How can social workers better engage fathers?

Jonathan Scourfield shares the learning from a study about an attachment-building programme for fathers

Photo: nadezhda1906/Fotolia (posed by models)

by Jonathan Scourfield

Is working with fathers any different from working with mothers?

It could be argued that properly engaging fathers is just good whole-family practice. Paying appropriate attention to all adults involved in a child’s life should be seen as good common sense in social work.

But the practical reality of working with fathers is one of considerable challenge, and is arguably distinctive. This was seen found recently in an evaluation of Mellow Dads, an intensive group-based programme for the fathers of at-risk children.

The programme’s primary aim is to improve attachment. It runs for fourteen weeks, each session being a whole school day. Fathers spend the morning on fairly intensive groupwork, which tackles some of their personal difficulties and some educational aspects about child care.

Highlighting strengths

The lunchtime is important. The children, who have been in a crèche during the morning session, join the fathers for a meal and there is some filming of the men’s interactions with them. The afternoon is spent viewing and discussing these and other videos of the fathers with their children. A lot of emphasis is placed on highlighting strengths.

The programme facilitators have a crucial role, as not only are they responsible for running the group work, but in the local authority we studied the same staff also did the recruitment of fathers and kept in contact outside of sessions, through phone calls and home visits.

In this local authority the facilitators were family support workers – mostly not qualified social workers – and had experience of running other parenting programmes and providing one-to-one support to parents.

The fathers we spoke to who had attended Mellow Dads really valued the highly skilled efforts to engage them. They said the warmth and humour of the facilitators helped them to settle in to a group they had been very nervous about attending.

The facilitators (one man and one woman) reflected in the group on some of their own difficulties, which helped to bring down social barriers between them and the fathers attending the course.


The fathers really valued advice on play and parenting style as well as the opportunity to meet other fathers in similar circumstances.

However, there were obstacles that had an impact on the effectiveness of the programme.

Considerable time and effort was required to get the men to attend in the first place and then to keep them coming. Some similar efforts will also be needed for engaging mothers.

For fathers, attending a parenting course is not at all familiar territory, because family services have historically had little success in involving men and the usual scenario is for the service users to be almost all mothers, meaning more work may be required to support fathers’ attendance.

They had frequent clashes with group meetings – court appearances, offers of work, drug counselling. Practitioners running the course were frustrated that staff in other services did not seem to prioritise the fathers attending Mellow Dads.

The children of the men attending were mostly living apart from them, either with their mothers or in foster care. This meant the men lacked the opportunity to practice parenting skills, something that was an expected part of the programme. Because it was harder to recruit fathers to the programme than it was for mothers, the numbers of men attending were relatively small and Mellow Dads staff had to accept fathers with children of all ages, even though the programme was designed for parents of pre-school children.


The fathers found it very difficult to share personal information and talk about how they felt. While intensive group work can be daunting for anyone, there are particular issues for men who have been socialised not to talk on a personal, emotional level. Women, in contrast, are more likely to have grown up discussing personal issues with friends.

The challenges described here are not at all unique to this programme, these particular fathers or these practitioners. Similar challenges are likely when working with the fathers of at-risk children in other settings, because parenting difficulties are compounded by the effects of gendered socialisation.

When trying to engage these fathers we should expect it to be slow going; we should expect there to be barriers. But the practitioners running Mellow Dads did manage to recruit some fathers and keep them in the room, using their considerable interpersonal skills.

They managed to more or less cover the core aspects of the programme. So despite the challenges, they have shown that it can be done.

Jonathan Scourfield is Professor of Social Work at Cardiff University. A free copy of the full research article is available until 27th October 2016.


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6 Responses to How can social workers better engage fathers?

  1. Tom J October 4, 2016 at 1:05 pm #

    One challenge is the speed and frequency at which social workers now put the domestic abuse label on father’s without any level of critical thought, grading of the severity or context.

    Once the label is put on a father it can skew the entire dynamic. ‘he’s abusive’ goes the narrative.

    We know from serious case reviews like Blake Fowler that a simplistic narrative of father bad, woman good, can be hugely detrimental to the welfare of the child.

    • Jason Barnes October 4, 2016 at 8:47 pm #

      I completely agree with you Tom. I work in a CP team and I see this happening almost everyday. Have been thinking lots about it in order to make changes in my team and in my own practice.

  2. Dave James October 4, 2016 at 7:17 pm #

    As a father who had to gain contact with my child via the court system and a subsequent foster carer I am amazed at the casual sexism afforded to me by social services. In contact cases there appears an assumption of fecklessness in dads and virtue in mum’s. As a foster carer I have in the past been ignored and given no eye contact by one children’s social worker and told that men can’t multitask by another. The assumption is that male imput begins and ends with school runs.

  3. Dave Edwards October 7, 2016 at 7:37 am #

    I agree. I’ve developed a Dad Course that seeks to value Dads, their input and their incredible value to children. The whole contry seems to be sleep walking on this issue. The challenge is for us all as individuals and a society to understand better just what dads can do for their kids and support them in seeing how vital this is. Research puts it this way. Think of any social ill we face. Often the root cause behind it is fatherlessness. So if Dads were given the same value, input, advice, support and celebration afforded to women, these issues could be seriously addressed. Until then, we face a tidal wave of social issues swamping our country, with a small bucket in our hands.

    Happy to link-up on the material. It’s not meant to be a parenting course that “comes in blue”, but a masculine approach that takes a different perspective on what Dads can do, backed by evidence based research.

  4. LongtimeSW October 11, 2016 at 12:59 pm #

    OK – is the gist of the comments above about domestic abuse that there is no evidence supporting the claim of domestic abuse?

    The question is do fathers accept that the R in PR is Responsibility not Rights?

    Neither mothers or fathers can ‘cherry pick’ which responsibility’s they accept – it should be all or none unless you want the intervention of the state in some form – do we have myopia that the majority perpetrators of DA are male? That the children have little or no power to stop bad stuff happening? that most times they love both mum and dad but in different ways?

    They just want the arguing and fighting to stop – if you ask them (and I have asked many many children) they would rather have some kind of relationship with their dad/mum (no matter how limited it has to be for their safety/wellbeing), than none at all which is too often the result of parents who use their children as weapons of attrition in their fight against the other.

    Adult conflict should be for adults not for the children – time is too precious and the children will remember the opportunities missed because of stubbornness on the part of both or because one parent or the other can’t see that their words, deeds and actions are damaging if not downright dangerous in some cases.

    Parents, have a long hard look in the mirror and be honest with yourselves – is there something you’ve done/not done that could (should?) have been done differently?

  5. Foster Carer 64 October 11, 2016 at 1:32 pm #

    Practice by engaging meaningfully with male Foster Carers. It’s okay to be a hairy, deep voiced, tall and Male. It doesn’t make you a paedophile or a domestic abuser and it’s okay to treat us as part of the good team caring for the child.. There seems to be an old common thread by male Foster Carers when they speak about being ignored or discriminated against. Not be too male etc. There are publications available by the Fostering Network.. “can I speak to your wife” – “men who care” etc
    AS a Male Foster Carer it’s okay for my local Authority to have guidance which reads,- “Male Foster Carers are not to travel alone in a car with a looked after Child?” Not to be alone with a child in a bathroom and not to read a book at bedtime in a child’s room.
    If Male Foster Carers are treated with arms length suspicion, what chance the male family member for a child in care proceedings?