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.
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.