I recently had the pleasure of being asked to speak at a “Fathers Inside” group (a programme from the charity Safe Ground SAFEGROUND). My agenda was to talk about the social care system, and hopefully challenge their negative stereotypes about social workers! I am sad to say the opportunity cemented one of my more unwanted opinions – that Dads are often second class citizens in the parenting stakes. Before anyone starts, yes, I am aware that lots of situations merit little or no contact from a parent, whether male or female, but let’s try to put that aside for the purpose of this discussion. The men attending “Fathers Inside” were all prisoners, serving sentences for offences that were not discussed with me. Although their religious beliefs, skin colour, and ages were varied, their common link was that they were all Dads, and all the wrong side of the law. A lot of the Q & A centred around the barriers they face as Dads in prison, and their concerns about what further hurdles would present on release. I tried to answer the questions honestly, but as I spoke I realised that the outcomes will largely rely on the views, opinions and priorities of professionals involved with the family the other side of the prison gates.
A collaborative study between Ormiston Children and Families Trust and the University of Cambridge (Risk and Protective Factors Associated with the Resettlement of Imprisoned Fathers and their Families) states that “prisoners’ families are a vulnerable yet ‘invisible’ group with complex needs. They can also be an important resource in helping prisoners to resettle and desist from crime.” Its summary explains that “Approximately one-half of prisoners are fathers of children under the age of 18, yet prisoners’ children and families seem to be an ‘invisible group’ in our society (Ministry of Justice/Department for Schools, Children and Families, 2007). How families adjust to the return of an imprisoned partner or parent, the stress these events place on parents and children, and the support systems and coping mechanisms of family members have been rarely addressed in research.” I will include the findings of this research at the end of this blog.
It’s interesting, in my opinion, that many professionals don’t ever meet the father of the children they work with. How many teachers, health visitors, social workers, and nursery staff have occasional (or no) interaction with Dad, yet speak to Mum on a regular basis? Social workers make recommendations and safeguarding decisions every day, but how accurate can they be without getting to know both parents and exploring their realities (which often varies enormously from their paperwork persona.) As registered workers we are reminded that there should never be ‘invisible fathers’, yet excuses are made and accepted frequently.
Mum is the main caregiver. Dad works full time. Mum and Dad are no longer in a relationship. Dad doesn’t want to engage. Dad is violent. Mum and Dad no longer speak.
Despite our training, qualifications and judgement free approach to working with parents, it is all too readily accepted that Mum is the ‘go to’ person. Again, before people get worked up, I’m not saying that’s always wrong. I see amazing women holding it together, some with strong men by their sides and others taking the solo option. But. My point is this…where is the equality of opportunity? If families have separated parents, and children predominantly live with Mum, how much involvement and say do you think Dad has regarding agencies around his children? How often are his thoughts, feelings, concerns and wishes represented without bias or assumption? I’m not saying that contact isn’t attempted, but it is up to professionals to go beyond that one letter or voicemail, to replicate actions undertaken to engage Mum. “I’ve tried to get in touch with him, it’s up to him if he want to engage with us.”
Dads need to step up and take responsibility for their children, but how easy is it when their children are not in their care?
Having worked with offenders and prisoners in previous roles, and experienced the criminal justice system from conviction through to release, I am fairly confident in my ability to engage with the more ‘difficult and dangerous’ members of society. I have built up knowledge of how to work in volatile situations, and use my common sense to calm anger, promote independence and nurture the damaged. Now that my job revolves around safety and wellbeing of children, I have placed a different hat on my head. I hold multi-agency meetings on a regular basis and can see the gaps in our so called holistic approach. Just to make it clear, I am not attacking any professional groups or charity workers! In the last 9 years (often having more than one job at the same time!) I have worked as – a carer, a housing worker, a homelessness support worker, an offender manager, a bail hostel project worker, a community service supervisor, a care trainer, a first aid instructor, an offender lecturer, a drug and alcohol worker, and I am now a social worker. From this I have gained an understanding of the different stresses and pressures in each of those sectors, and also an insight into why working together is so difficult. Individuals working with adults (such as mental health teams, drug and alcohol workers, domestic abuse support) have an entirely different remit to those working with children (teachers, nursery staff, social workers). This is to be expected given the nature of the roles, but it’s that gap in the middle that causes a problem.
