With failure to effectively engage with fathers repeatedly highlighted in serious case reviews over the years, it is worrying to hear that such failure is still evident within the social work profession.
Failure to engage
Just last week, a High Court judge heavily criticised children’s social workers for their “unprofessional” and “reprehensible” case building against a father whose child was up for adoption. The case involved making a decision on whether to return a two-year-old girl to her father and three siblings or allow her to be adopted by the couple she had lived with for the previous 16 months.
The judgement stated that the social workers’ evidence expressed opinions that they were not qualified to make, describing it as ‘psychobabble’. The judge also noted that this evidence was ‘entirely at odds’ with the evidence of qualified professionals and that the local authority gave insufficient weight to the observations of professionals working with the family.
The social workers were also criticised for continually referencing a “clearly out of date” parenting assessment completed in 2012, stating that this “still apparently colours their view of the father”.
It would seem that there could be deep-seated barriers within the social work profession preventing effective engagement with fathers.
In fact, there has been much research around the barriers to fathers’ engagement.
It has been widely suggested that an inability among social workers to believe that a father has changed following past negative behaviour, and traditional assumptions and stereotypes about gender roles, have long played a role in preventing engagement.
An article published in 2009 which explored the representation of fathers in the social work literature argued that a pervasive and influential negative attitude towards fathers is widespread in the social work field.
More recently, a feasibility study highlighted that an analysis of serious case reviews conducted from April 2005 to March 2007 across England found a tendency for professionals to adopt ‘rigid’ or ‘fixed’ thinking, with fathers labelled as either ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’, leading to attributions as to their reliability and trustworthiness. The influence of mothers (which can be good or bad), traditional approaches by the profession in relation to gender and parenting, and fathers being reluctant clients were also cited as barriers.
Such barriers have also been demonstrated by men’s experiences. A study which examined the experiences of fathers involved with statutory social work in Scotland highlighted that respondents reported feeling marginalised from child protection processes and facing barriers to contact with their children. Some men had experienced false accusations of sexual abuse, resulting in long-term involvement with child protection professionals; and some of the respondents felt that they were regarded with suspicion by professionals, with statutory conditions still being applied even after criminal charges had been dropped.
With such long-standing perceptions and approaches within the profession, it would be ill-advised to think that these can be fixed overnight. Nevertheless, there are signs that attitudes are changing.
A recent blog by Senior Evaluation Officer at the NSPCC, Nicola McConnell, acknowledges these tendencies within the profession but is confident attitudes are beginning to change. She highlights that only recently had she noticed that on most occasions she had not been interviewing ‘parents’ but almost exclusively mothers:
“although services aim to work with parents, for a range of reasons including social organisation and gender expectations, services for children really tend to work with mothers.”
McConnell argues that this can lead to ‘flawed practice’ and discusses how professionals can improve their work with fathers through early engagement and taking a non-judgemental approach.
Facilitators of engagement have been consistently emphasised across the research:
- Early identification and involvement of fathers;
- Taking a proactive approach to engagement;
- Making services relevant to fathers.
And the benefits of effective engagement have also been widely acknowledged. Numerous studies have emphasised the importance of engaging fathers for both children’s outcomes and risk management.
It has recently been highlighted that children with positively involved fathers tend to:
- Make better friendships with better-adjusted children;
- Have fewer behaviour problems;
- Be less involved in criminality and substance abuse;
- Do better at school;
- Have greater capacity for empathy;
- Have higher self-esteem and life-satisfaction.
A project highlighted in a recent article in Children and Young People Now which aimed to increase social workers’ engagement with fathers and father figures has had positive results. Following the intervention at one local authority:
- the percentage of fathers involved in their child’s core assessment rose from 47% to 82%;
- the percentage of fathers invited to the initial case conference rose from 72% to 90%;
- and the percentage of fathers whose involvement with the child was discussed at the initial case conference rose from 78% to 100%.
Social workers reported improvements in their practice, including motivating fathers to change problematic behaviour, engaging abusive men in discussion about their behaviour and assessing fathers’ positive qualities. It was also reported that some children had been placed with their fathers instead of being taken into care as a result of their new approach.
So progress is being made, illustrating that it is possible for engagement barriers to be overcome.
Caring Dads: Safer Children – interim evaluation report (2014, NSPCC)
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