Young fathers in Cornwall

30 March 2005

WHAT:          A learning and development project for young  fathers and their children
WHEN:          Saturday mornings, weekly
WHERE:        Cornwall: Sure Start Lescudjack & Sure Start Chycarn (rural)
INCENTIVES: fares paid; refreshments provided

It is a fundamental truth in social work, that the most significant work is often the most challenging. Nowhere is this more obvious than in work with young fathers. Not only are young fathers currently the most difficult to access, but working with them is exceptionally important, since research shows that the children of ‘teen mums’ benefit more than most from ongoing relationships with their fathers1. Or to put it another way – work with young fathers can pay off, big-time, for their children.

Accordingly, Cornwall’s WILD Young Fathers Programme (developed out of a WILD programme for young mothers) was created to help local young fathers acknowledge the importance of being a dad; and develop self-confidence as people and as fathers. WILD provides them with a safe place to be with their children; and helps them meet with other fathers under 25 – for fun, to share concerns and for mutual advice and support. There are also ‘trips out’ (some with the children) and opportunities for personal development. Youth Achievement Awards, accredited by UK Youth, enable the young fathers to build up portfolios around things they’re interested in; and two have been trained to deliver a peer education package on the realities of being a father to 13/14 year old boys in schools. Groupwork (currently in a gym and meeting room in a Sure Start building – average attendance six fathers) and one-on-one (which can include home visiting) both prove useful. Younger fathers usually prefer one-on-one.

Recruitment strategies tried have included:

LEAFLETS: developed by the fathers – simple design, little text, well distributed locally including in video & game stores: several self-referrals from these
LOCAL MEDIA: radio, newspaper – no direct referrals
YOUNG MUMS: a very few referrals
ANTE-NATAL: since the local hospital is 25 miles away and has a wide catchment, identifying young Sure Start
fathers at the scans etc. is not thought to be viable
PROFESSIONALS (e.g. SURE START MIDWIFE): Reactive, not proactive: usually refer only if the young mother asks or the young father is present & shows interest

There have been real individual successes. For example, the young fathers who participated in the peer education project got an enormous amount from it; and the WILD worker has facilitated strong and positive relationships between young fathers and their children – including, in one case, where contact had been denied. The positive outcome was achieved by the WILD worker negotiating with the young mother and supervising the father-child contact until the young father had built up sufficient skills to care for his child alone, and the mother felt sufficiently confident to allow this.

What are the challenges facing the WILD project – and how can we all learn from them?  Both the supporting Sure Starts are committed to involving fathers, and the current fathers’ worker, who has been with the project since its inception, reports a ‘very supportive’ manager. Nevertheless, developing the work has been difficult. The main problem is lack of referrals, and the worker (who has been hired for his talent for, and interest in, face-to-face work) must spend much of his time trying to change local professionals’ attitudes towards young fathers – a daunting task, and not one he is naturally well equipped to do.

He organised a public forum for health professionals. The young fathers prepared well for it, but only four health professionals turned up. Despite positive feedback, and follow-up calls from WILD, no referrals eventuated – even though all four attending professionals were very positive about the event, and were in touch with young fathers. These they presented as being extremely vulnerable and in very difficult situations – perhaps perceiving them as ‘beyond help’ or unwilling to engage. It is clear that different approaches need to be taken, and WILD is currently preparing some resources to give to local young fathers (to help ‘smooth the way’ in early conversations, since many are sceptical or suspicious of joining anything that has been ‘organised’). WILD is also preparing resources for local health professionals, to try to encourage them to refer. It is likely that a systemic approach to developing referrals, possibly through local partnerships and with a worker employed to focus only on this issue, may be the next step.

Meanwhile, Jason Davis, the WILD fathers’ worker has learned to focus on the ‘wins’. At a Youth Achievement Awards ceremony recently, one young father sang about fatherhood, accompanied by a projected image of his newborn son; while another spoke to professionals at a conference about his feelings on finding out he was to become a dad. And whereas the Sure Starts used not to collect details about fathers or even their names, this data is now routinely collected – because of the WILD project. ‘There are certain skills that I have and certain skills that I don’t have’ says Jason Davis. ‘I don’t think we can expect one person to be able to do everything’.

Jason Davis
WILD Young Parents Project
57 Lemon Street
Truro, TR1 2PE
Tel: 01872 260655 (office) 079001 87897 (mobile)

1 Dunn J, Cheng H, O’Connor TG & Bridges L (2004) ‘Children’s perspectives on their relationships with their nonresident fathers: influences, outcomes and implications’ Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines 45(3):553-566