Sometimes, professionals working solely with parents choose not to attend multi-agency meetings about children (or aren’t invited!) but often hold the most important information. It would be extremely short-sighted to think that Mum or Dad’s mental health, criminal activity or drug/alcohol use doesn’t form an integral part of the cognitive development of children within the environment. Some months ago I invited a mental health practitioner to a meeting for a child I was working with, and initially he refused, saying he has no involvement with the family, only Dad. Eventually he agreed to attend, and not only was it useful for others to hear an independent professional view of a Dad who had already been ‘written off’ by some agencies, but the MH practitioner was also made party to a wealth of information he would not otherwise access. I have found most agencies, charities, and organisations are trained (and rightly so) to follow the culture of their own workplace in order to provide a consistent service. This can, however, make it difficult to work towards one common goal when each person round the table has a different motive and required action for their client. (Not to mention time pressures, caseloads and measured outcomes!)
Plans for families can be written as “SMART” as you like, but unless all parties are included, are in agreement, and understand what needs to be done, the power of the actions is immensely impacted.
I find it amazing that occasionally children can have intervention plans that either ignore Dads altogether, or include actions that are decided on behalf of the absent parent – how Achievable and Realistic is that? It is of course a subjective topic, but seemingly not uncommon that Dads can be brushed aside due to being “on holiday at her Majesty’s pleasure”, uncontactable, disinterested or “being dealt with by probation.” Until we, as professionals, actually get our heads together and use our knowledge to overlap into each other’s work, how can we ever make a difference? It’s not about shipping out the work to the most appropriate agency, although of course that plays its part. It’s about inclusion, communication, adaptability and continuity.
No one is ‘fixed’ after undertaking a course/group/programme/therapy, but they may have learnt new skills, formed a new opinion or gained better understanding of something. It is not enough for work to end there. Friends, family, volunteers and professionals are responsible for turning that building block into a sustainable life change by promoting the same message continually, and recognising, agreeing with, and being educated on what that person has learnt.
My biological Dad was not in my life for the majority of my childhood. I don’t want to use this blog to deliberate that in any depth, but what I can tell you is that it has had a lasting impact on me. Given the circumstances it was probably for the best that he wasn’t around, and I would like to think I have turned out ok despite the difficulties! What I can recognise now is that the situation was accepted, taken at face value and never challenged by anyone (as far as I know) during my childhood. Had my Mum done the same as my Dad in my primary years I can’t imagine it would have been so easily dismissed by family members or professionals. What is it about Dads that allows them to walk away from their 50-50 parental responsibility? Is it that they haven’t carried a child within their body, and given birth? Is it that society regards the maternal bond as more important? Is it that if you are a ‘Bad Dad’ it’s better for you to be out of the way, so you can’t damage and poison your child? Is it that Dads don’t realise that their rights and responsibilities are equal to that of Mum?
Community Care says “Serious case reviews have repeatedly highlighted failures by social workers to effectively engage fathers or identify men who pose a risk to children.” It goes on to explain that social workers potentially have a multitude of reasons for failing to involve fathers in work (I believe this definitely goes for other fields too). Some explanations include:
“Most children’s social workers are female and may have emotional responses to men that are influenced by their childhood and experiences.”
“Social workers may fear men who are hostile or even violent. A recent Community Care survey found many child protection workers feel unprotected, and often undermined, by their employers when trying to deal with hostile parents, which in turn affects their practice.”
“A lack of good supervision and systems to deal with violent or intimidating service users compounds the problem. There is also a shortage of high quality support programmes for fathers, particularly those who are violent.”
