Engaging men more effectively could improve child protection and prevent domestic violence. Gordon Carson reports on a project aiming to achieve both outcomes
● Project name: Islington Breaking Down Barriers.
● Aims: To ensure all practices, procedures and systems within Islington children’s services consider fathers. To increase the numbers of men, including fathers and partners, recorded in social work assessments.
● Model: Using co-operative enquiry, a group of social workers led by Gavin Swann, operational manager for Islington Council’s children-in-need service, meets every six weeks to discuss and agree on actions to experiment with in frontline practice with families.
● Timescale: An 18-month project scheduled to run until October 2011.
● Outcomes: An increase in children placed with paternal relatives. A full evaluation is due later this year.
There is no shortage of research highlighting the importance of fathers in their children’s lives. But Gavin Swann (pictured) admits that, for most of his career as a social worker, he held negative and prejudicial views about the men who featured in his cases.
The change in his attitude and approach over the past couple of years has been “like Saul on the road to Damascus”, says the operational manager for Islington Council’s children-in-need service, who claims there needs to be a challenge to “the idealisation of motherhood and denigration of fatherhood” in children’s social care.
Swann’s determination to confront prejudice against men, and fathers in particular, stems from research for a master’s in child protection and complex casework at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust.
He is now attempting to alter practice after recruiting 12 Islington social workers and managers to the 18-month Breaking Down Barriers project, as part of his doctorate study, also through the Tavistock.
The group meets every six weeks to discuss approaches to including men in children’s services. Meetings are also attended by voluntary sector partners such as Respect – the Association for Domestic Violence Services, and the London-based Domestic Violence Intervention Project.
The group uses the co-operative enquiry model, which involves the workers using their own experience to develop techniques, experimenting in the field with ideas agreed at the meetings, then reflecting on their effectiveness together.
“There are reasons why men are not engaging with social care,” says Swann. “They are choosing not to be responsible for their kids but our own systems and procedures are not set up for engaging with men, and assessment procedures don’t encourage us to fully explore extended families.”
Swann points to the lack of knowledge among Baby Peter’s social workers of the men living in the family home – Steven Barker, the lover of Peter’s mother Tracey Connelly, and Barker’s brother Jason Owen – and the threat they posed to him, even though Peter’s father had called children’s social care to express his concerns.
In addition, many of the 147 serious case reviews evaluated by Ofsted in 2009-10 referred to a “lack of attention to the role of fathers and what was known about them”.
Swann says the project has already achieved positive results; for example, placing four extra children with paternal extended families in the past six months. Islington did not previously record statistics such as this, making it hard to draw comparisons, but Swann is certain fathers and their extended families are being included more in procedures such as initial and core assessments.
Changing the entrenched attitudes of social workers (particularly female social workers) has perhaps been an even bigger challenge than improving records, however.
“We know there’s a disproportionately high number of social workers who have suffered abuse in their own childhoods,” says Swann. “Social workers can themselves be playing out the whole issue with fathers and be scared of working with men. We need them to feel as safe as possible to engage with men.”
So, while social workers are being encouraged to confront their prejudices about men, Islington has also taken a tough stance against men who abuse staff, and Swann says the council has prosecuted one man – an action it had never previously taken.
Staff are also trained to engage with perpetrators of domestic violence, and DVIP carries out risk assessments in the most serious cases.
Neil Blacklock, development director of Respect, says the progress already made in Islington shows that engaging men in child protection improves risk management and reduces the tendency of social workers to “see mothers as solely responsible for the care and well-being of children”.
Although the project ends in October, Swann is determined to ensure the approaches it has introduced will be embedded in everyday practice.
To measure progress, there was an audit of 100 case files at the start of the project and this will take place again at the end to determine if there has been a change in practice.
Following a meeting in May with Islington’s safeguarding children board, other agencies in the borough have agreed to create their own policies on including fathers, and will present their proposals to Swann in September.
The Fatherhood Institute is also auditing the children-in-need service’s systems to see if they are gender-neutral, and Swann has been working with Family Rights Group, contributing to a conference on working with fathers this year.
Swann says other organisations contemplating similar projects should set clear objectives but the over-arching aim has to be tackling a situation where “men have been invisible”.
“We need to challenge this silence,” he adds.
Recognising fathers’ role
Godiva Sikayenah has been keen to apply the ideas generated in the Breaking Down Barriers project to her own practice.
“Within any service that works with parents it’s crucial that fathers’ details are recorded and fathers are engaged with the services they and their families are accessing,” says the newly qualified social worker, who graduated from Brunel University in 2009.
This did not come across clearly during her degree, though. “There’s a lot of research on the importance of engaging with fathers but in my course there was never a module or a set period to talk about that,” she says. “I don’t want to minimise the effects of domestic violence, but the emphasis was around fathers as a danger to the family.”
Sikayenah now asks for the details of the father in all the cases referred to her as a children and families social worker, though in practice it’s not always easy to persuade mothers to reveal them. “Mothers often gatekeep,” she adds.
Sikayenah also stresses that each case has to be judged on its own merits, and points to one involving domestic violence where it was decided from the outset that it would be too risky to engage with the father.
But she highlights another case where she was able to talk to a father who wasn’t engaging with children’s services, and where his partner had said he was using drugs. “I told him that the children’s centre was a good resource, with a fathers and children breakfast club, and he’s now actively fulfilling his responsibilities as a dad,” she says.
She is in no doubt that the Breaking Down Barriers project has helped to make practice more inclusive, and not just within social care.
“One of the wonderful things about this project is that we can ask other organisations making referrals ‘where are the father’s details?’,” she says. “So that means other professions are also recognising the role of the father.”
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