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Fathers in repeated care proceedings find it hard to trust social workers

Significant childhood adversity, early entry to parenthood and persistent economic hardship were key issues for dads who experienced repeat involvement in care proceedings, according to research.

The study by the University of East Anglia and Lancaster University found that mothers and fathers involved in care proceedings invoke very different public and professional responses, with fathers often viewed solely in terms of the risks they present to women and children.

Dr Georgia Philip, from the University of East Anglia, said: “We need a ‘both-and’ approach. Fathers involved in care proceedings are vulnerable; they may pose risks arising from their vulnerabilities, but they should also be seen as at-risk themselves.”

For the study, funded by The Nuffield Foundation, researchers analysed anonymised family court records for more than 73,000 fathers appearing in care proceedings between 2010/11 and 2017/18. In addition, they carried out a survey of fathers in 18 local authorities and captured life histories through in-depth interviewing.

Fathers featured in 80% of care cases. While fewer in numbers than mothers, a proportion of dads had also appeared in repeat care proceedings.

The study highlighted:

- It was hard for dads to establish relationships of trust with social workers and other professionals. Without resources and support to manage emotions and relationships differently, couple conflict and its impact on parenting were key reasons why dads became stuck in a cycle of family court involvement.

- Fathers in the research had all experienced considerable adversity in their own childhoods. In both childhood and adulthood, they lacked appropriate support at key points in their lives - including during and after care proceedings - to enable or sustain change.

- Although fathers are able to opt out of parenting in ways not so readily available to mothers, the report suggests services should avoid assuming that fathers are always optional or secondary parents. In fact, 79% appeared as couples in repeat care proceedings.

- Fathers described deep and long-lasting emotional pain following the loss of their children and a desire to play an ongoing parental role.

- The majority of fathers interviewed were actively trying to make changes in their lives and in their roles as fathers. However, the resources and opportunities they had were scarce and fragile.

Although there is much to be learnt from existing services for mothers, the team argue that service adaptations are sorely needed to engage fathers which focus on emotional regulation, resolution of loss and support for fatherhood as a mechanism for change and accountability. The research team argue for a more nuanced analysis of fathers’ risks and resources and an understanding that all dads are individuals. Whilst fathers should be held accountable for the safe care of children to the same degree as mothers, fathers also need validation and support for their parenting.

“As the family courts continue to struggle with very high volumes of care cases, this research complements existing research on birth mothers, by uncovering fathers’ histories, their struggles with parenthood, but also what factors help fathers recover their parenting capacity,” said the research.

Rob Street, Director of Justice at the Nuffield Foundation, said: “Understanding more about the people who feature in care proceedings is an important goal and especially so in cases where the same children or parents are repeatedly involved. This significant new study sheds much-needed light on a previously largely neglected group: fathers recurrently involved in care proceedings. The insights that the research provides on the characteristics and needs of these men will provide vital information for policy and practice in this area.”

Research Briefing: ‘Up Against It’: Understanding Fathers’ Repeat Appearance in Local Authority Care Proceedings


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