Wrenetha Julion PhD, MPH, RAN, FAAN

Wrenetha Julion is fed up with the endless public handwringing over “deadbeat dads” in black communities. “If I hear again that more than half of African-American children grow up without their biological fathers in the home, I’m going to scream,” she says. “We know this fact, but the question is: What are we going to do about it?”

Julion, PhD, MPH, RN, FAAN, a professor of nursing at Rush University in Chicago and an alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) New Connections program (2007), is working to find an answer: She’s using her skills as a nurse scientist to find ways to bolster the positive involvement of black fathers who live apart from their kids.

Her research is of particular interest at a time when the nation is paying special attention to the issue. During his tenure in office, President Obama—himself the son of an absent father—has launched initiatives to promote responsible fatherhood and address challenges faced by young men of color.

Involved fathers are critical to healthy child development. Children of more engaged fathers do better in school and are more likely to delay childbirth and avoid risky behaviors, studies show. Fathers benefit from engagement with their children, too; they are more likely to complete their education, find and keep jobs, and earn higher incomes, and less likely to go back to jail if they have been there before, Julion says. More involved fathers help moms too, as long as there is a mutually respectful and positive relationship between parents, she adds. Engaged fathers are more likely to take on child care responsibilities and provide financial and emotional support to mothers, Julion says. “It’s a win-win all around.”

Despite its benefits, few researchers have explored ways to encourage non-resident black fathers to become more involved with their children. Julion has been working to fill this void ever since she entered a doctoral program in nursing at Rush University in Chicago in 1997. For her dissertation, she studied the views of black non-resident fathers about paternal involvement, and debunked the pervasive myth that black non-resident fathers are “deadbeat dads”—uninterested in, uninvolved with, and uncommitted to their children.

Also that year, Julion used her RWJF New Connections grant to study whether black fathers’ level of religiosity—as measured by their church attendance—affects their level of paternal involvement. In 2009, Julion received a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop a fatherhood intervention to help non-resident black fathers overcome barriers to positive involvement with their kids. In the summer of 2014, she received another NIH grant to evaluate the efficacy of the fatherhood intervention in a randomized study.

“We need to break the intergenerational cycle,” Julion says. “When children grow up without fathers, they think that their own children don’t need fathers either. But children do need their fathers, and the more we can do to communicate that message, the better.”