Vulnerable as well as potential sources of risk: fathers in the family justice system

A research project has built a picture of fathers involved in multiple care proceedings as a group with histories of childhood adversity facing hardship in adulthood and striving to make changes in their lives

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By Professor Karen Broadhurst and Dr Georgia Phillip 

A partnership between the University of East Anglia and Lancaster University has reported new evidence about fathers’ involvement in care and recurrent care proceedings in England.

This is the first time any research team has investigated the proportion of fathers returning to court, and through complementary research methods, the study also generated understanding of the lives of fathers who have experienced repeat removal of children.

The researchers analysed anonymised family court records for more than 73,000 fathers appearing in care proceedings between 2010-11 and 2017-18. A survey of fathers in 18 local authorities was completed, and a qualitative study undertaken following the lives of 26 fathers involved in recurrent care proceedings, over a period of 12 months.

Using in-depth interviews and monthly phone calls, the team mapped fathers’ life histories, family and parenting relationships, and encounters with local authorities and the family court.

Although there was no father recorded for 20% of care proceedings cases, fathers were recorded, and named as a party to the proceedings, in 80% of cases. This finding indicates the need to address this 20% of missing fathers, but also to fully and fairly engage with the substantial number of visible fathers requiring assessment and support.

Fathers involved in recurrent care proceedings

The researchers then investigated the proportion of fathers involved in recurrent care proceedings and factors affecting their likelihood of returning to court. The rate of recurrence for fathers was lower than mothers (Broadhurst et al, 2015).

There were also very few lone fathers in recurrent care proceedings, whereas many cases featured lone mothers. Within a 5-year period, 12% of fathers had reappeared before the court, and like mothers in repeat care proceedings, fathers were likely to be younger and to lose infants from their care.

The team analysed with whom fathers and mothers returned to court and have evidenced the significance of relationships for understanding recurrence (Bedston et al, 2019). Of the fathers who returned to court, three out of four (79%) did so with the same partner, whereas mothers were more likely to return with a new partner, or as a lone parent (no father recorded).

These findings highlight the importance of working with couples, as well as with fathers, for interventions designed to prevent first or repeat care proceedings.

The findings did not tell a story of older dads and younger mums, but rather one of young couples struggling to parent, whose difficulties can then endure, or recur, across sets of care proceedings.”

Histories of childhood adversity

In terms of understanding the characteristics and vulnerabilities of recurrent fathers, the team found commonalities with existing research about recurrent mothers (Broadhurst & Mason, 2017, 2020). Through the survey and interview data, significant and complex adversity in fathers’ childhoods was revealed.

As with mothers, fathers had experienced childhoods in care, unstable or harmful relationships with caregivers, or other forms of disruption in early life, such as bereavement.

In common with mothers, fathers frequently had little appropriate support at key points in their lives, including during and after care proceedings, to enable change.”

The qualitative findings also showed commonalities between fathers and mothers in terms of the emotional impact of recurrence. Fathers described deep and long-lasting emotional pain, grief and shame following the loss of children and a desire to play some ongoing parenting role.

Almost all the fathers followed were actively trying to make changes in their lives and their relationships as fathers. But the resources and opportunities they had were scarce and fragile. It was hard for fathers to establish relationships of trust with social workers and other professionals.

Without support to manage emotions and relationships differently, and to address underlying causes of their difficulties, couple conflict and its impact on parenting were key reasons why fathers and couples became stuck in a cycle of family court involvement.

Economic hardship a key factor

New observations were also evidenced about recurrent fathers. Adult economic hardship was a notable feature, with the survey finding that only one quarter were in secure employment. Unemployment, precarious employment and poverty were experienced by interviewed fathers as impacting strongly on relationships and parenting capacity.

Mothers and fathers involved in care proceedings invoke very different public and professional responses, with fathers often viewed solely in terms of the risks they present to women and children.”

However, this research argues for a nuanced analysis of fathers’ risks and resources.

Fathers involved in care proceedings are vulnerable; they may pose risks arising from their vulnerabilities, but they should also be seen as at-risk themselves. The research team advocate a ‘both-and’ approach. Whilst fathers should be held accountable for the safe care of children to the same degree as mothers, they also need validation and support for their parenting.

