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The social workers were also criticised for continually referencing a “clearly out of date” parenting assessment completed in 2012, stating that this “still apparently colours their view of the father”.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


 

The Idox Information Service can give you access to further research and good practice on social care services – to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

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

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service

Neighbourhood planning – the current state of play

communitygroup

By Alan Gillies

Following the May 2015 General Election, the only Conservative minister to be replaced in the resulting cabinet reshuffle was Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The appointment in his place of Greg Clark, dubbed “the architect of localism” and the person who “invented neighbourhood planning”, reinforces the government’s commitment to the neighbourhood planning system. Just a few weeks later the Queen’s speech confirmed that there would be legislation with provisions “to simplify and speed up the neighbourhood planning system, to support communities that seek to meet local housing and other development needs through neighbourhood planning”.

The Localism Act 2011

The neighbourhood planning system was introduced by the Localism Act in 2011. At that time Greg Clark was the minster responsible for the legislation’s passage through Parliament. He described it then as “as a powerful option [for communities] to come together and decide, collectively, what their neighbourhood should look like in future; where new shops and offices should go; and which green spaces are most important to the community.” (Clark, 2011)

The Act gives residents and businesses in a neighbourhood the option to do two things: create a neighbourhood development plan for their area; propose that a particular development or sort of development should automatically get planning permission in their area (neighbourhood development order/community right to build order). Neighbourhood plans must be subject to a public consultation period, expert examination and a local referendum. But once passed at referendum, local planning authorities are required to adopt the plan and give it weight, along with the local plan and national planning policy, in determining planning applications.

Progress so far

Earlier this year the government celebrated the milestone of fifty neighbourhood development plans passing the referendum stage. However, the fifty or so plans already approved are just the tip of the iceberg. In total around 1,400 communities are now involved at one stage or another in the formal neighbourhood planning process.  6.1 million people in England live in a designated ‘neighbourhood area’ (i.e. one formally designated as an area to be covered by a neighbourhood plan) – representing around 11% of the population. But, of course, that still means that 89% of the population is not yet involved.

Going forward

Whether this level of activity can be regarded as satisfactory progress and evidence of a real public appetite for neighbourhood planning depends on your point of view. But either way, the neighbourhood planning process represents a new mechanism for involving and empowering more people in the difficult decisions that the planning system has always faced – which can surely only be a good thing for those who become involved. And with the new government reiterating its importance, and a new minister in place who sees it as fundamental to localism, neighbourhood planning is here to stay.

The challenge, and legal requirement, for planners is to provide support to neighbourhoods to become involved.

References

Clark, Greg. A licence to innovate, IN MJ magazine, 17 Nov 2011, p15


 

If you are interested in research, opinion and comment on planning, we have launched a special subscription offer to the Idox Information Service for RTPI Members.

As well as access to our database and current awareness service, members receive special briefings on key topics. Recent briefings for members have covered:

 

Involving young people in local political systems and decision-making

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Image from Flickr user UK Parliament via Creative Commons

Our latest briefing focuses on the involvement of young people in political processes and decision-making. You can download the briefing for free from the Knowledge Exchange publications page.

While the media was focused on young people’s participation in politics at the national level during the recent General Election campaign, in this briefing we take a step back and look at the involvement of young people in local political processes and decision-making.

Research by the IPPR in 2013 found that alongside those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, young people are the group least likely to vote at elections. At the local level, research by the National Centre for Social Research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found that young voters are even less likely to turn out for local (and European) elections.

Our briefing highlights a range of reasons suggested by existing evidence as to why young people have low levels of engagement with political systems and decision-making. These include:

  • A lack of trust in politicians and their parties.
  • A focus on policies that do not directly impact on their lives.
  • Today’s generation of young people do not see voting as a civic duty.

Also highlighted are the reasons why it is so important that more is done to encourage young people to engage with political and decision-making processes. These range from legal factors (children and young people have the legal right to have a say in all matters that affect them, according to Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) to examples of positive contributions that children and young people have made in the shaping of local services.

The briefing includes advice on how organisations including councils can help to encourage and facilitate young people to become more involved in formal decision-making processes. This includes tips on practical considerations (e.g. venues, timing of meetings), safeguarding issues and how best to communicate with young people.

A number of examples of good practice are identified, including Dorset County Council’s Youth Inspectors scheme. Established in 2009, the project aims to enable young people to learn about and influence local services in their area.


 

The Knowledge Exchange specialises in public and social policy. To gain an insight into the commentary it offers, please explore our publications page on the Knowledge Exchange website.

