In the name of the father

Although mothers are usually seen as having
prime responsibility in bringing up children, fathers are
increasingly playing a major role in child care. But when problems
occur within families do social services recognise fathers’
potential when it comes to caring for their children? Natalie
Valios reports.

In Entertaining Mr Sloane, playwright
Joe Orton identifies a familiar accusation levelled at fathers with
the line: “It’s all any reasonable child can expect if the dad is
present at the conception.”

Fathers usually want to be there for a bit
longer, of course. But when families break down, or need the help
of preventive or protective services, how often do professionals
seek the father’s opinion? How often do fathers get the chance to
be continuously involved in their child’s life?

Despite a wealth of evidence to show that
input from fathers improves many aspects of children’s lives and
development, there is evidence to suggest that professionals often
overlook the importance of paternal input.

Over the past few years, the fathers’ movement
has grown larger and more vociferous. Organisations across the
country offer support, advice and information and campaign for
fathers’ rights. With as many as 10,000 teenagers becoming fathers
each year, the government has recognised the importance of
including young fathers in its work around teenage pregnancies. A
Home Office family support grant is funding a two-year project to
test five sites as models for supporting excluded and disengaged
young fathers in Newcastle, Sheffield, Birmingham, Norwich and

With the high incidence of young parents
separating, teenage fathers are less likely than most to have
meaningful or sustained contact with their children. According to
the charity Fathers Direct, which provides information to fathers,
this lack of involvement has substantial social costs. It affects
their children’s development, puts unnecessary strain on the mother
and is a significant factor in depression in young men.

Tom Beardshaw, senior projects manager of
Fathers Direct, says: “It is crucial to encourage boys and young
men to develop the qualities they need to be good fathers. We must
create an early years environment in which children see the
presence of men as routine and ensure that our young women also
have a full sense of all that men can offer their children.”

Until recently, when people talked about who
looked after children, they referred automatically to women, says
Trefor Lloyd, director of Working with Men. Fathers are not always
acknowledged as active caring family members. And social workers
have been caught in the same timewarp, says Lloyd.

This is evident in family services,
particularly in social services departments, which are staffed
mainly by women acting for a female client group. Consequently,
many social workers have little experience of working with fathers.
However, Lloyd is loath to apportion blame: “I wouldn’t say that
social workers do it intentionally, although some might. It’s
probably because the bulk of them don’t know how to engage with

But it can be a two-way street. In extreme
cases this lack of communication with fathers means they are
ignored right from the first contact meeting, however much they are
a “hands-on” parent. And when child protection workers become
involved they can bring a negative perception of fathers with them,
as they balance concerns for the safety of the child and mother
against contact rights of the father, says John Roberts, a social
worker specialising in working with male service users at Leicester
Family Service Unit.

But, give them the opportunity, and it is
amazing how fathers can come through, he says. “Some will need a
lot of help, especially violent men, to understand that certain
kinds of behaviour aren’t acceptable. That doesn’t mean that
fathers generally should be excluded from services in the way they
are now.”

But sometimes men do not help themselves. They
can feel uncomfortable if they are drawn into discussions around
exploring feelings rather than being given practical information
about their child, says Roberts. As a male social worker, Roberts
is all too aware of how difficult fathers can find this, even when
the professional they are dealing with is male. “Men aren’t used to
generally communicating with other men on an intimate level and
they sometimes assume you are gay.”

Lloyd highlights three related issues when
working with fathers1:

– Professionals’ attitudes towards fathers
might be influenced by outdated notions of the father’s role within
the family.

– Men are reluctant to look for information
and assistance in their role as fathers.

– Many people do not have a clear view of
fathers’ real role and of their benefits to children.

Working with Men runs two Home Office-funded
fathers projects in Lewisham, south-east London. The organisation
runs advice sessions, courses for expectant fathers and
school-based work for boys including courses on preparation for
fatherhood for 12-to-16-year-olds, literacy and sexual health.

Fathers tend to approach Working with Men in a
crisis. They might be about to appear in court to negotiate contact
arrangements, or they have not seen their child for a long time
because the mother is making contact difficult, or the Child
Support Agency has been in touch with them.

Few fathers realise that they would have no
legal parental responsibility if they were not married to the
child’s mother. The effect is that social services do not have a
statutory obligation to engage with those fathers without parental
responsibility, says John Sloan, project co-ordinator for Newpin’s
fathers’ support centre (see below).

“By law they don’t have any rights. So you
could have a situation where mum and dad have lived together for
years but aren’t married, the relationship ends, mum says he can’t
have contact with the child. Dad has no rights until he goes to

Sloan feels there is a lot of lip service paid
to engaging fathers but, when it comes down to doing so, social
workers and other professionals shy away. “They need to re-examine
how they see the family and see it as a whole rather than as the
mother and child.”