There is much to be learnt from existing services for mothers, but service adaptations are sorely needed to engage recurrent fathers and respond to their deep-rooted and complex difficulties. Recommendations include developing approaches to work with couples, focusing on emotional regulation, long-term holistic support, and fully exploring the potential of fatherhood as a mechanism for both change and accountability.

The research briefing can be found here and the full project report can be found here.

All authors involved in the study:
Professor Marian Brandon (principal investigator, University of East Anglia)
Professor Karen Broadhurst (co-investigator, Lancaster University)
Dr Yang Hu (co-investigator, Lancaster University)
Dr Georgia Phillip (University of East Anglia)
Dr John Clifton (University of East Anglia)
Dr Lindsay Youansamouth (Lancaster University)
Dr Stuart Bedston (formerly of Lancaster University)


Broadhurst, K; Alrouh, B; Yeend, E;  Harwin, J; Shaw, M; Pilling, M; Mason, C and Kershaw, S (2015) Connecting Events in Time to Identify a Hidden Population: Birth Mothers and Their Children in Recurrent Care Proceedings in EnglandThe British Journal of Social Work, 45(8) pp 2241–2260

Bedston, S; Philip, G; Youansamouth, L; Clifton, C; Broadhurst, K; Brandon, M and  Hu Y (2019) Linked lives: Gender, family relations and recurrent care proceedings in England Children and Youth Services Review. Pergamon. DOI: 10.1016/J.CHILDYOUTH.2019.104392.

Broadhurst, K and Mason, C (2017). Birth Parents and the Collateral Consequences of Court-ordered Child Removal: Towards a Comprehensive Framework. International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family 31(1), pp 41–59. ISSN: 1360-9939. DOI: 10.1093/lawfam/ebw013

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2 Responses to Vulnerable as well as potential sources of risk: fathers in the family justice system

  1. Nadine Tilbury April 7, 2021 at 12:14 pm #

    P.66 In total almost half of the recurrent fathers (12) had learning, cognitive or behavioural difficulties. Eight had a diagnosis of learning disability, including two who also had a diagnosis of dyslexia.

    P.67 We can say that for five of the fathers, learning disability was the overriding safeguarding concern leading to the removal of children. This was seen as impacting on parents’ capacity to provide safe physical and emotional care for their child.

    Wonder what support these fathers with learning disabilities were given to address the safeguarding concerns. Timely, appropriately tailored assessments? Independent advocates to ensure effective, two-way communication? Appropriately tailored training?

    The findings of this report reflect the findings of Dugdale, D. and Symonds, J. (2018) Fathers with learning disabilities: experiences of fatherhood and of adult social care services

    and also the views of the fathers with learning disabilities with whom we worked to produce videos and leaflets for other dads. See Resources

  2. Kyle April 11, 2021 at 6:55 pm #

    Although fathers can be vulnerable and a risk, they can also be resources to their family and children, providing for their needs and development. I have read a book about child protection practice and the main issue is that social workers may fear fathers, as they can be much more aggressive and provocative than the mothers, thus difficult to deal with. However, there was a wonderful case study where by a social worker took some time out of the day to spend time with the father, such as taking him and sitting in with him in the parenting classes, and developing his skills as a father. He was very appreciative, and made a big difference in his view of social work involvement. This involvement made him aware of the changes that needed to be made, and through his continuous effort, he finally succeeded in keeping his children home with them, instead of them being placed under care proceedings. Sadly, because of rising caseloads, it can be difficult for social workers to make visits to service users homes, never mind taking them to parenting classes! But, as much as possible, fathers should be actively encouraged to be part of the proceedings of the social worker’s enquiries, or even any plans that are in place, CiN and CPP, for example, whilst being supported and encouraged to take part in parenting classes, etc, to develop their skills around parenting. This will empower fathers to make the change that is needed for their child(ren), in order to make their lives more comfortable, with their social , emotional and physical developmental needs being met. Fathers can be great resources, so this should be acknowledged by the LA’s. Of course, if they are a risk to the children , then appropriate action would take place, but, sometimes, all that fathers need is a listening ear and support to make them the good parents that they have the potential to be.