Improving social care engagement with fathers: what is going on out there?

Jonathan Scourfield reflects on the main findings from a new study into the way social care services work with fathers

By Jonathan Scourfield, professor of social work at Cardiff University

Working with fathers is something of a Cinderella area in social care. People are increasingly aware of the need to involve fathers in family support and child protection, but progress is pretty slow. When I have been to practitioner conferences on the issue, I am immediately aware that this can be a controversial area, with some people coming from a fathers’ rights position and others from a feminist perspective and these two groups of people not usually seeing eye to eye.

I wanted to get a picture of what is going on out there. What kinds of services are fathers taking up and what approaches are typically being used? So I set up a survey for practitioners across the UK to find out. The results have just been published in an open access article in Children and Youth Services Review.

Targeted and universal interventions

Most of those who responded were offering universal services, but around a third were targeting services on some level of need. Responses came from several different sectors, but the most numerous were from Sure Start children’s centres or equivalents. The most common type of service was structured parenting classes and nine out of ten of these were provided for both parents. Next most common were practical activities for parents and children (including play), followed by unstructured support groups, advice on employment and benefits and legal advice.

Most of the interventions specifically for fathers (as opposed to both parents) seemed to be unique services devised by committed local practitioners. Some interventions were named several times, however, and these were mostly services for both parents. The Triple P and Incredible Years parenting programmes were most often mentioned. The only intervention for fathers specifically which was mentioned more than twice was Caring Dads. This is a targeted programme for high-risk fathers. Across all services, the numbers of fathers attending services were relatively low. The average number of fathers engaged in the last twelve months was ten.

I asked practitioners why they thought it was important to work with fathers and what kinds of help did fathers need. Responses suggested that overt gender politics play only a small part, with strong statements on feminist and fathers’ rights approaches being the least popular rationales for work with fathers. The dominant views of practitioners were in line with mainstream approaches to parenting support, with cognitive and behavioural approaches being the most popular.

Tips on recruiting fathers

I also asked for tips on recruiting fathers. Many people wrote about the importance of the practitioner’s general orientation to fathers, e.g. being open and honest, welcoming and non-judgemental, making a personal connection, having a respectful curiosity about their lives. In a similar vein, some noted the importance of asking fathers what they want, using their knowledge and expertise.

Many simply noted the importance of always including men – i.e. assuming they are interested and their children matter to them; addressing them directly from the start; expecting men to be engaged even where separated from the children’s mothers.

Another set of responses focused on practical measures: the need to improve data on families and ensure fathers are recorded, always addressing both partners in a couple and being flexible about working hours, including work on evenings and weekends if necessary. Other ideas included making venues inclusive of men, the use of promotional literature specifically targeting fathers, using men to promote services and educating other services to make them more father-friendly. Interestingly, hardly any respondents mentioned the value of having male staff or volunteers.

Special events for fathers and children were mentioned by several respondents. Some targeted men with activities compatible with traditionally masculine roles: e.g. doing useful jobs in school rather than engaging directly with learning, help with gardening or some other physical activity. Food was mentioned several times as a draw for men: cheese toasties, biscuits and especially bacon rolls!

What we need now is more evidence on which of these approaches actually works – which leads to good outcomes for fathers, mothers and children. Almost all the evidence on effective parenting programmes comes from mothers, so there is great need for evidence that is specific to fathers.

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