Fathers are marginalised, says Gary Clapton

A welter of research has appeared over the past 10 years attesting to the positive contribution that fathers (living with their children – or not) can make in the lives of their children. This has also drawn attention to the marginalisation of fathers by social services.

Despite this, key shapers of social work opinion continue to marginalise fathers by refusing to include them in policies or practice or stereotyping them as all bad (and, at the same time, elevating mothers to the status of sole carers).

Examples abound. The new Scottish framework for assessment was published on the web in February 2007 as part of the Scottish executive’s programme to develop an integrated assessment framework for children and families work. It is intended to be “relevant to any professional working with children or young people whether in the context of education, social work, health, police or other services”. The material is built around a case study of the life of Mairi from birth to 18. A timeline presents various critical incidents in her life such as being fostered, her adoption and referral to a young people’s unit for an eating disorder.

At the end of the timeline, Mairi goes to university. Nowhere in all the various discussions of her life’s ups and downs does a birthfather, foster father or adoptive father take any part.

There is one passing reference to Mairi’s biological father. If this was a case of a birthfather abandoning a child then it might be an accurate portrayal. But we are not told this, just that he has returned to Asia. No efforts are made to create a picture of him for Mairi’s memory box and in other preparations for her fostering and adoption. Good practice in writing the framework materials would suggest that Mairi needs as much of her father’s history as can be obtained. And this ought to be brought forward just like the work with and about Mairi’s birthmother.

In Mairi’s foster placement the only active parent is her foster mother who “records details of development progress”. The information on her later life with adoptive parents continues on the same fatherless trajectory.

The pitfalls of ignoring Mairi’s birth-father take on double importance because he is Asian. Identity needs often loom large in the lives of adopted people who need information on both of their parents so as to mature.

One fatherless phase of Mairi’s life might be artistic licence and an attempt to reflect the realities of social work practice, but official guidelines that portray a missing father in every phase of Mairi’s life? Isn’t that poor practice?

Lest the Scottish executive materials be seen as an aberration, I also looked at material on the Social Care Institute for Excellence’s website. There, the latest practice guide for children and family social workers includes 11 case examples of child care and protection issues. In 10, the mother and her behaviour is the focus for the intervention and, despite references to “parents” and “families”, the father remains invisible. In the 11th case, the father is sexually abusive.

This is not a question of inclusion for inclusion’s sake. By not mentioning fathers in policies or guidance, or by stereotyping them, these materials downplay the importance of fathers in children’s lives and create the impression that there are only mothers, confirming the prejudice that children are women’s work. Children and families deserve better than this.

Gary Clapton is a lecturer in social work at the University of Edinburgh

This article appeared in the 27 September issue under the headline “Don’t airbrush fathers out of the lives of children”

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