“Social workers often alienate men because they refuse to consider gender and masculinity issues”
“Social workers are often unaware of how ‘masculinity’ influences reactions, meaning fathers are often manifested as unpredictable and violent. Instead we should be looking at how they justify their behaviour, helping them unpick their own narrative and understand the harm they are causing”
“Social workers tend to see men in a family as either a risk or a resource. Even a father who displays risk factors, such as violence, may display some protective factors. The challenge is to identify interventions that bring forward those protective factors while keeping the risk under control”
But really, for me, the bottom line is that this is not good enough. If Dads really do not want to step up, be involved, and raise their children they can’t be forced. But for those who do… why are we not spending more time breaking down barriers and moving away from generic short term interventions?
Childhood lasts a maximum of 18 years, but good parents last a lifetime.
Dads need to stop hiding and be willing to make changes. Society talks the talk about ‘equality and diversity’, but it still has a long way to go in order to address gender imbalance, particularly in troubled family units. Domestic abuse is unacceptable, as are other forms of criminal behaviour, but it is not a reason to no longer work with Dads who want to be parents. I totally agree that risk management needs to be taken seriously, but it’s time to dissect what has happened, why, and support families to rebuild their unit (or redesign it.). The traditional family is becoming an unusual state of affairs, with blended families becoming increasingly common, and parents, volunteers and professionals need to adapt expectations and attitudes in order to improve positive outcomes. Everyone is responsible for information sharing, and clarity on processes, particularly within statutory organisations. This includes handovers between workers, reviews, swapping reactivity for sustainable development, and a willingness to acquire knowledge about the agendas of all parties.
Risk and Protective Factors Associated with the Resettlement of Imprisoned Fathers and their Families – Conclusion and Recommendations.
- High quality family relationships were a very strong and consistent predictor of successful resettlement outcomes for all family members. This suggests that both NOMS and family organisations need to consider what further action can be taken to maintain and strengthen these relationships.
- The data demonstrated the importance of frequent contact between the father and family during imprisonment. This clearly suggests investing further planning and resources into increasing communication opportunities for all imprisoned fathers, for example, through more high quality visiting experiences and greater access to phone calls.
- The analysis of prior expectations and experiences after release showed that a more accurate picture with regard to anticipated difficulties and resettlement outcomes was achieved by taking both parents’ views into account. It would, therefore, be useful to include the partner’s views in release and resettlement planning.
- As expected, employment, accommodation and financial problems were important difficulties in the resettlement process. However, these were not only related to a lack of material resources, but also to a lack of social resources such as quality of family relationships and contact during imprisonment. This suggests that measures to improve resettlement should not be applied in isolation, but should take into account the pattern of needs according NOMS’ concept of multiple pathways out of crime.
- The importance of support from wider family and friends in the resettlement process suggests that prisons, probation and voluntary sector agencies should consider how to encourage most effectively such informal support in resettlement for prisoners and their families.
- Family orientated programmes were associated with positive resettlement outcomes when prior quality of parental relationship was taken into account. This is promising. However, as these findings are based on correlational analyses, this is not yet ‘hard’ evaluation data of programme effectiveness. Therefore, we recommend further consideration of family orientated programmes and their methodologically controlled evaluation.
- Our qualitative analyses revealed the fragility of the well-being of most of the children and young people interviewed in the study. These findings reinforce the need for children of prisoners to be recognised and cared for as vulnerable individuals in local and national policy and for organisations involved with children of prisoners to be sensitive to their vulnerabilities.
- The relevance of family relationships prior to imprisonment suggests a need to widen the view from corrective to preventive family-oriented interventions. Families should not only receive adequate support and guidance when the father is in prison, but also when there are early risks for offending, substance misuse and other deviant pathways in individual and family development.
In addition to the above, we make the following technical recommendations:
- The difficulty in obtaining information about prisoners’ parental status during recruitment highlighted the lack of systematic recording of information on prisoners’ children by NOMS. Therefore, action on this problem should be taken to enable better services for prisoners, their families, and research in this field.
- The task of following up families post-release demonstrated the difficulties in tracking ex-prisoners and their families beyond the prison gates. Therefore, records should contain information which best serves the families’ needs after release. Such an improvement would be in accordance with NOMS’ mission of effective end-to-end offender management.