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Just Beginning Fatherhood

Mother and Baby



Among males who are younger than 20 years of age and in custody, approximately 15% are fathers (Sedlak & Bruce, 2010). Many of these incarcerated teenage fathers describe strong motivations to stay involved in their children's lives and to parent effectively. Because they are incarcerated, they often struggle to develop the necessary skills and overcome systemic barriers. For example, young fathers who are in custody may find it difficult to form relationships with their very young children, especially when visitation is sporadic. Furthermore, interactions typically take place in loud, intimidating areas, which can increase stress and stranger anxiety among babies and younger children.

The absence of a father in a child’s life is often associated with poor developmental outcomes for the child (Hairston, 2002). Research demonstrates that the quality of father–child interactions predicts outcomes for the child regardless of whether or not the father and the child live together (Tamis-LeMonda, 2004). Therefore, interventions incorporating structured visitation with support for fathers to learn positive parenting strategies could capitalize on fathers' high levels of motivation, improve father–child interactional quality, and promote positive developmental outcomes for their children.

What is Just Beginning?

The Just Beginning Fatherhood (JB) program is a voluntary, structured visitation program. Co-created by Georgetown University and the Youth Law Center, the JB program is designed for noncustodial fathers, particularly those in juvenile or criminal justice facilities. The program aims to build and strengthen the relationship between fathers and their children. Facilities recruit and select fathers to participate in the program. JB encourages sites to allow all fathers to participate. The JB program has also been used with young incarcerated mothers.

Program Description

The JB program aims to enhance the quality of interactions, foster secure attachments, and maintain strong bonds between the father and child. The program also encourages communication between the incarcerated father and the child’s non-incarcerated primary caregiver. The JB program consists of five 60- to 90-minute sessions, during which a JB-trained facilitator meets with the father one-on-one or in a small group setting with two or three fathers. The staffing level at the facility determines whether the sessions are conducted one-on-one or in small groups. During the sessions, the father focuses on mastering four key skills: (1) noticing the child’s signals and cues, (2) following the child’s lead, (3) talking to the child, and (4) encouraging and praising the child. The final session focuses on integrating these skills. Facilitators follow a curriculum manual from JB to introduce each skill and lead a discussion about how the father might practice the skill with his child. Each session also includes a visit between the father and child, during which time the father practices the skills from the session and then receives feedback from the facilitator. The intervention is media-based. It uses Sesame Beginnings videos to provide fathers with examples of positive parent–child interactions. Such videos can benefit parents who struggle with reading skills but have high competency with other forms of digital media.