Men and social work: Working with fathers in child protection

Dermot Brady, speaking at the Social Work Innovations conference explains how to avoid perpetuating ‘inadvertent sexism’ in social work practice and better involve men and fathers.

02/12/21

Men and social work: Working with fathers in child protection

Child protection services often exclude fathers, even though to do so can be detrimental to both parents and their children, Dermot Brady, Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Kingston University told an audience at the recent Social Work Innovations conference.

“We know that fathers are important but we assume and have the expectation that women care. So we end up in the kind of situation where we are inadvertently sexist in our provision, where we assume everything comes to mothers. So she's at the core group meeting, the case conference, taking the children for immunizations, and in the main, [the father] gets a free pass.

“My argument is, while we have low expectations of men, that's what we're going to get.”

Brady added: “My concern is that the gender symmetry debate hides our gaze from other forms of abuse -- elder abuse, for example, child to parent abuse, and in same-sex relationships.”

In a seminar drawing on published research and on his own work with fathers in south London, he said: “Essentially, the research in social work tells us that men are seen as a threat. It's straightforward. What do we know about a lot of these guys? That they're violent to women.”

Usually, it is the father who moves out of the family home and once that happens, Brady explained, men are seen as “irrelevant, absent, and women as default clients”.

“The research kind of tells us this kind of stuff over and over again…you could call it a bias against including fathers.”

“As a result, we dismiss them and write them off [but] you give them a chance to talk, give them a chance to engage on their fathering, to talk about their children, you get a different conversation. We still don't work at that, because of who he is. The idea is that ‘he's just a deadbeat dad, he's not interested, he doesn't want to talk about his kids’ – but that is not my experience.”

Brady, who is Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Kingston University, said professionals need to get to a meaningful conversation that is essentially in the interest of children. Moving towards this safer practice meant talking to both parents when the family was in crisis.

Professionals were also asked to remind themselves that they may be working within in a racist, sexist, homophobic system. “It is infected with a neoliberal management model and all about targets, boxes,” Brady said. “It prizes money and profit above people -- and that stuff is inimical to good social work practice.”

Social workers need to get beyond the prejudice inherent in practice, it was said. “Positive fathering is good for children. It is not so much ‘my right to see my child’ but the child’s right to safe and positive fathering.” In his own work, Dermot had found that the fathers in his group had almost uniformly bad experiences of fathering themselves, and about one quarter had minimal literacy. Their own behaviours in parenting had not previously been challenged – forming a new relationship, fathering another child and seeing the same problems develop, was a common theme.

“I go back to this…people deserve the opportunity to change. This is what we have chosen to do with our professional lives after all. So how might we approach it?”

Currently, by not engaging more with fathers, it was said an opportunity was lost to promote change in men and improve their relationships with their children: “We haven’t even signed up to the international protocols that most other countries have signed. And less than 20 per cent of those on parenting programmes are men”

He concluded that while the UK is weak in its commitment, there are positive signs elsewhere in the global movement towards gender equality. This is gathering pace in campaigns such as the Promundo movement, which is promoting gender equality and campaigning to overcome gender inequalities and patriarchy.

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