Blog: Why we need a holistic response to fatherlessness

8 October 2012

Jeremy Davies writes: David Lammy says absent fathers are a key cause of knife crime. He’s right to raise fatherlessness as a problem. But is his or any other political party ready to look holistically at how to solve it?

Contrary to what the press might have us believe, fathers are not armed with the inalienable power to instill discipline and a sense of right and wrong in their children – mythical creatures one can summon the minute things get tough on the streets.

Like mothers, they are parents who need respect and support to help them do the very difficult job of raising happy, confident children. Doing this successfully takes time, knowledge and effort – whatever your gender. We need high expectations of fathers, and that means challenging them when they fail to step up to the mark – but we should also support them to make sure they do.

Right now, we do neither. Our public services are built around support for mothers, whom many think of as synonymous with parenting. Maternity services, early years provision, schools…you name it, pretty much every element of tax-funded family service provision (not to mention the family courts) assumes fathers are incidental.

We give the lion’s share of parenting leave to mothers – up to 52 weeks compared to 2 weeks (paid at a low level) for fathers – offering scant opportunity for dads to learn how to become confident, independent, hands-on carers in the crucial early months of their children’s lives. The Coalition proposed a more flexible system, but it’s still not in place.

Expectant and new dads receive little or no targeted information about what they could or should be doing to make a great job of being a father. Despite there being legislation on the statute books to bring in joint birth registration, we still don’t even do anything to get dads’ names on their children’s birth certificates – a clear sign that as far as the state is concerned, it’s mothers that really count.

Dads walking into a state-funded children’s centre are still, all too often, regarded with suspicion; if they’re lucky there’ll be a Saturday dads’ club, rather than a service that mainstreams father-inclusive practice. Most parenting classes are designed for, and delivered to, mothers.

The child support people may get in touch with dads who separate from their child’s mother, but schools won’t acknowledge their existence by sending reports and invitations to two addresses.

In child protection cases, fathers and father-figures are routinely ignored – putting children’s lives at risk, as happened in the Baby Peter case. And where the strong arm of the law tackles children’s bad behaviour, it hands down 80% of parenting orders to mothers, even though in half such cases the father is living with her and may even be in the court room at the time.

All in all, the state views fathers as a ‘nice to have’ optional extra, rather than central to the parenting enterprise. Yes it’s time to hold to account the dads who walk away – but it’s also time for our politicians to ‘man up’ and make involved fatherhood the priority it should rightly be.

In our paper Addressing Fatherlessness: how Government can strengthen the active presence of fathers in their children’s lives, we outline the key policy reforms politicians should be making to tackle fatherlessness.

Download Addressing Fatherlessness here.


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