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W ashington Watch

Ben O’Dell

“I can say without hesitation that the most challenging, most fulfilling, most important job I will have during my time on this earth is to be Sasha and Malia’s dad.”

Fatherhood: One of the Most Important Jobs in the World In his 2010 Father’s Day remarks (http://1.usa.gov/dAfDYJ), President Obama emphasized the importance of his responsibility in the East Wing as a father compared to his responsibility in the West Wing as president. “Over the course of my life, I have been an attorney, I’ve been a professor, I’ve been a state senator, I’ve been a US senator—and I currently am serving as president of the United States.  But I can say without hesitation that the most challenging, most fulfilling, most important job I will have during my time on this earth is to be Sasha and Malia’s dad.” Since 2006, the president has used Father’s Day as an opportunity to draw attention to the importance of fatherhood and the crisis in communities where many fathers are absent.  As senator, the president sponsored legislation supporting fatherhood. Upon his election as president, he has translated that message into policy and programming throughout the federal government, insisting that we need to heighten the importance of fathers to their children,

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their partners, and to the men themselves. This emphasis on the importance of fathers translates into three areas of activity: policy, programming, and cultural impact.  Policy:  On Father’s Day, 2010, the administration announced the creation of the Federal Interagency Working Group on Responsible Fatherhood, which seeks to ensure that a range of federal policies take fathers into account and engage men, along with women and children, in programs across the federal government. The participation of four offices within the White House and nine federal agencies across government reflects the importance of fatherhood within the administration. The working group has already generated a significant body of work to build bridges between activities and to connect these efforts to local communities. Programming: While a number of grants reflect translation of policy into programs, the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance grant announcement associated with the Second Chance Act (see the July/August 2010 PRISM cover story) focuses on adult mentoring and reflects a new focus on fatherhood.  About half of male inmates and two-thirds of female inmates leave at least one child behind when they enter a correctional facility. Research has shown that in many cases the successful reunification of ex-offenders with families is an indicator of positive outcomes for families and their communities. In short, family connections—including responsible and engaged parenting—improve public safety. Culture: Perhaps most importantly, beyond any policy or program, the administration wants to join partners in shifting our attitudes and practice towards responsible fatherhood and healthier communities.  Through this effort, we reflect a principle outlined with the Center for Public Justice’s Guideline on Family: to “account [for] the ways that

other institutions and the dynamics of society impact families positively and negatively from the earliest stages of family formation on through to the last stages of elder care.” Working alongside local and national institutions across society, we want to shift the culture across the country to one where being a dad is the norm rather than a distant dream, where mentors provide hope and guidance to all children but especially to those without positive role models.  We want communities and families that are safe, protected from the threat of violence and pain. In this work, I am personally inspired to action by a story of hope, a story about what is possible for every child born or growing up without a dad. It is exemplified in the headline I saw about the 100th anniversary of Father’s Day, “Fatherless Son Becomes First Dad.” It is the story of our president, and it is a story of what is possible for more and more children if we shift the culture in this country toward one where a present father is a probable reality. More information about what the administration is doing to support fathers is available at Fatherhood.gov and WhiteHouse.gov/partnerships. Ben O’Dell serves within the Department of Health and Human Services’ Center for FaithBased and Neighborhood Partnerships, where he works closely with the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in its effort to address the crisis of father absence in our communities. This column was adapted from an essay that appeared earlier this year in Capital Commentary, a publication of the Center for Public Justice (CPJustice.org). 

Fatherhood: One of the Most Important Jobs in the World  

Washington Watch November/December 2011