Working with fathers: key advice from research

It's well-established that fathers matter to children's wellbeing, but child protection work tends to focus on mothers

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This is the start of an updated research review on Community Care Inform Children, written by Jon Symonds, social work lecturer at Bristol University. The review looks at the issues related to engaging fathers in child protection, some of the barriers that create obstacles in work with fathers, and how to overcome these. Inform Children subscribers can read the full article, and below are some excerpts.

“It is now well established that fathers matter to children’s wellbeing. When fathers are positively involved in their children’s lives, their children are more likely to do better at school, have better relationships with their peers, have better mental health and are less likely to be in trouble with the police. When social workers work with fathers to improve their involvement with children, they can help to improve outcomes for children.”

Fatherhood in context

The position of fathers in children’s lives has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. Although most children still live with both their parents, family structures are much more varied. For example, the number of families with dependent children headed by a couple fell from 92% in 1971 to 78% in 2011.

When couples separate, children are more likely to live with their mother. This has implications for children’s relationships with their fathers. In 2011, 92% of lone parents were women, compared with 8% who were men.

When parents meet new partners, children tend to have a new ‘father figure’ to negotiate a relationship with. Results from the General Lifestyle Survey for 2011 found that 85% of step-families with dependent children included children from the mother’s previous relationship, whereas only 11% included children from the father’s previous relationship. Consequently, children are less likely than in the past to live with their birth fathers, and more likely to live in reconstituted families.

Engaging fathers in child protection services

Studies repeatedly show that child protection work tends to focus on mothers, with fathers having a peripheral presence in case files, child protection conferences and home visits. This has given rise to a series of descriptions of fathers as ‘invisible’ (Strega et al, 2008); ‘ghosts’ (Brown et al, 2009), or ‘shadows’ (Ewart-Boyle et al, 2015). When fathers have perpetrated domestic violence, they may ensure they are not present during home visits, or their involvement in the family might be hidden by mothers for fear of reprisals or of having the children placed in care (Dominelli et al, 2010).

In an audit of six local authorities, Osborn (2014) reported that fathers were invited to child protection conferences only 55% of the time, and in a study of child protection case files, Baynes and Holland (2012) found fathers were contacted by social workers prior to the child protection meeting in only 25 out of 40 files. Interestingly, resident fathers were more likely to be invited, but less likely to attend, whereas non-resident fathers were less likely to be invited, but more likely to attend.

Identifying the father

Engaging with a father requires having information about him. In their study of children’s centres in Ireland, Ferguson and Hogan (2004) recommended all referrals should include information about the father. When birth fathers are cohabiting with the mother and child, it is relatively straightforward to achieve this, but practitioners should also be mindful of the importance of identifying fathers when they are not living with the child, as well as identifying new male partners in the household. This requires additional, but important, work by practitioners. In useful government research into engaging fathers in Australia, Sandstrom et al (2015) made specific recommendations about identifying fathers and male carers, including:

  • being explicit with mothers about the importance of speaking to the father and including him in the process, while also ensuring that she would not be put at risk;
  • speaking separately to the father rather than gathering information solely through the mother;
  • arranging separate home visits if necessary to explain the relevance of his involvement with the child, communicating a willingness to include him in decisions.

When the relationship between parents has broken down, mothers may not wish the fathers to be involved, even if he may potentially provide good enough caregiving to the child. Malm et al (2006) conducted a survey in the US and discovered that some practitioners were making additional efforts to identify non-resident fathers of children in foster care by consulting other, official records which might enable them to contact him. Clearly, involving and informing the mother of these actions (and the reasons for doing so) remains an important consideration in these cases which involves sensitive relationship-based work on the part of the social worker. The results of this study were encouraging. When fathers were contacted directly, most fathers were willing to cooperate.


Baynes, P and Holland, S (2012)
‘Social work with violent men: a child protection file study in an English local authority’
Child Abuse Review, Volume 21, pp53-65

Brown, L; Callahan, M; Strega, S; Walmsley, C and Dominelli, L (2009)
‘Manufacturing ghost fathers: the paradox of father presence and absence in child welfare’
Child and Family Social Work, Volume 14, pp25-34

Dominelli, L; Strega, S; Walmsley, C; Callahan, M and Brown, L (2010)
‘”Here’s my Story”: Fathers of ‘Looked After’ Children Recount their Experiences in the Canadian Child Welfare System’
British Journal of Social Work, Volume 41, pp351-367

Ewart-Boyle, S; Manktelow, R and McColgan, M (2015)
‘Social work and the shadow father: lessons for engaging fathers in Northern Ireland’
Child and Family Social Work, Volume 20, pp470-479

Ferguson, H and Hogan, F (2004)
Strengthening Families through Fathers: developing policy and practice in relation to vulnerable fathers and their families
Waterford: The Centre for Social and Family Research

Malm, K; Murray, J and Green, R (2006)
What About the Dads? Child welfare agencies’ efforts to identify, locate and involve nonresident fathers
Washington DC: US Department of Health and Human Services

Osborn, M (2014)
‘Working with fathers to safeguard children’
Child Abuse and Neglect, Volume 38, pp993-1001

Sandstrom, H; Gearing, M; Peters, H E; Heller, C; Healy, O and Pratt, E (2015)
Approaches to Father Engagement and Fathers’ Experiences in Home Visiting Programs
Washington DC: US Department of Health and Human Services

Strega, S; Fleet, C; Brown, L; Dominelli, L; Callahan, M and Walmsley, C (2008)
Connecting father absence and mother blame in child welfare policies and practice
Children and Youth Services Review, Volume 30, pp705-716

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