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Active, Engaged Fathers Play an Important Part in Children’s Development

Jada Shirriel, CEO, Healthy Start Pittsburgh, with one of the fathers in the program who is also an illustrator. The organization supported his professional development by purchasing and distributing his books to all of the participants in the program.

“Any fool can have a child. That doesn’t make you a father. It’s the courage to raise a child that makes you a father.”

—Barack Obama

Mothers are essential in a child’s life and are viewed as the heart of the family. But children need their fathers, too, and unfortunately too many children, both nationally and in our region, are lacking paternal involvement in their lives.

Fortunately, nonprofit Healthy Start Pittsburgh is on a mission to change that.

Healthy Start Pittsburgh is part of a network of over 100 other community-based Healthy Start Projects across the country with grant funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The local program began in 1991 and was one of the first 15 national sites in the country.

The mission of the nonprofit is to improve maternal and child health and to reduce poor birth outcomes and infant mortality in the 35 zip codes that it serves in our region.

“In Allegheny County, our focus is on Black women and families and babies. We also work across the system with community and clinical partners with issues related to healthcare quality, access, and policy,” said Chaunda Cunningham, LSW, director of Clinical Practice and Home Visiting.

Healthy Start Pittsburgh offers a great deal of community programming to help achieve their goals, including doula services, breastfeeding education, and home visits for prenatal and postnatal care.

One major prong of the nonprofit is outreach and education for fathers to encourage involvement, as fathers are a big part of the equation when it comes to successful outcomes for mothers and babies.

“We have a series of benchmarks and measurements we are assessing to provide prenatal and postpartum support. Fatherhood is an important benchmark. Within the last ten years, we’ve really put the emphasis on acknowledging the father’s role and how much that plays a role in the child’s development,” said Cunningham.

Fatherhood program promotes early literacy with children.

Statistically, children and the family unit benefit tremendously when there is an active, engaged father in the picture. “There are proven better outcomes for both children and mothers,” said Arthur Terry, Healthy Start Pittsburgh’s fatherhood coordinator.

For children, these include higher self-esteem, higher grades, overall academic achievement, fewer problems with drugs and alcohol, more support from paternal relatives, and lifetime economic stability.

Mothers benefit from the support of a trusted, loving partner. “Mothers have a decrease in medical issues, and a much decreased chance of experiencing postpartum depression,” said Terry. “The family benefits and the community benefits with the presence of a strong father leading a healthy family into a healthy community.”

And it’s not just the child and mother who benefit, but the involved father as well. The relationship leads to greater economic stability, said Terry, because a responsible father is one who is willing to work. “The sky is the limit for the dad. The greatest determinant of his child’s success in life is him, but it’s up to him to get in the game,” he said.

Working through multiple channels, Healthy Start Pittsburgh collaborates with other partners and members of their community action network to do outreach and community events. “We participate in every opportunity to engage in community-centered research. We work with local service providers to identify fathers who could utilize our services,” said Terry.

For example, in August, Healthy Start Pittsburgh plans to hold a Men’s Day of Celebration, which will be a day of positive male engagement for fathers and their children, featuring fun, food, education and information, all designed to create a stronger sense of self, family, and community.

Terry recently attended the sixth annual Symposium on Child Well-Being in Pennsylvania and the Urgent Need for Father Involvement, sponsored by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit and the Strong Families Commission, Inc. The symposium was part of the Pennsylvania Greater Father Family Involvement Campaign, the goal of which is to raise awareness that fathers can make tremendous contributions to families and children as well as educating and encouraging state government to adopt and institutionalize a father-inclusive posture toward men with families.

In fact, there is a pending bill in the Pennsylvania House (1731), modeled after a similar bill in Ohio that would establish a Pennsylvania Advisory Committee on Greater Father Involvement.

According to Terry, in 2019, there were 660,000 children in Pennsylvania living in single-mother homes. “Across the US, there are over 24 million children in single-mother homes, almost one in three,” he said. “Unfortunately, those most recent statistics have continued to rise.”

However, progress is being made. “We exist at a unique time. We’re at the confluence of opportunity and preparation. We have the opportunity to really increase infant outcomes, and we have the organizations prepared and in place to do it,” said Terry.

“The conversation is being held,” he added. “The issue is, ‘How can we do it best?’”

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