Blog: Why it’s time to get real about keeping fathers connected with their children

11 September 2011

Rob Williams writes:

David Cameron has identified fatherlessness as one root cause of the riots in August. He’s got a point – extensive evidence shows that involved fatherhood provides real protection from the dangers of educational failure and adolescent disaffection. Children who do not get support from their fathers are much more likely to get into trouble with the law in their teenage years and to misuse drugs and alcohol (read our research summary on fathers and anti-social behaviour).

But talking about fatherlessness as if fathers alone hold the solution to the phenomenon will not make it go away.

One third of our children will see their parents separate before their 16th birthday and a third of these will come to have little or no contact with their father (read our research summary on separated families). That’s 1 million children or, in other words, an enormous problem which we, up to now, have silently condoned.

At the time of separation most men fully intend to play their part as a non-resident parent. If the link between fathers and children decays over time it is because we allow it to. Think about it – as soon as separation occurs, in most cases the child becomes a member of what we call a ‘single parent family’ – a construct which has a devastating impact on fathers’ involvement.

Public services, whether the families they deal with are separated or not, communicate almost exclusively with mothers. They don’t even ask about the dads, let alone see it as their role to engage with him – and separation does nothing to improve matters.

Who challenges GPs, schools, children’s centres and other family support services to have more than the mothers’ details on their registration forms? Nobody – we treat children as if they only have one parent, assuming that one million children have no father in their life, doing nothing to challenge that, and thus fostering the very culture of fatherlessness we claim to abhor.

What is the alternative? Here’s an example: schools addressing their communications clearly – and where necessary, separately – to both parents, clarifying regularly that it’s important for the school to have up to date contact details for mum and dad (and any other significant carers), and making it easy for parents to provide an update if either or both of them has moved to a different address.

GPs and any service dealing with families should operate in the same way. Where a mother is unwilling or unable to provide details about a non-resident father, the service will understand that this is a child growing up without any contact with the father. In the past we’d have greeted this with a collective shrug of the shoulders. From now on it should give rise to serious concerns, and imply further investigation.

Alongside all this, we need to acknowledge non-resident fathers’ responsibilities. While disputes with the child’s mother and the difficulties of negotiating access to children present significant challenges to a man who wants to stay engaged, the exit door is wide open.

With the notable exception of the Child Support Agency, no publicly funded service will ever suggest to these men that they have something to offer their children – in the CSA’s case, of course, that something being money. No-one asks fathers to stay involved. Quite the opposite – fathers are often the last people services look to when seeking to support a child.

Take the child protection system, for example – criticised many times in serious case reviews for failing to engage with fathers of children at risk. Fathers in these situations can of course be the people who put their children at risk – but they can also be a vital and positive resource.

In the Baby P case the father of the child was living nearby and was offering to take care of him but, instead of assessing whether he was a suitable parent, the child protection team placed Baby Peter with a friend of his mother. For all sorts of reasons, non-resident fathers should be a first port of call for services worried about a child a risk.

Coming back to the recent riots, it’s crucial that we hold fathers to account for their children in the same way as mothers. Currently 80% of parenting orders are handed down to mothers – even though in half of these cases the father is living with her and may even be in the court room at the time. Why is the father’s role not recognised even when he is standing right in front of the Judge? And why are we not giving non-resident fathers parenting orders too? They have continuing responsibility for their children and, by failing to acknowledge that, the courts make it more difficult for them to play their part.

Right now politicians might find it convenient to blame ‘fatherless’ families for social unrest but unless they change the system that pushes fathers away, it won’t be long before Ministers need to start pointing the finger at themselves.

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