Fathers and social services – is there a failure to engage?

paper family on handBy Heather Cameron

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The social workers were also criticised for continually referencing a “clearly out of date” parenting assessment completed in 2012, stating that this “still apparently colours their view of the father”.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.

Barriers

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.

Changing attitudes

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.

Good practice

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.


 

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Further reading

Caring Dads: Safer Children – interim evaluation report (2014, NSPCC)

Engaging fathers in child welfare services: a narrative review of recent research evidence, IN Child and Family Social Work, Vol 17 No 2 May 2012, pp160-169

Fathers’ involvement in children’s services: exploring local and national issues in Moorlandstown, IN British Journal of Social Work, Vol 42 No 3 Apr 2012, pp500-518

Don’t ignore the father, IN Community Care, No 1818 13 May 2010, pp16-17

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Why child poverty can’t be allowed to slip down the political agenda

By Morwen Johnson

Current forecasts suggest that across the UK, 4.7m children will be living in poverty by 2020 (equivalent to nearly the population of Scotland). This is despite the fact that the Child Poverty Act 2010 legally binds the UK Government to a commitment to end child poverty by 2020. This commitment was reiterated in the Conservative’s pre-election manifesto.

Two recently published briefing papers from the Scottish Universities Insight Institute review the literature on poverty and children’s health and wellbeing, and poverty and children’s education. The findings add to an extensive evidence base confirming the long-term negative impact of child poverty on life chances and adult outcomes.

At the report launch event in May, there was extensive discussion about the continuing challenge of reducing child poverty, especially in the context of George Osborne’s pledge to make £12bn of cuts to the welfare budget by the financial year 2017-18.

Rise in in-work poverty

As the rhetoric in both politics and the popular press swings back to presenting the economy in a positive light, it’s easy to forget that economic growth must also result in quality jobs. Analysis by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission shows that 5 million Britons are in jobs earning less than £7.50 an hour. And a quarter of these have been stuck in this situation for more than a decade.

Douglas Hamilton, one of the Commissioners of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission who spoke at the Scottish Universities Insight Institute event, suggested that policy approaches which rely on welfare to work to meet child poverty targets are doomed, as this ignores the fact that getting parents into work can still leave children living in poverty. In fact the number of children in poverty living in workless households is at an all-time low.

Social justice and economic imperative

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission said in its State of the Nation report last year that the challenge was “… to prevent Britain becoming a permanently divided society and ensure there is a social recovery alongside the economic recovery.” Donald Hirsch of the Centre for Research in Social Policy has estimated that child poverty costs £29bn each year in costs to the Exchequer and reduced GDP – an economic justification for continuing to address child poverty in a targeted way. However, if issues such as underemployment and a lack of affordable housing are allowed to become a norm in our society, it will inevitably impact on the likelihood of reducing child poverty.

Debates over how child poverty is defined and measured are likely to continue, but should not obscure the very real, everyday consequences for children of growing up in poverty. Research by Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People found that children living in poverty struggled with having school uniforms, resources for school work, going on school trips and having basics such as housing and food. Unfortunately, stigma can also dissuade families from registering their children for free school meals.

1 in 6 children are still living in relative poverty in the UK. And that seems to be a reality which no one wants to put on the front page of the newspapers.


Read some of our other blogs looking at the issue of poverty:

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