Engaging with Fathers, Male Partners or Carers and Other Significant Adults
1. Introduction and Definition
This guidance will attempt to reflect the complex nature of modern family structures while at the same time retaining the important overview of working with fathers and male partners. It will cover all adults who may have involvement and influence on the life of a child whether or not they are in an intimate relationship with the child’s main care giver.
This document seeks to bring together some of the research findings in respect of the engagement of fathers, carers and other significant adults in interventions. It identifies some of the challenges and barriers which can occur in frontline practice and seeks to offer some practical suggestions to support practitioners in their work with adults involved in the life of the child.
There is evidence to suggest that it is not unusual for there to be a lack of visibility of some fathers or significant adults, particularly when interventions relate to welfare or safeguarding concerns.
The research undertaken that resulted in the report “The Myth of Invisible Men” a report by the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel in September 2021 The Myth of Invisible Men highlights some of the challenges in this area.
In addition, national research from Serious Case Reviews has found that there had often been too much emphasis placed on the mother's needs and that mothers were seen much more frequently by practitioners. The reviews concluded that too often there had been insufficient focus on the father of the baby, the father's own needs and his role in the family. By extension this applies equally to other significant adults that are in a close relationship to the child’s care giver.
2. Assessing Risks to Children and Young People
'To move toward true inclusiveness in both protecting and supporting children, practitioners need to proactively assess and engage with all significant men in a child's life, understanding that some may pose risks, some may be assets, and some may incorporate aspects of both.' Strega et al. (2008).
Every assessment should be child-centred and take account of their wishes and views as well as their assessed needs. Where there is a conflict between the expressed views or needs of the child and their parents/carers, decisions should be based on a holistic assessment of all the information and made in the child's best interests. Without basic information about significant people, it is unlikely that they will be contacted, and this perpetuates the lack of information. For significant others who are not recognised or spoken with, this gives a message their views and their role are not important. It means we may miss out on understanding protective factors but also not understanding the risks.
3. Practical Tips
Practical tips for the effective engagement of fathers and other significant adults in practice.
- Start your involvement with the family by accurately recording what the family structure, including wider family and friends and support networks, looks like by undertaking an ecological mapping process;
- Consider the role and caring responsibilities of the child's father and other significant adults at the earliest opportunity and include them all (resident and non-resident) early in a 'Think Family' approach in Early Help, Midwifery, Health Visiting work, Pre-birth assessments and Children and Families assessments;
- Actively enquire about the role of all other carers or providers for the child;
- Enter all involvements with the expectation that all significant adults have a role to play in any plan or intervention;
- Give regard to significant adults being in all assessment and planning regardless of whether they have parental responsibility, “Be Curious”;
- Listen to the child, gather their views and be guided by the relationship that they want to have with their father and other significant adults;
- Offer interventions which enable and empower fathers and other significant adults to become more involved in the child's life;
- Ensure that records reflect the earliest intervention, assessment of any child's needs, early help provision or action taken to safeguard the child, including the role of the child's father/other significant adults during all interventions;
- Consider other specialist support or services provided by workers for young, teenage fathers/older fathers;
- Serious Case Reviews have highlighted that parents in those cases often have different GPs and accessing services across Local Authority boundaries. It is important to contact services (including GPs) providing support who are located in other Local Authority areas;
- Consider the quality, availability and relevance of materials and education programmes to support the development of parenting;
- Give recognition to fathers and other significant adults with cultural and ethnic differences and offer alternative forms of provision/interpreting services if appropriate;
- Address issues of domestic abuse and violence, and carefully consider worker concerns. Ensure robust risk assessments (DASH) are undertaken and that there is good communication taking place within and between agencies about how risks will be managed;
- Be alert to how issues of coercive control may be a factor in relationships within the family and how these may impact on the family’s response to you as a professional;
- Appreciate the importance and potential contribution of fathers/significant adults, irrespective of whether or not they are resident, or appear actively involved;
- Be clear about the role of fathers and other significant adults in Child Protection Safety Plans making sure their role is clear, specific and realistic, ensuring they understand the role we are asking them to undertake;
- Avoid placing unrealistic expectations on mothers to monitor issues within the Child Protection Safety Plan;
- Be vigilant to the possibility of mothers acting as 'Gatekeepers', blocking your access to both resident and non-resident partners and other significant adults;
- Triangulate your information; be wary of a single, dominant narrative.
- Be wary of social and gender-based assumptions and stereotypes – females may perpetrate harm; males can be loving carers.
- Use supervision or discussions with your manager/colleagues to test out your thinking and any worries you may have.
4. West Yorkshire Case Reviews
In West Yorkshire since 2009 there have been a number of cases where the role of father or significant adult has not been clearly understood.