To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Living in a democracy, it’s easy to forget how fortunate we are

voting what's the point

Photo: Rebecca Riley

By Rebecca Riley

A week ago I was invited to a private view of “Election! Britain Votes” – a bold and experimental new exhibition developed by the People’s History Museum in Manchester as we prepare to go to the polling station. Having read the recent review by New Statesman, where the exhibition is described as “candid and sincere… far removed from the complacency we often get when museums try and do politics”, I was looking forward to visiting one of my favourite museums.

As a big supporter of democracy and people having the right to actively participate in the decisions which rule our lives, I couldn’t help but wonder at the number of attendees (it was a ‘good turn-out’) and whether the innovation and impact of the exhibition will ever reach the people it needs to, the disaffected voters.

Opened by Jon Snow, he made some interesting opening statements –  his enthusiasm for the exhibition was obvious but he highlighted some key issues we face as a democracy:

  • “It’s time to start running the country in a different way… we are a country of London” – a tip of the hat to the devolution options now being discussed, within cities and across devolved nations.
  • It “cannot be right, that there are not more women in parliament” – pointing out a thought-provoking statistic from the exhibition, that there haven’t been enough women in parliament so far, to fill the whole House once!

The exhibition is pitched as a place to debate, discuss and reflect on the importance of our vote in 2015. Through the most amazing and immersive infographics I have seen (created by @AJGardnerDesign) the exhibition takes you through the history of voting; the mechanics of it and what goes on behind the scenes.

It lays down the gauntlet to Russell Brand by answering the question “voting: what’s the point?” and finishes with a terminal which allows you to register online to vote. The visitor is challenged not to, having witnessed the struggle others went through to enable you to have the right!

Having visited, the prevailing memory of the exhibition is summed up in the title of this blog – we take for granted the privileges we have as a result of living in a democracy. Taking it for granted means we risk losing its benefits:

  • Reducing inequality by preventing the capture of power by elite groups – power is spread wider and in a more representative way;
  • Representing diverse opinions and needs of individuals across government, and ensuring government money helps those in need;
  • Having greater control and power over our own everyday lives;
  • Countering extremism from either direction; and
  • Maintaining local decision making and accountability.

As Jon Snow said, the exhibition shows us “how we got to where we are… but we don’t know where we will be”. But one thing was very obvious from the voter turnout figures presented – fewer and fewer people are exercising their right to shape what we will be, as a country and community. The voting population is disillusioned and feels excluded from the decision making; and political parties, individual politicians and the government should take action to re-engage the electorate.

If you are wondering why you should vote, I would highly recommend a visit!


Further reading

We have previously blogged on voting and democracy:

Other resources which you may find interesting (some may only be available to Idox Information Service members):

A programme for effective government: what the party manifestos must address in 2015

Civic participation and political trust: the impact of compulsory voting

Elections: turnout (House of Commons Library standard note SN/SG/1467)

Voter engagement in the UK: fourth report of session 2014/15

5 things we’ve learnt from Scotland’s indyref

SG referendum date announcement

Image from Flickr user Scottishgovernment via a Creative Commons license

By Stephen Lochore and Morwen Johnson

As the consequences of Thursday’s referendum result continue to reverberate across the UK, we look at what the indyref tells us about political engagement and public policy in 2014.

  1. The public will vote, when they feel the issue is important and affects them

The indyref voter turnout of 84.5% was a record high. And this was based on over 97% of the eligible population registering to vote. This contrasts with turnout at other referenda, general elections and particularly local government and European parliamentary elections.

Turnout for the Scottish parliamentary elections of 2011 was just 50.4%. In the UK, in the 2010 general election it was 65.1%. The Scottish devolution referendum in 1997 (which provided the yes vote which created the Scottish parliament) had a turnout of 60.4%; the Welsh devolution referendum the same year had a turnout of 50.1%.

At local level, turnout is even lower. The 2012 Scottish local elections had a turnout of 39.1%; the turnout for the English local and mayoral elections in May 2014 was estimated to be around 35.3% (with the 2014 European Parliament election being held on the same day).

New initiatives such as the 41 Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) elected across England and Wales in November 2012 have failed to engage public interest, at least at the ballot box. Turnout was below 20% in most areas – with an average turnout of 15.1%. This despite the fact that the PCCs are responsible for a combined budget of £8bn, and were set up specifically to hold Chief Constables and police forces to account to communities.

Many people have said that they cast a vote in the indyref ‘because they felt it would mean something’ and it was to be expected that more people would vote in a referendum with significant implications and a clearly discernible difference between the two sides. But it’s quite depressing that in elections for political administrations which control the delivery of local services, the perception of representation and accountability seems to have been lost.

