Engaging fathers

What about dad?

Why social workers need to know more about gender and masculinity

Serious case reviews have repeatedly highlighted failures by social workers to effectively engage fathers or identify men who pose a risk to children. Judy Cooper investigates why men are being overlooked and how professionals can address this.

Joseph’s story: when the system goes wrong

Father head in hands - tinted blue

After an acrimonious split Joseph’s ex-wife soon stopped him seeing his children. Social services were ordered to investigate the relationship between the children and their parents but, despite repeated assurances, no formal interview was ever conducted with Joseph. When the Section 7 report was submitted to the court it only included information from the children’s mother.

The court restored shared custody but two days later Joseph’s ex-wife alleged he had raped her during their marriage. The charges were dismissed 18 months later but Joseph has only now been able to resume his custody application. He has not seen his children for three years.

Had social services investigated more thoroughly, Joseph believes his ex-wife would not have felt she could get away with making false accusations. He is worried about his relationship with his children and has no time for excuses or explanations. “I don’t care if social services are overworked,” he says. “Don’t destroy people’s lives because you don’t have enough time.” (Pic: GaroPhanie/Rex Features)


Father and baby

The reasons why social workers struggle in this area are varied and complex, but experts point to a number of key issues:

Emotional responses: Most children’s social workers are female and may have emotional responses to men that are influenced by their childhood and experiences.

Personal safety: Social workers may fear men who are hostile or even violent. A recent Community Care survey found many child protection workers feel unprotected, and often undermined, by their employers when trying to deal with hostile parents, which in turn affects their practice.

Systemic problems: A lack of good supervision and systems to deal with violent or intimidating service users compounds the problem. There is also a shortage of high quality support programmes for fathers, particularly those who are violent.

Gender and masculinity: Social workers often alienate men because they refuse to consider gender and masculinity issues, says Brigid Featherstone, social work professor at the Open University. “I find social workers often have either a very simplified form of feminism that comes down to ‘women good, men bad’ or they go to the other end and insist gender doesn’t matter at all. But we need social workers to be devising practical interventions for men as well as women.”

Daryl Dugdale, a teaching fellow at Bristol University, says his research suggests social workers are often unaware of how ‘masculinity’ influences reactions, meaning fathers are often manifested as unpredictable and violent. “Instead we should be looking at how they justify their behaviour, helping them unpick their own narrative and understand the harm they are causing,” he says.

Social workers tend to see men in a family as either a risk or a resource, but this is ineffective, says Mark Osborn, safeguarding programme manager with the Fatherhood Institute. “Even a father who displays risk factors, such as violence, may display some protective factors. The challenge is to identify interventions that bring forward those protective factors while keeping the risk under control.”

Good practice case study: London Borough of Islington

Gavin Swann

In 2010, social worker Gavin Swann embarked on an 18-month trial to increase engagement with fathers on all cases dealt with by Islington’s children-in-need team.

“We had 12 social workers involved, both men and women, and we met every six weeks. In between those six weeks we experimented with different methods of dealing with fathers. We changed all our referral processes and initial assessments so that each one required a name and a phone number for the father. Each core assessment required the father to have been seen and invited to a child protection conference; if not there had to be a reason why.”

Swann soon realised that changing the practice of one social work team was not enough. “We needed everyone, from health visitors to nurseries, to be collecting this information. So it has now turned into an organisational change project, which is a much bigger challenge.”

Early signs are promising, however, with the team increasing the number of fathers they are working with from 8% to 20% over the two years. (Pic: Gavin Swann (credit Tom Parkes)

Top tips for social workers

Principal social worker
Research theories of masculinity to try and understand the motivations of men involved in a case. For example, some men will resort to absence, violence or demanding their rights when they feel vulnerable, afraid or confused.
Men are often more powerfully motivated by the desire to be a good father than by the effect of their behaviour on women. A good starting point for engagement is to ask them, “What does it mean to be a good father?”
If a man is considered violent do home visits in pairs, with one worker questioning the father while the other focuses on the mother. Or invite the man to the office to be interviewed.
If a man is considered a risk to his own children, provide support to help him try and change. If there are not enough perpetrator programmes in the area, give feedback to commissioners.
Do not demand a mother be solely responsible for protecting her children. This reinforces the impression that a father is not responsible for his children.
Solution-focused therapy, concentrating on strengths and showing how a man can influence a child’s development, tends to be a more successful approach with men.
Try and get the father’s details for every initial assessment you do and interview the father for every core assessment done.
Although men are more likely to threaten social workers, it is in fact women who are most likely to attack.
Men are perceptive of expectations of them. If a social worker has low expectations they will endeavour to live down to them.
Men need clear information. Research shows that often they do not see a defined role for themselves in plans and will assume “parent” actually means “mother”.

Top tips for managers

Ensure safety plans are in place in every case that involves violent or threatening parents. Consider a zero tolerance approach to violent and threatening behaviour.
Commission high quality perpetrator programmes that include a significant element dealing with fatherhood. Ensure there is also evaluation in place to monitor their impact.
Change IT and assessment systems to ensure details of fathers are required and ensure social workers are challenged on why a father has not been seen, or invited to a child protection conference to ensure there are valid reasons in each case.
Ensure all social workers have access to training or CPD that includes theories about masculinity, gender, cultural influences on masculinity and dealing with violent or threatening behaviour.
Make sure services, including early intervention, are meeting the needs of men as well as women i.e. being open outside of working hours and catering for non-resident fathers.
Foster better partnership working across commissioned services, particularly between domestic violence services and perpetrator programmes or the probation service. Consider embedding perpetrator programme staff into social work teams.

Source: Family Rights Group, Fatherhood Institute, Islington children-in-need team, Daryl Dugdale (Bristol university), Professor Brigid Featherstone (Open university)

Improve your practice

Community Care Inform has developed a range of expert-written guides to help improve your practice and engagement with fathers.
Guide to father-inclusive practice
Parenting assessments
Not an Inform user?
Visit www.ccinform.co.uk or call Kim Poupart on 0208 652 4848 to find out more about Inform

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Date Published: 4 May 2012

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