Preparing Fathers for Employment

Findings from the B3 Study of a Cognitive Behavioral Program

By Emily Brennan, Bret Barden, Sam Elkin, Ann Bickerton

A father’s support is linked to better outcomes on nearly every measure of a child’s well-being. Past research has shown that fathers who have been involved in the criminal justice system face structural disadvantages, including stigma from criminal records, low wages, and additional challenges in finding or maintaining stable employment, housing, and healthy relationships with family and friends. These barriers may make it difficult to provide emotional and financial support to their children.

To continue building an evidence base for effective, innovative interventions that support fathers and their families, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation (OPRE), with funding from Responsible Fatherhood grants administered by the Office of Family Assistance, engaged a team led by MDRC to conduct the Building Bridges and Bonds (B3) study. B3 partnered with fatherhood experts and practitioners to identify new and promising approaches to supporting fathers working toward economic stability and improved relationships with their children. Parenting and economic stability are, in fact, two of the three areas required for programs receiving Responsible Fatherhood grants. The study team tested three innovative, interactive skill-building approaches that addressed parenting and economic stability, within the context of existing programs offering services for fathers. The objective of the B3 study was to implement and test these innovative new interventions in the context of usual fatherhood services, and to learn whether they provided additional benefits.

This report presents findings and lessons from one part of the B3 study: a rigorous evaluation of the Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Justice Involved Individuals Seeking Employment (CBI-Emp), an intervention that applies cognitive behavioral skill building to help people who have been involved in the justice system maintain employment. The CBI-Emp study was a randomized controlled trial aimed at understanding whether this new approach could benefit recently incarcerated fathers when compared with usual employment services. The CBI-Emp curriculum consists of 31 group sessions that teach and reinforce ways that individuals can understand their own thinking processes and learn positive social skills, which can in turn help them manage challenging employment and interpersonal situations appropriately. The CBI-Emp model uses role-playing and other activities, and also includes staff training in Core Correctional Practices—cognitive behavioral skills for correctional practitioners that are intended to increase program effectiveness. Core Correctional Practices are designed to be used with services such as case management and group workshops.

The intended population for the CBI-Emp program model consists of fathers who have been involved in the justice system recently and who have a moderate to high risk of future involvement with the justice system. Therefore, eligibility for the B3 study of the CBI-Emp program was limited to fathers who met those criteria, according to a risk assessment conducted when they enrolled. Fathers also had to be at least 18 and have children under the age of 25.

The CBI-Emp study launched in 2015 with the participation of three organizations experienced in offering programs to fathers who have been involved in the justice system: Passages, Inc., in Cleveland, Ohio; The Fortune Society in New York, New York; and Kanawha Institute for Social Research and Action, Inc., with headquarters in Dunbar, West Virginia. Fathers were randomly selected to participate in one of two groups: One group was eligible to receive the organizations’ usual services, and the other was eligible to receive the CBI-Emp curriculum in addition to the usual services. This report builds on previously released findings about the implementation of the curriculum and summarizes the implementation results and lessons learned. The report also describes the effects of the curriculum and provides estimates of program costs.


  • Can CBI-Emp be implemented in the context of a fatherhood program? Yes. It can be, though recruitment and engagement are challenging. It took a lot of staff effort to recruit and engage fathers in services, and that effort yielded moderate results. About 70 percent of study fathers randomly assigned to be offered CBI-Emp attended at least one CBI-Emp session. Of those who attended at least 1 session, 63 percent attended 12 of the first 14, the amount deemed to be adequate exposure to the curriculum; this group attended an average of about 13 sessions. In other words, about 44 percent of fathers offered CBI-Emp got an adequate amount of exposure to the curriculum. Implementing CBI-Emp also required specialized training and ongoing coaching and technical assistance from the curriculum developers and the study team throughout the study period.
  • What does CBI-Emp cost? The CBI-Emp intervention cost $1,303 per participant over the two-year period from October 2016 to September 2018. Outreach and enrollment cost $215 per father offered CBI-Emp. Planning and service delivery cost $751 per father and technical assistance cost $338.
  • Is CBI-Emp, as implemented and studied in this evaluation, effective? No.
    • In the pooled analysis of all CBI-Emp study organizations, CBI-Emp did not produce statistically significant effects on any of the six prespecified primary outcome measures, nor on any secondary outcome measures. The six prespecified primary outcomes are grouped into three domains: employment (earnings, number of quarters of employment, and number of weeks employed), criminal justice (spending any time in prison and being arrested following enrollment), and relationships with coparents (specifically, conflicts with coparents). Secondary outcomes include more nuanced measures of primary outcomes, outcomes that are more distal to the interventions and less likely to be affected by them directly, and outcomes that should be interpreted with caution due to potential measurement limitations. For the CBI-Emp study, secondary outcomes include measures of cognitive function (related to planning, self-confidence in making decisions, and self-control), economic well-being, and child support.
    • CBI-Emp had larger effects on criminal justice outcomes at The Fortune Society than it did at the other two implementing organizations. Fathers at Fortune also participated substantially more in CBI-Emp services than fathers at the other two organizations, which may suggest CBI-Emp could be effective when there is consistently strong engagement in services. However, these findings about effects at one organization should be interpreted with caution because the sample size there was small.

Document Details

Publication Type
September 2021
Brennan, Emily, Bret Barden, Sam Elkin, and Ann Bickerton. 2021. Preparing Fathers for Employment. New York: MDRC.