The question for political parties, public servants and policymakers is how to communicate about policy choices in a transparent and accessible way, and embed public engagement in day-to-day processes. And that is more difficult to do than when its about campaigning for support for a Yes/No vote on one question.

  1. Young people are capable of exercising their franchise

For the indyref, 16 and 17 year olds had the vote extended to them for the first time. Many campaigners, on both sides of the indyref debate, claimed that voters should consider the potential impact of the decision on future generations.

Across Scotland, there were 109,533 people on the young voters’ register, according to official figures issued on 19 September. This represents just under 90% of 16 and 17-year-olds estimated to be eligible. Issues that were reported of high interest to young voters included tuition fees, but perhaps surprisingly also welfare and pensions.

The Electoral Reform Society has pointed out that young people receive citizenship education at school but face a delay before they can put their knowledge about democracy and rights into practice. The 2006 Power Inquiry emphasised the need to include young people in the political process as early as possible in order to create a basis for greater political engagement in later life.

The question about voting age often hinges on the argument that younger people are not mature enough to think through voting decisions. Engagement in schools during the indyref suggests that this isn’t the case. Campaigners also thought it important due to the perceived potential impact of differences in voting choices by age. This research suggests older people would be more likely to vote No – and the Ashcroft Poll of 3000 people on the night of the referendum showed nearly three quarters (73%) of those aged 65 or over voted No.

Perhaps the indyref can set the precedent for lowering the voting age … with the next reform being votes for prisoners?

  1. Grassroots campaigning and social media brought the debate into the public consciousness

With an office in the centre of Glasgow, we experienced first-hand the very visible campaigning from grass-roots supporters. You may have also noticed that, although we’re focused on knowledge sharing of public and social policy, we didn’t blog on the referendum – there being good, balanced sources already out there such as the ESRC’s Future of Scotland and the UK site.

It’s been clear that there’s been huge interest in the indyref. According to research from the University of Strathclyde, the referendum inspired more than 10m ‘interactions’ on Facebook over a five week period – one of the highest levels of activity that the monitoring company had ever recorded. These types of interactions include comments, campaign group activity and sharing videos and images relating to the referendum.

Although there is the potential for engagement with the referendum to translate into ongoing engagement in local politics or with public policy, there’s probably a larger risk of disillusionment. How will organisations and grassroot movements calling for change sustain momentum after the No decision?

  1. Democracy will always leave some people’s views unrepresented

There was a lot of angst, as the referendum date grew closer and the polls tighter, about the fact that just a one vote majority would be enough to win. Within our first-past-the post electoral system, sometimes described as ‘winner takes all’, it is often the case that the governing party or parties do not have a mandate from the majority of the population. In fact, at UK (Westminster) parliamentary level, no single party after WW2 has won over half the popular vote.

The binary nature of the indyref increased the proportion of voters on the losing side – though conversely, a greater number of options would reduce the mandate of the winning option.

The No campaign might argue that part of democracy is accepting the will of the majority – including at UK level. The Yes campaign alleged that UK politics and governance has systematically failed to respond to the needs of the Scottish people, although we would highlight the fact that people’s needs are rarely homogenous across Scotland, the UK or indeed in any locality.

  1. Evidence is always context-specific and open to interpretation

For any undecided voter, the big decision in the indyref was who to believe. Our team of researchers here at the Knowledge Exchange were sourcing material every day purporting to be ‘evidence- based’ and it was a good reminder that research is rarely impartial. From the design or framing of research questions, to the interpretation put on results, there are numerous opportunities for bias to be introduced. How findings were reported in the media was also a big issue throughout the indyref.

This was exemplified by differing forecasts of the economic strength of an independent Scotland, reflecting different assumptions about key factors such as the future price of oil and the extent of accessible reserves, the transfer of a share of UK debt to Scotland and trends in business investment. One downside of the No vote is that we’ll be deprived of seeing who was proved right!

Concluding thoughts

Society is sometimes characterised as politically apathetic, but the Scottish referendum emphatically refutes that. A simplistic assumption is that people are fed up with politicians and the increasingly similar manifestos of mainstream political parties. A more nuanced conclusion is that campaign-based politics, which encourages people to express their support for a cause or issue, and then allows them to become as active or inactive as they prefer, is a more natural fit to the networked and fractured manner in which people increasingly communicate both at work and in their personal lives.

Indyref witnessed a proliferation of grass-roots groups, particularly among those favouring independence, often organised through social media, for example the Facebook group Scottish Pensioners for Independence. Or the contrasting women together and women for independence networks. The challenge for governments across advanced democracies is how to develop and deploy the interactive tools, digital knowledge and responsive legislative and civic processes needed to tap into informal, fragmented and often transient group activity, while avoiding the danger of only listening to those who network the loudest.