Helping a child of violence – with a message from dad

3 October 2013

Jeremy Davies writes: Today, on a train, I met an inspirational social worker. Like so many, she clearly cared deeply about the families she helped. Like not so many, she really understood the profound importance of fathers.

Ofsted’s new inspection framework makes clear that children’s services should pay attention to all parents and carers when children have been maltreated or are at risk of maltreatment or neglect. Easier said than done, sometimes. But the story this social worker told me shone out as an example of how even in the most tragic of circumstances, it’s possible to acknowledge fathers’ role and importance, and help children as a result.

The case she described involved a child who had been victim to ‘shaken baby syndrome’ at the hands of her (young) father. As a result, this tiny girl had been taken away from her parents, placed with foster carers and eventually adopted. The dad, 19 at the time, had been imprisoned for this very serious crime and, left alone, the young mother had been unable to cope.

So far, so depressing. As social worker to the child and her adoptive family, my fellow-traveller could easily have approached this sad tale in the ‘standard’ way (dad’s violent…the child’s better off without him…forget him and move on). Instead, what she did was to go out of her way to invite him to write a letter of apology.

Such a little thing – but in order to achieve it, she went against the wishes of the child’s adoptive parents, her superiors, and the prison authorities, all of whom thought she was wasting her, and their, time. What was the point…he was violent, he’d never apologise and even if he did, so what?…he was a bad ‘un.

Well she pursued her objective doggedly, and the upshot was that the dad – a naïve, messed up 19 year old at the time of the shaking incident – did indeed write an apology letter. He got the chance, in shaky pencil and littered with spelling mistakes, to express his remorse, and start to make amends.

Young dads are some of the most marginalised parents in the UK; apart from via a few enlightened services, like Young Dads TV, they often lack support from families and professionals – even when in a close relationship with the mother of their children.

People tend to assume young dads head for the hills as soon as the pregnancy test shows positive. In fact, this couple (like so many) were very much together; the mother had even given birth in the bath at home, unaided save for the young father’s help. Later, like many parents, he’ll have reached the end of his tether with his screaming baby and, without understanding what damage he could do in a split second of ‘losing it’, had shaken her. Whatever the circumstances, he did a terrible thing, and the consequences were grave.

Now put yourselves in his baby’s shoes. Imagine how much it might mean to you, if you’d been adopted and wanted to know more about your origins, to read this man’s letter. Consider how helpful it might be to know, once you were old enough to process the story, that even though he’d done this terrible thing that had changed your life so irrevocably, your father was at least sorry for what he’d done.

A letter from a father to his child: such a little thing, but so important in helping everyone to move on – and made possible through the efforts of just one person. A person with a profound understanding that, when all’s said and done, for better and for worse, dads matter. Sometimes it’s the little things that count. Sometimes, the little things aren’t so little at all.

The Fatherhood Institute works with child protection teams in the UK and, currently, in Europe to improve engagement with fathers and father-figures in social care. To find out more about this work, please send us an email to mail (at) 


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