Fathers: seen but not heard?

This week I attended the annual social work conference in Swindon. It was a chance to look back at the year gone by, plan ahead, share the latest news and thinking, but most of all celebrate the profession.

On the day we discussed The Family Justice Review and heard from our Designated Judge who reflected on some of the great progress that has been made this year. She talked about how she’d like to see more plans that are less word heavy and overly complicated so that everyone involved, including families themselves, are clear about what the local authority’s intended plan for the long term needs of the child is. This is some great advice for all our social workers regardless of whether they are experienced in court work or not.

We also talked about the continued challenges facing our professionals including how social work is subject to great media scrutiny particularly around serious case reviews and our hope that Alan Wood’s review of Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards might hail something different. I was particularly struck to hear one worker say he experienced ‘terror’ at the mere phrase ‘serious case review’ – I’m sure this is the case for many others too.

One of the most poignant and perhaps impactful contributions of the day came from a young father. He had experienced care himself and now in his mid-20’s was the sole carer for his daughter. He had not been aware his daughter existed until he received a call out of the blue only to be told that not only was there a child he didn’t know about but that this child was at risk of going into care and was he was prepared to consider caring for her. Imagine getting your head around that!

The Family Rights Group (FRG) also joined us and sought the input of the young father who was brave enough to stand in front of a big bunch of social workers and their managers to share his life story thus far. He told us in a few words about his poor prior experience of care and how he had not felt included, informed or consulted during this time. This in itself was massively powerful and salutary for social workers to hear reminding us so eloquently that what happens to children and young people today impacts them for life. He then told us about his eventual joy at being supported to become a first time dad (to his evidently very much loved daughter) under the watchful and sometimes critical eyes of social workers and the Courts! This is just one example of the great, life changing work that social workers undertake each and every day that doesn’t make it into the headlines.

During this dialogue the FRG reminded us that 80% of fathers known to social care are not living with their families and how ‘Fathers Matter’. That whilst many fathers are known to be abusive to their partner or to misuse substances … many mothers (and some may think rightly so) have made the decision not to involve their ex partners/ abusers/ one night stands to have anything to do with them and their children. Yet here we are as social workers pulling them back into the lives of their children, assessing if they can be safe carers and eliciting their views on the future care of their children.

The trouble is that sometimes we don’t try to do this, perhaps due to concerns about previous violence, perhaps due to time pressures but fathers are often seen as simply good or bad. In the case of the young father we heard from the social workers had the perseverance to track him down and did so for exactly the right reasons – because it was the best thing for his young daughter.

For me, and many others I’m sure, hearing his story proved to be a wonderful reminder about the importance of never judging a book by its cover, being reflective, child-focused and engaged in a child’s wider family network to ensure children do not lose the chance of having a loving male figure in their lives. This is hugely important.

It has helped us here in Swindon agree to review practice on ‘absent fathers’ and not be tempted to collude with the assumption that all absent fathers are absent for the right reasons! Thanks to the young father who told us this story and indeed to FRG for making our learning come alive and for challenging our practice …


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