Don’t ignore fathers in child protection cases, minister warns

17 November 2010

Social workers engaging with the most difficult child protection cases can all too easily forget fathers and thus offer a disservice to children, children and families minister Tim Loughton has admitted.

At the Fatherhood Institute’s Engaging fathers as partners conference in central London last Thursday (11 November) Mr Loughton shared the story of a visit he had made while shadowing social workers for a week in Stockport, to see a single mum with four sons between the ages of 12 and three. Three of the children had different fathers, none of whom were anywhere to be seen.

“The state of the flat was something to behold – with no carpets or furniture, and piles of clothes heaped on the floor. The social worker I was with told me that one of the children had been suffering terrible toothache for weeks, which had left him writhing on the floor in agony. And yet, despite repeated advice, his mother had failed to book him an appointment to see the dentist. However, while we were there the mum herself developed toothache and immediately called for an appointment – without mentioning her son at the same time.

“I remember walking away from there and telling the social worker that I would have had no hesitation in pulling those children out of the house into care – only to be gently reminded by the worker that the mum absolutely doted on her children and that they loved her deeply.”

But Mr Loughton reflected that it had not once occurred to him to question where the various fathers were, nor to consider their own failings and responsibilities to their children – something he was pulled up on by Fatherhood Institute chief executive Rob Williams at the Conservative Party conference.

“I suspect that if it had been a single dad looking after those children, the first question on all our lips would be: ‘Where is mum?’ In some of the high-profile cases involving child abuse, such as Baby P, was enough work done to see where the birth father fitted in and whether he could be part of a solution? We need to think smarter about non-resident fathers and at every chance continually challenge assumptions about non-resident fathers.”

The Fatherhood Institute has called for the government to take the lead in urging social workers to boost contact with fathers and male figures close to children to avoid tragedies such as that of Baby Peter. The publication of the full serious case review into the Peter Connelly case last month revealed that statements provided to social workers by the child’s father were disregarded, while information about the mother’s partner and lodger was overlooked.

FI chief executive Rob Williams said social workers are too focused on mothers and endangering children by excluding resident and non-resident fathers and father-figures.

“We need to be addressing men who might pose a risk to a child and those who might be able to protect the child or provide support to the mother. That’s a really big change in practice and confidence, especially because sometimes men are threatening and off-putting. We’d like to see all new social and children’s centre workers go through training that has fathers mainstreamed in their practice, and for those already in the workforce to go through a change process.”