they needed to “engage fathers just as much as mothers and children…especially ones that do not live at the home with children.” 

In 2008, Champana and his program developed the fatherhood initiative, a two-pronged approach that involves staff trained about the importance of fathers, how to more effectively engage fathers, as well as provide group support to fathers.  

Starting in 2013, ongoing case reviews showed an increase in fatherhood involvement in the home. In response, the agency created the now five-person team that makes up the Father Engagement Unit: Bennie Herron, a father engagement unit specialist; Mercedes Alonzo, another father engagement unit specialist and Michael Schut, a parent support specialist specializing in parents struggling with substance abuse. 

Eighty-five percent of fathers who graduated from the program in 2018, 2019 and 2020 increased or maintained quality time spent with their children and intensive prevention programs have helped to significantly decrease the number of children entering foster care in Fairfax County.

Carlos Sanchez, the Fairfax County dad who has been through the program, explained how the fatherhood engagement classes provide “certain tools given that are psychological objects…and with those tools…we are able to step away for the moment…and to apply what you learned in real time.” The county program provides “group support services, but also direct support to fathers where they may need additional support to make them actively involved in decision-making for their children.” 

The class structure is meant to be in-person, but starting last year, due to the pandemic, is taught in a virtual setting.

Father Engagement Unit Specialist and instructor, Bennie Herron, explains how they offer online classes, “24/7 Dads curriculum,” through the National Fatherhood Initiative, while intertwining topics like communication, men’s health and self care and address topics that aren’t in the curriculum including substance use and domestic violence.

“It’s important to make each class something that is real and relatable for each person in the group,” Herron said, noting that they often use participants’ experiences to guide the curriculum. 

The curriculum supports a set of ideal characteristics to help create effective father skills: Self awareness, self care, parenting skills, fathering skills and relationship skills. Each class has 12 sessions taught in English and Spanish that are meant to enhance these characteristics. 

During in-person sessions, each class begins with dinner provided for participants, which not only builds a rapport within the group, but also allows people to socialize and create relationships. After introductions, instructors do a self care check-in to make sure participants are “taking some time for yourself and to make sure you are nurturing yourself,” according to Sanchez. 

“The class is guided by their experiences,” explained Herron. No matter what and how they teach, Alonzo noted, “the real work is afterward.”

Monthly videos are uploaded discussing topics like physical discipline, anger, baby proofing and dealing with anger. The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has named June 2021 Fatherhood Awareness month.

Sanchez has graduated from the program and continues to take different classes while volunteering; he advises fathers and father figures wanting to take classes to “be as vocal and involved as you can be and ask lots of questions.” 

Father engagement classes are open to all fathers and father figures residing in Fairfax County or with children residing in Fairfax County. Classes are offered weeknights from 6-8:30 p.m. Be sure to check the website for more information or to register for upcoming classes. To register, visit their website.  

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