Case Study (Young Fathers/Vulnerable Families): Young Dads and Child Protection

3 April 2009

Browning House is a family assessment centre in Leeds, where vulnerable young mums’ and dads’ capacity as parents is assessed in cases involving child protection. The centre, which takes referrals from Social Services, Children’s Guardians and the Courts when the children are considered to be at serious risk of harm, sees working with young, vulnerable dads as central to its purpose.

Working with families with multiple problems

The centre can accommodate up to 12 families at any given time, and often deals with young mums and dads involved in on-going protection investigations, problems with domestic violence, a history of abuse, drug or alcohol addiction behaviour and/or substance abuse problems. Some of the parents have learning difficulties or are care leavers. Assessments accommodate any combination of adults that constitutes ‘a family’ to the child, including single mums, single dads, couples and separated and reconstituted families.

Making clear that dads are important

Centre manager Karen Keenan says assessments, including residential stays of an average of 12 weeks, make no assumptions about whether children are likely to be ‘better off’ with mum, dad or both, but take a firm line that fathers are important: ‘We start from the point of view of the child, and over many years we’ve found that often it’s the father, rather than the mother, who is the more competent or promising parent of the two.’

The rationale for father-inclusion

In all their work and publicity about their service, Browning House staff are careful to avoid lazy use of the word ‘parent’, breaking this down into ‘mum’, ‘dad’ or ‘other carer’ wherever possible. The centre, which used to be a mother-and-baby unit and only accept fathers as occasional visitors, developed its father-inclusive approach for several reasons, Ms Keenan explains: ‘Children can have experiences of being parented by both mum and dad, and for the children’s sake, there needs to be a recognition of who the adults around them are and how capable and willing to contribute they are.

‘It’s also important in cases where children might eventually be taken away from their parents, that we find out as much as we can about their families before that happens – to make sure we’re doing the best we can and also so that in 20 years’ time if the child turns up wanting to know about their birth family, we’ve got good records.’

Methods of supporting young dads and mums

Browning House’s philosophy is to support mums, dads and other carers to recognise the needs of their child through example and demonstration, education, observation and positive encouragement. The centre runs residential and day assessments, with day assessments often used as a way of assessing parents’ suitability for residential assessment, and for introducing non-resident parents (often fathers) into an assessment, where the other parent and child are already staying at the centre. The centre runs a fathers’ group, has a male counsellor, and operates an ‘Emotions Group’ and ‘dad only’ social activities.

Reaching out to find the dads

Ms Keenan points out that the young mums will often present at the centre as a single parent – a situation which many agencies would not question. In some cases the child’s social worker will have already made some attempt to contact the dad, in which case Browning House staff would follow this up. Otherwise they might slowly, during the initial 12-week period, look at all the mum’s relationships, where possible drawing from her who the father is, explaining how important he is for the child, and thinking about how contact with him might be established and managed. Where a father is not living with their child the unit offers dads supervised contact assessments and sessional work, dependent on the level of need and risk that they may pose.

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