Overcoming a stigma of ‘angry dads’

By Jeremiah Donier

This new column focuses on the perspective of parents whose children enter the foster care system. Jeremiah Donier is a dad who successfully worked through a plan for reunification. Now, he serves as a mentor to other parents in similar situations and provides the valuable insight only offered by those with lived experience.

In the best of times, many fathers are misunderstood, seen as inept or indifferent. An angry dad is unwanted, and often immediately excluded. Although there are many reasons why aggressive men are excluded from social services, most are not valid for many fathers, particularly non-resident dads who struggle with adversity. I know from personal and professional experience that this exclusion is not trauma-informed — it is often based on fear of the unknown rather than immediate risk.

As a lived expert, I understand the duality of fear between dads and caseworkers. Professionals often hesitate to engage, while dads tend to distrust the process. This often leads to delays and denials of essential services. During my family’s case, it took a month longer for my approval to the same program as my wife and child. I remember meeting with others about anger and domestic violence concerns. Despite having no violent history and my wife coming to my defense, social services wanted me to step away from my baby and three-plus years of marriage. No one understood why I felt angry — because of exclusion, false things said about me and a lifetime of adversities.

My family’s financial insecurities added to my frustration. From the start, I was assessed my wife’s child support portion because she was unemployed. It did not matter to social services that I became unemployed in order to participate in family services for more than 40 hours per week. Over the next two years, other than child-specific assistance, my family was denied food, housing and healthcare support. I paid off my child support arrears after returning to work but lost my family’s home to foreclosure. Looking back, my economic adversities are minor compared to the many fathers who face financial insecurities and other disadvantages.

I am one of the lucky dads because I overcame my anger and reunited my family. With the support of a counselor, I reflected upon and grieved my childhood experiences while learning to become a nurturing father. Addressing trauma and sharing my feelings was not easy, but it was made possible by the intentional, wise, kind and empathetic support of others. After closing my case successfully, I continued healing by serving as a parent mentor and paraprofessional peer.

Including dads continues to be a social conundrum, especially if they’re angry. Unfortunately, when fathers show any sign of anger, many professionals react poorly. As a peer, I often observe how angry dads can trigger a colleague’s admittedly unhappy memories of heavy-handed male caregivers. While initial fear and safety concern is reasonable, a father’s immediate exclusion is not a trauma-informed response. It often stands in sharp contrast in the treatment of an angry mom. The dichotomy is not well studied, but often noted in informal surveys, such as one conducted in 2019 by the Washington Interagency Fatherhood Council. Despite this, I often witness teammates expressing empathy and moving quickly to support emotional mothers. This social disconnect is a result of personal bias and not an understanding of how and why some men become angry.

From 2007 to 2010, the National Quality Improvement Center on Non-Resident Fathers and the Child Welfare System conducted a study in six cities. The University of Washington’s School of Social Work oversaw Seattle’s program. In 2011 this team released the video “Including Fathers,” which highlighted fathers’ behavior and engagement strategies.

In the video, caseworker Daryllyn Harris explained how she engaged and supported an angry dad (bit.ly/3fcR34u). She said, “I remember [this dad] being pretty argumentative. I think he had a lot of resentment about the whole thing. ‘Why I am here? It is not my fault … I didn’t [do] all those things [the] mom did. Now I am here, I’m the one showing up, and now you guys are still making me jump through the hoops.’”

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are used by professionals to explain angry or oppositional defiant behavior in children, especially those in the foster care system. Left untreated, these behaviors can develop into unhealthy coping mechanisms and lifelong challenges, as demonstrated by the 1995 to 1997 CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACEs Study. The original research focused on adult behavior stemming from childhood adversities and how it continued through a lifetime. In other words, ACEs explain some dysfunctional adult anger, too. Yet, it is perplexing how some professionals don’t understand that ACEs are linked to diminished adult interpersonal skills and poor coping mechanisms. This is important because when it comes to excluded dads, too many colleagues fail to recognize anger as a defensive trauma response that is masking other challenges.

Patrick Dowd, Children & Families Ombudsman, also explained in the video (2:37), “I think anyone would be frightened to engage in a court system they may not be familiar with. Fathers also have to deal with paternity issues and child support issues. There could be family court issues as well. Maybe outstanding criminal matters that would prevent them coming to court … I think caseworkers need to be aware of those issues that are facing fathers.”

Many professionals acknowledge “fight, flight or freeze” as automatic reflexes, but few are familiar with “fawn,” as identified by Pete Walker, a Berkley psychotherapist. Walker notes how adults with severe ACEs co-mingle reflexes, with deeply complex, ingrained and difficult-to-overcome behavioral responses without social-emotional intervention. My personal experience validates this assessment. My defense was to move quickly into anger, but not escalate unless pushed to the extreme. At the start of my case, no one understood how my unexplained and dysfunctional anger came from deep trauma combined with daily stressors.

In due time, what appeared to be aggression and control was identified by my counselor as codependent fawning behavior. To overcome my challenges, my counselor talked me through childhood experiences and put them in perspective. My social worker and her supervisor intervened to set boundaries between my family and controlling relatives. As I began to put my needs first, I healed the deep hurt within me. Then, I faced past and everyday fears to see the world anew through my child’s eyes. In this way, I let go of my anger and stepped into a safe space where I could nurture myself, my child and my family.

Today, I understand that it takes wisdom and empathy to understand an angry bio father. Instead of excluding angry bio dads, professionals must make efforts to bravely reach out and move alongside fathers. Patiently guiding a dad through fear, sadness and shame is a tricky process, but by doing it together, you can understand and identify his unique needs. Once a dad is helped in overcoming his past, he is empowered to take ahold of his future, becoming a source of strength for his family. •

Jeremiah Donier serves as a family consultant with more than 15 years of lived expertise in behavioral health, child development, domestic violence, protective factors, multi-generational adversities and responsible fathering. As a volunteer and contracted consultant, he serves on dozens of projects to keep children safe, help youth thrive, build strong families and create supportive communities. By reflecting upon data and emerging issues, he helps others connect data with ideas in order to create family-friendly policy, practice and programs at the local, state and national level. Donier lives on Whidbey Island with his wife and two children and also works part-time as a library associate. In June 2012, Donier was named one the American Bar Association’s first Reunification Heroes. In 2019, he was honored with a Casey Excellence for Children Award.

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