Research: working with fathers with a history of domestic violence

Social work academic Dr Kieron Hatton examines research on social work with fathers who have carried out domestic violence

Social work academic Dr Kieron Hatton examines research on social work with fathers who have carried out domestic violence

KEYWORDS: Serious case reviews | risky fathers

Editor: Cathy Ashley Contributors: Clare Roskill, Claire Fraser, Brid Featherstone, Sean Haresnape, Bridget Lindley

Title: Ashley, C (ed) (2011) Working with risky fathers, Fathers Matter volume 3: research findings on working with domestically abusive fathers and their involvement with children’s social care services, London, Family Rights Group

Aim: To undertake action research in three local authority children’s services departments on working with fathers who are violent within the home

Methodology: The authors used a mixed methodology which included an audit of child protection and children in need case files, undertaking a review of local policies and procedures and conducting focus groups and interviews with social workers and managers, mothers and fathers. In addition, there was a review of international literature with a particular focus on the Duluth programme and the Caring Dads programme developed in Canada.

Conclusion: Drawing on the findings from Fathers Matter 1 and 2, the report provides a wide range of recommendations to improve local authority children’s services policies and practice, including better recognition of fathers’ roles in core assessments, improved recording and monitoring, enhanced training for frontline staff and more effective preventative and specialist services, as well as changes to legislation.

Research objectives

Fathers Matter volume 3, through its use of action research methodology, had a number of key objectives, which included:

● Supporting the participating local authorities to embed best practice on working with fathers/father figures.

● Reviewing the conclusions from serious case reviews in this respect.

● Developing and piloting a training course for social care workers and their managers.

● Producing a learning resource for social work educators.

● Publishing a series of FAQs for fathers on the Family Rights Group website on law and practice.

Child protection social work often focuses solely on the mother and children. Even when the mother is a victim of domestic abuse, social workers often fail to engage or assess fathers, especially if they don’t live in the family home. The latest Fathers Matter report suggests legislative change, research and social work education should be used to increase awareness of how to work with risky fathers.

The authors note some excellent practice in the children’s services departments they worked with, but highlight several issues around engagement with families and the involvement of reluctant fathers. Fathers should be routinely invited to planning meetings and, where there are safety issues raised, the father should still be supported to contribute to the decision-making process around their child, the report finds.

Equally, the authors suggest care should be taken to ensure the father’s details are recorded and that involvement with and response from the father should be recorded for all assessments. They suggest there has been a clear emphasis on working with mothers and children in these complex settings and that staff should receive training to ensure that “the presumption (is) that the children’s father be involved in any assessment of , and planning for, the child’s needs and welfare”.

A common multi-agency approach to assessing risk and developing support systems for young fathers would result in them having a more positive ongoing relationship with their partners. This may include developing parenting classes that welcome fathers, perpetrator programmes that recognise men’s parenting role and safe contact provision.

Drawing on previous Family Matters research, the report highlights how family group conferences (FGCs) can contribute to allowing children to live safely within their family network and provide a “model which allows a father’s views to be represented even if it is not safe for him to be present”. FGCs could be a model for all situations where the welfare of the child is of concern. The authors argue for relatively modest changes to legislation to allow for FGCs to be provided early in an intervention to safeguard the child’s needs.

The recommendations end with a call for the Department for Education to commission research into fathers’ involvement in decisions about their children’s welfare and for universities to engage with discussions about the “changing roles and responsibilities of father and father figures”.

As an educator, I recognise the lack of discussion about the father’s role in child welfare and the challenge this presents to social work theory and practice (however, see Pringle, 1996 and Hearn, Pringle, 2006 for clear examples of how social work has engaged with these issues).

In my experience of social work education, issues of power, gender and oppression are integral to educational programmes, in which there is already an important focus on relationships. The Social Work Reform Board, the College of Social Work and Professor Eileen Munro’s report have highlighted the importance of focusing on education programmes and it may well be that the education sector is more advanced than practice agencies. In the latter, the proceduralisation of assessments and interventions has negated social work’s historic emphasis on the important of relationships.

Critique of research

This is an important area of research, which has not received enough attention. Indeed, the recruitment of men to the profession is still poor and an improvement in this area may provide the impetus for some of the changes the authors recommend. The research approach is robust and provides a way of contextualising the overall experience of families experiencing violence within the home, and of “risky fathers”.

However, the international literature review was brief and would have benefited from a wider view. For example, Scandinavian literature, in which the role of men in social work and social welfare has been more fully explored, did not feature. This is partly compensated for in chapter six, which details projects and programmes for working with violent fathers and father figures across the UK and internationally.

Practice implications

For social workers and managers

● Children’s services departments and the wider workforce need to develop the skills and expertise of their staff in relation to the role of fathers, and particularly fathers where there has been violence in the relationship.

● The voice of fathers needs to be heard in assessment, planning and review (including serious case reviews) and where issues of safety arise agencies should still be seeking to develop safe ways of recording that voice.

● The wider use of family group conferences would ensure better practice and the safety and well-being of the child.

● Interventions with risky fathers need to be underpinned with accessible and preventative family support services. This means re-engaging with preventative services and not just relying on crisis interventions. Ultimately, the cost to the child and family will outweigh any savings generated by reducing preventative services.

For social work educators

● To introduce or, more often, enhance an understanding of the role of fathers in safety and well-being discourses.

● To equip student to carry out assessments that engage with the birth father, father figures and other significant adults.

● To develop with agencies joint education programmes to meet the gaps identified in this report.

For policy makers

● To amend section 22 of the Children Act 1989 to enhance role of family group conferences.

● To improve judicial training and understanding to ensure that fathers/father figures understand judicial decisions even if not represented in court.

Further reading

● Ashley C, Featherstone, B Roskill, C Ryan, M, White, S (2006) Fathers Matter: Research findings on fathers and their involvement with social care services, London, Family Rights Group

● Hearn, J and Pringle, K (2006) Men, Masculinities and children: some European perspectives, Critical Social Policy, 26 pp 365 – 389

● Pringle, K (1995) Men, Masculinities & Social Welfare, London, UCL Press

● Roskill, C Featherstone, B Ashley C, Haresnape, S (2008) Fathers Matter Volume 2, Further findings on fathers and their involvement with social care services, London, Family Rights Group

About the author: Dr Kieron Hatton, professional lead of social work at the University of Portsmouth

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