Kirklees Child D - Child D was seriously assaulted by Adult A, his mother’s partner of approximately 5 months, on 13th February 2018 when he was aged 22 months. Child D was at home alone with Adult A at the time of the assault. Child D underwent a Child Protection Medical and injuries such as red marks, bruises and grazes on almost every part of his body along with a split inside his mouth on the upper gum line. Adult A was arrested on the day of the assault and served a 21-month custodial sentence. Child D lived with his mother and his 4 siblings. All of the children were subjects of child protection plan at the time of the assault. Was the risk posed by the man not fully known/understood? The extent of his role caring for her children not understood.
Wakefield 3-month-old baby - The baby was 3 months old at the time of their death and resided with their mother and three older siblings. At the time of baby’s death, it was understood that their mother and father were separated after a domestic abuse incident in November 2021 where father was not to reside at the house as part of the safety plan as a requirement of Children’s Social Care closing their involvement in January 2022. Since baby’s death it has been confirmed father was continuing to reside at the family home frequently in breach of the agreement.
Bradford Star Hobson review - Star Hobson was an inquisitive toddler who loved to listen to music and would dance in her baby walker, laughing and giggling. Star died in Bradford aged 16 months on 22nd September 2020 as a result of catastrophic injuries deliberately caused as a result of assault. Her mother’s same sex partner was subsequently convicted of murder on 15th December 2021 and her mother was convicted of causing or allowing her death. See National review into the murders of Arthur Labinjo Hughes and Star Hobson.
5. Mothers as Gatekeepers – What are the Risks?
Mothers can either facilitate or block access for both resident and non-resident fathers. Malm et al. (2006) found that only one third of mothers identified the father when asked. There were several reasons for this including:
- Reluctance about letting the father or significant other know that child welfare services were involved;
- Letting benefit agencies know the identity of the father;
- Fear that the father may gain custody;
- Anger at the father for being in a new relationship;
- Fear of the father's reaction, particularly if there had been a history of domestic abuse.
Mothers are often the main source of information for professionals.
There may be a whole range of reasons why a mother might not share information about the child’s father or significant adults involved in their life and the potential risks they pose to their children:
Professionals need to remain curious and ensure they ask directly about significant adults/the child’s father. Unless we ask the questions, they may not realise we want to know.
Mothers may act as ‘gatekeepers’ of information. This may happen if they are anxious or unclear about why it is needed.
They may withhold information unintentionally as they do not see it is relevant. Once missed once, that information may not be sought again.
Mothers may not know or fully understand how the significant adult poses a risk, particularly if they are vulnerable, have communication or learning needs or they are victims of grooming in their own right. If there is a history of abuse and coercive control between the mother and father/partner, they may be scared or under duress not to share information. Trauma and repeated experiences of abuse over years may have eroded the mother’s sense of control over their own lives and those of their children and make it difficult for them to trust us.
Mothers may be reluctant to divulge information to professionals for fear of losing their children. This may come from personal experience and have led to mistrust of services.
They may not wish to include fathers, or indeed other partners or significant adults to be involved in what they perceive as “their territory”.
Exploring short-term, casual relationships as well as relationships with estranged partners or family members is important to a full understanding of risks and the child’s experience of family life.
The way in which our professional roles and organisations are perceived by families can also have a significant impact on how much information mothers will share. So too can the individual practitioner’s manner and approach. We need to remain mindful of the power imbalance between ourselves and families, of the various social/racial/cultural barriers that may be at play in the work we undertake (Social Graces). We need to seek to understand and address these, in order to build relationships and trust.
Some professionals involved with men/significant others may have information about potential risks or strengths, but do not share it, perhaps because they are unaware that they are having contact with children. They may assume the information is already known or that organisational systems will be accessible. As professionals, it is best not to assume but to communicate with colleagues in other services and share/check out information.
If ‘significant’ people are not identified and included in conversations/assessments, the risk they present may not be understood or the protection they can offer is missing.
Relying on one source of information or one dominant narrative is also risky: it limits the ability to triangulate assessments, verify accuracy and identify inconsistencies in accounts.
Inaccurate perceptions/labelling based on limited information can result in a misleading characterisation of men and significant others. For example, an assumption that an individual is reliable and trustworthy, when further enquiries reveal they may pose a risk. Conversely, if the individual is reported or perceived to be ‘bad’ or ‘mad’, a potential source of support for parent or child may be overlooked.
The ‘significant other’ may play an important role in meeting the child’s basic care, emotional and psychological needs and ensuring their safety, stability, and welfare. Whilst this is important for the child, a lack of understanding of the extent of the ‘hidden’ support, may mask concerns about the mother’s ability to parent effectively.
Not all mothers restrict access to fathers. Roskill (2008) found many women expressed strong views that the involvement of men with children's services was very important.
At all times keep your focus on the child. Seek to understand their lived experience.
This includes identifying all the significant men and other adults in a child's life early on. Assess parenting of significant others. This includes assessing all partners, irrespective of gender, as you would a male father or partner.