Case Study (Separated Families/Parenting Education): A Project That Makes Contact Work for Fraught R

21 August 2007

What:Parenting and other support for separated dads
Where: Sunderland Contact Centre
Funders: Children’s Fund; Lloyds TSB Foundation
When: 2002 to present

In 2001 Angela Graham, Service Manager of the Sunderland and South Tyneside Family Mediation and Child Contact Centres, grew concerned about the unmet needs and lack of support for ‘contact dads’. A Trustee of the National Association for Child Contact Centres, Angela was aware that an objective of ‘neutrality’ in contact centres, as well as lack of funding and expertise (most centres are run by volunteers) hindered the development of add-on services to support these men.

The Contact Centre’s focus is the child. It is estimated that only 1% of separating families use contact centres (parents are, typically, high in conflict and low in communication) and she could see easily how working with the fathers could help the children, and also very probably their mothers. It did not seem inequitable to focus on fathers, because there were already substantial local services for separated mums.

What did the fathers need? Roger Olley of Fathers Plus was commissioned to consult with the contact dads, and identified value in a Fathers Support Worker. In November 2002, Steve Eales was employed, to be followed some months later by Hilary Hamilton, as Mothers Support Worker. Hilary was appointed partly because it had become apparent that the ‘centre mums’ weren’t using existing local mothers’ support services – but mainly because it looked inequitable having only a Fathers Support Worker. All staff work closely together in a whole team approach.

Two types of contact – supervised or supported – can be available in contact centres. Sunderland will be offering supervised contact in mid 2005 but currently offers supported contact (appropriate when no significant risk to the child, parent or another adult has been identified). Steve, who is employed full-time, works almost entirely with the contact dads although he occasionally sees self-referred men, or men who have ‘at home’ contact but still need support and have been referred by local solicitors. A major frustration is only being able to accept fathers who themselves, or their children, live in Sunderland. A recent Sunderland bid to the Parenting Fund to provide father support work in other regional contact centres, was not successful. Also frustrating is the lack of specialist referral services, such as perpetrator work for domestic violence.

Tackling taboos

During 2003, 125 fathers used two centres, Sunderland and South Shields. Most support is given one-to-one on a drop-in or appointment basis, or by approaching the father after contact. Most men first say they need no support. Some present angrily, blaming others, perhaps focusing on ‘winning’ in court. However, over time many open up to acknowledge feelings of loss, powerlessness, bewilderment, disbelief, despair, futility, humiliation, bitterness, loneliness, emptiness, grief, jealousy, inadequacy, and more. Steve’s counselling background, with experience in bereavement, drugs and alcohol, and men’s health stands him in good stead. Although many of the fathers have close family and friends they do not show them how they feel. The Fathers Worker is usually the only person they open up to. A major taboo is for a man to cry in front of another man: Steve sees a lot of fathers cry.

The men’s physical circumstances can be desperate. Many are in B&Bs or lodge in someone’s house (often their parents’) or are holed up in tiny flats inadequate for children’s overnight stays. Contact application refusals can be due to ‘unsuitable accommodation’. Nevertheless, many of the dads are so committed to their children and so prepared to endure difficulties that Steve regards it a privilege to work with them, and notes that over the past year only two stopped contact.

The two key predictors of successful parenting are feelings of ‘self-efficacy’, combined with a real understanding of children. Both are systematically tackled through delivering child development information and parenting strategies, while seeking to build the fathers’ confidence and self-esteem. The first step is often to allow a father to ‘tell his story’; the last, to help him redefine, and find value in, his new role as a separated dad.

In between there is a lot of work to do. Steve helps fathers see that the two hours spent at the contact centre interacting intensively with their child is something very few parents normally do – that it’s a tremendous opportunity and can have a huge effect on their child, and their relationship. Another way that Steve supports the fathers is by helping them to look at the relevance of the their thoughts and actions outside the contact period, in particular towards their child’s mother. The fathers are shown that in fact they can exercise a lot of control – over their own behaviour and their reactions to others and this can help them change their situation; it is empowering for them to act positively and to see the effect this has on their child and their relationship.

Two practical tools are proving valuable. The ‘Contact Check List’, gives fathers ideas for making the time they spend with their children more worthwhile and rewarding, and provides a format for a ‘Personal Reflection and Feedback’ on each contact session. This is discussed with the Fathers Worker shortly afterwards, to identify what worked and what didn’t. A course, ‘Being the Best Dad I Can’, has also been designed, informed by standard parenting course theories, which contain some powerful elements but do not take into account father-specific expectations, experience, situation and aspirations, let alone those of separated dads.

Contact: Steve Eales, tel: 0191 514 4787

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