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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3 Comments »

  • Kip Miller says:

    Rob,

    I agree. (Please see my video ‘Parental Responsibility and the 2011 UK Riots’.

    Kip

  • Nick Woodall says:

    Whilst you make some good and valuable points, Rob, the difficulty I have with your analysis is revealed through the phrase ‘at the time of separation most men fully intend to play their part as a non-resident parent.’

    I believe that this shows a lack of appreciation of the issues that fathers face when families separate and a failure to understand the policy framework in which fathers are attempting to maintain meaningful relationships with their children.

    I think the first question that I would ask is, what is a ‘non resident parent’, how do you become one, and what happens to fathers who are labelled as such? In my many years of experience, men don’t want to play their part a ‘non-resident parents’; they just want to remain as ‘dad’.

    It is the point at which we divide parents into ‘parent with care’ and ‘non resident parent’ that is the point at which we begin the support of one and the vilification of the other. Located in these labels, and the status that they confer, is the very essence of the discrimination that (mostly) fathers face after separation.

    I’m surprised that the Fatherhood Institute who has promoted equal parenting, both before and after separation, should now wish to consign fathers to the role of ‘non resident (read ‘second class’) parent’.

    The status ‘non resident parent’ is one that is conferred on fathers – it is, generally, not one that they choose – and it leads to a lifetime of being judged, mistrusted, condemned and discriminated against. It is the opposite of ‘single parent’.

    It is the very status of ‘non resident parent’ and the policies that lie behind it that so often is the cause of fathers being excluded from their children’s lives. As long as we continue to allow this to remain the case, we will continue a situation where one parent is supported and the other is dismissed – the terminology and the discrimination go hand in hand.

    The task is to change legislation, policy and practice in order that parents are not given the status of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parent and so that dads can continue to be dads without being told how they may be allowed to do so.

    Nick Woodall
    (Personal capacity)

    • Fatherhood Institute says:

      Thanks for your comment, Nick. We of course continue to champion shared parenting and, like you, work hard to move everyone away from thinking in terms of polarising concepts like that of ‘parent with care’ and ‘non-resident parent’. That was the whole point of our blog – even if the one clause you pick up on might have suggested otherwise. Not sure we would privilege this terminology as being responsible for the discrimination and exclusion fathers face though…dads of all sorts, whether or not they live full time with their children (and however those who do not are labelled) face disinterested and sometimes hostile public services, ill-judged political rhetoric and a casually dismissive media. As you rightly say, the task is to change legislation, policy and practice – but around fathers and fatherhood generally; not just around those who have undergone separation/divorce. Rob

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