This workshop was presented by Dr Georgia Philip from the Centre for Research on Children and Families (CRCF), based at the University of East Anglia (UEA). Georgia explained she is a sociologist by training and her research has focused on fathers, fatherhood and father engagement. In particular she has worked on two major research projects, on fathers’ experiences of child protection, and of recurrent care proceedings. She flagged up two Nuffield Foundation funded research projects and reports relevant to today’s workshop:
Research Briefing – Counting Fathers In: Understanding men’s experiences of the child protection system by CRCF at UEA
‘Up Against It’; understanding fathers’ experiences of recurrent care proceedings.by UEA and Lancaster University
Georgia welcomed a diverse audience from a range of backgrounds (statutory, third sector and campaign groups) and asked for differing views and experiences to be listened to and respected, which set the scene for a stimulating workshop and lively discussion.
Group activity 1: Why is the engagement and inclusion of fathers in social work so challenging?
Georgia asked participants to work in groups to think about this issue from either a social worker’s or a father’s perspective. In particular, why is the engagement of fathers still seen as an issue in social work? What are the barriers to relationship building with men?
The following challenges were identified:
- Fathers might be used to having power in the family, while many social workers are women.
- It’s more difficult for social workers to access the father if he is not living at the home address.
- Social workers don’t always know who the father is but always know who the mother is.
- Resources for families and support networks are often female focused – mother and baby groups, playgroups, women’s aid, welfare support etc.
- Entrenched views on gender and care – some Fathers think it’s not their business or that they are not accountable. Accountability is often a key issue.
- Domestic violence is a contentious issue and very often gendered.
- Some Fathers might feel the system is stacked against them and perceive that it’s all about the mother. This is even more difficult when it gets into the court system.
A dynamic model of father engagement
Georgia introduced a model to demonstrate that the level and success of a father’s engagement depends three aspects:
- the timing of the initial contact by the social worker
- the ‘tolerance’ and flexibility of the father (ability to control emotions and manage expectations)
- the ongoing communication between the social worker and father.
At times, the physical and mental barriers of engaging a father means that contact is sometimes left until just before court proceedings, which then doesn’t give the father a chance to realistically put things in place to be the carer of his child.
“When social worker and father engagement works well, it can lead to mutual recognition and active involvement by the father, with more positive outcomes.”
“When communication has been minimal or passive (e.g. father has just been sent minutes of a meeting rather than actively engaged) this can lead to mutual mistrust and strategic exclusion of a father.”
Interestingly, social workers and fathers often use the same words to describe contact with each other – ‘hard to reach’, ‘never calls me back’.
Group activity 2: Tackling barriers to change
There are structural and procedural barriers to inclusion, but two key issues repeatedly raised are mothers ‘gatekeeping’ and fathers ‘opting out’. Georgia asked participants in their groups to discuss how social workers can break down these barriers and encourage change. The group I joined discussed social workers breaking down the barriers with fathers, as follows:
- Acknowledge that fathers may struggle to find words to express their thoughts and feelings.
- Show openness to listening and understanding. It takes courage to be honest.
- Reaffirm how important a father is to a child.
- Engagement with fathers should bepart of supervision.
- Staff training sessions, especially with newly qualified social workers.
- Finding the balance between strengths based approaches and firm action.
It was reiterated that the sooner a father is involved the better, but social workers need skills to do this. It can be difficult to challenge or ask difficult questions (until child protection or care proceedings necessitate this). The non-resident parent is often gendered and not questioned. This is automatically a barrier to communication and can lead to assumptions about the level of contact.
Tools for thinking and doing
Georgia introduced three concepts or tools that social workers should think about in practice: gender sensitivity and critical questioning; analysing men’s ‘agency’ as fathers; and being alert to gatekeeping.
Georgia encouraged social workers to think critically about parenting as gendered, with different experiences, expectations, sanctions, rewards, opportunities and constraints. In child protection, assumptions can be made and left unquestioned. Men are sensitive when gender difference amounts to unfairness e.g. handling allegations, not being as involved as mothers, and the emphasis on support given to mothers. Furthermore, child protection is one of the very unusual situations when a parent in employment can be disadvantaged, as the working parent may be perceived as unable to provide full time care for a child. This was demonstrated by a video of a father who believed in working to provide for his family, but this had worked against him in care proceedings. For these reasons, we need to critically question and implement a more gender sensitive approach to case work. This is key to building better relationships with dads and supporting men’s parenting (Counting Fathers In – chapter 11).
A sense of ‘agency’ relates to a father’s confidence and ability to act or do something, which affects how a father encounters and engages with social workers and child protection. Georgia explained that the key aspects of agency are:
- Persistence – to carry on with a process and all its challenges.
- Sense of entitlement – the belief that it’s about them and the child and the ability to challenge and maintain a stake in the process.
- Quality of agency – the ability to be reflective and the level of confidence and self-esteem.
- Relationship with child – the history of the relationship, level of contact and care giving, their perceived bond with the child.
Georgia shared an audio to demonstrate this concept, involving a father who had battled for his children and persisted with concerns about their mother until he finally gained the care of his daughter. His success ultimately boiled down to his persistence, refusal to withdraw, and an ability to critically reflect on his own approach – as well as a social worker who persisted with him despite a tense relationship. A key lesson is that it is often very difficult for a social worker to get to the truth because of ‘mudslinging’ by parents.
This time, in relation to organisational gatekeeping, social workers must be aware of ‘gate opening’ and ‘gate closing’ moments created by the child protection processes. Gate opening factors are, for example, opportunities created to engage with fathers at an early stage. Gate closing factors are where procedural opportunities are missed, for example, to proactively include fathers and review what their involvement could be.
“Gate opening and gate closing moments can have a significant impact on the direction of a case – sometimes these are procedural but sometimes they are linked to attitudes or assumptions about men and parenting.”
Group activity 3: a critique of a father’s agency
A final group discussion was based on a written account of a father’s involvement in child protection. It demonstrated how the outcome was not only influenced by his persistence and determination to maintain contact with his children, but also his access to housing. The final turning point was when he secured suitable accommodation, which facilitated him gaining custody of one child – the outcome he had fought for from the start. It also demonstrated that housing itself is a gendered issue.
Georgia’s workshop demonstrated the incredible complexities of working with fathers in child protection. It showed how successful engagement depends on the skills of social workers to think critically and use a range of tools sensitively and in a timely fashion, to give fathers the best possible change of positive involvement. It also depends on a father’s ability and confidence to persist with the child protection process, no matter how challenging. Importantly, effective organisational procedures, including training and supervision, must ensure that opportunities for father involvement are provided throughout the process.