Social work is not the only profession to
sideline fathers. Schools, hospitals and GPs will often direct
questions to the mother when the father has accompanied them under
the misguided belief that mum knows best. Family law courts, too,
are “failing dads en masse”, says Sloan. Fathers who have been
awarded parental responsibility and contact rights, but are being
obstructed by the mother, can wait years for a ruling from the
family law court.

“This sends out a signal to a lot of people,
including social services departments, that fathers aren’t valued,”
says Sloan. “That is ultimately destructive for children and

Fathers and men in general are poor users of
any service, Lloyd says, so they are hardly likely to queue up to
see a social worker. When they do become involved with social
services they often report the difficulties they have encountered
to Working with Men. They are often excluded from discussions about
their child’s future, such as care plans and court proceedings
concerning parental responsibility and who will have custody.
Fathers do much better when arrangements are mediated rather than
resolved in court, suggesting that courts still favour mothers,
says Lloyd.

Although social workers and court welfare
officers need to take responsibility for involving fathers, Lloyd
believes that fathers need to be held accountable too for their own

As Beardshaw says: “The size of our
responsibility is clear. If we can demonstrate the impact that
fathers have on their children, none of us – not government, not
policy makers, not practitioners, not mothers, not fathers
themselves – can take refuge behind a discredited stereotype
suggesting that fathers are of little significance.”

1 T Lloyd, What Works
With Fathers
, Working with Men, 2001

the centre of support for fathers

Newpin’s fathers’ support centre has been
running for five years at Elephant and Castle, south-east London,
with funding from the Home Office and the government’s Sure Start
initiative. It offers a therapeutic group work programme,
one-to-one counselling, telephone support and parenting classes for
fathers. It is in the initial stages of setting up a volunteer
befriending project so that fathers can call other dads for help
and advice.

Newpin is a voluntary organisation supporting
parents of young children through its network of centres across the
country. Often when there are family problems, it is the mother and
child who present to social services. Men are conspicuous by their
absence, says John Sloan, project co-ordinator. To address this,
the fathers’ support centre works alongside Newpin’s ante- and
post-natal project so that when a mother turns up, workers can
engage with the father as well.

Men rarely go to family centres because they
don’t feel they are geared up to their needs. Family centres
collude in this because they are targeted at women, says Sloan.
This is backed up by research from the Joseph Rowntree
Foundation2 which found that family centres are still
strongly female dominated, with fathers finding activities
unappealing. Fathers were more likely to go to centres where there
was a positive commitment by staff to work with men and value them
as parents. Many centres lacked male workers leaving fathers with
no one to relate to, it adds.

Male workers need to be on hand at the first
point of contact and there should be an atmosphere that makes both
parents feel welcome, says Sloan. Family centres and services need
to be father-friendly places, with flexible hours to cater for
everybody, whether employed or otherwise.

The fathers’ support centre is open five days
a week and referrals are made from all over London from social
services, midwives, hospitals and self-referrals. The reasons
behind referrals vary from relationship breakdown leading to a lack
of contact with children to a desire to improve parenting skills
rather than re-enacting how they were parented, perhaps by a
“hands-off” father.

Although anger management may be an issue,
Sloan dislikes the automatic link made between fathers and
violence. “The fact that they have come here means that they are
already on the right route.

“Most dads coming to the project realise that
they would like to improve or build on existing skills. They want
to bond and spend more time with their children. This represents a
massive sea-change in the way that fathers are seeing themselves as

2 D Ghate, C Shaw, N Hazel,
Fathers and Family Centres: Engaging Fathers in Preventive
, YPS, 2000

What works in fathers’ projects

– Clarity of purpose: work with fathers too
often starts with the aim of setting up a fathers’ group without
much thought about its purpose.

– Many men do not use services so reaching
them through traditional ways, for example, GP surgeries, are less
likely to work. Consider a mixture of options – radio
advertisements, the local media, sports settings, the Internet and

– Which fathers? Know who you want to attract
to the project. For example, men struggling to be active, involved
fathers, or lone fathers with primary child care.

– What are you offering? From therapeutic
programmes, sports-based activities, sessions on men’s health,
violence or feminism. More important than content is that they
relate to the project’s purpose.

– Why would they want to get involved?
Understanding the motivation for fathers’ involvement is central to
a project’s success for recruiting and meeting their needs.

– Workers’ skills and attitudes. Diversity
helps – family workers, social workers, community workers,
trainers, advice workers, students and volunteers. Staff are
usually male and also fathers. This is not to say that women can’t
do the job as long as they have a knowledge of fathering and

Taken from What Works With
(see reference 1, main article).


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