Are we including fathers? What we say, what we assume and what we’re not asking.

18 June 2015

Nicola McConnellAhead of Father’s Day 2015, Nicola McConnell, Senior Evaluation Officer at the NSPCC discusses how we can assess whether we are engaging with fathers effectively, and how we can improve the way we work with them.

Despite having evaluated children services for 20 years, frequently interviewing children and parents to find out how services have affected their lives, I feel a bit fraudulent writing a blog about engaging with fathers.

The reason for this? Only recently have I noticed that in fact on most occasions I had not been interviewing ‘parents’ but almost exclusively mothers. Evaluation often mirrors the services we evaluate and although services aim to work with parents, for a range of reasons including social organisation and gender expectations, services for children really tend to work with mothers.

However, this tendency, which means that fathers aren’t fully involved, can lead to flawed practice. Evaluators may conclude that a parenting intervention is effective, when in fact it only suitable for mothers, or practitioners may miss an opportunity to assess everyone who is important or involved in a child’s life.

Thankfully practice and expectations around fatherhood are changing. For me, these issues became apparent when I started evaluating Caring Dads: Safer Children - a NSPCC-led parenting intervention for violent or abusive fathers.

The service is a group work programme based on the Canadian Caring Dads model. Fathers attend for seventeen weeks to address their parenting and abusive behaviour, during which time other workers in the team contact the father’s family, including current and ex-partners to provide information about the programme and ensure safety. The team work with other professionals involved with the family to ensure that the programme is part of a safe and coordinated approach.

Evaluating Caring Dads was different to most evaluations of interventions I have been involved with. Instead of being absent or a minority, fathers were the main focus of the intervention. Another difference and potential problem was that we were evaluating a group of fathers who were difficult to engage and less likely to consent to evaluation.

Anticipating this, and several other ethical challenges, we undertook a review of data collection after the first set of programmes. We learnt that the practitioners delivering the service had to be mindful of how literacy and circumstances might affect the fathers’ ability to make informed consent, and also that administering questionnaires could hinder building effective working relationships at the beginning of the programme. Despite these challenges, we found that once the fathers had started the programme, most (over 300 fathers) agreed to participate in the evaluation. I believe this was because much bigger challenges, such as assessing fathers suitability and getting them to a stage of readiness to begin the programme at the early stages of engagement, had already been achieved.

We can look at improving inclusion for fathers to engage them more effectively with services and evaluation by paying more attention to the questions we ask and the assumptions we make about fathers and their families. 

The way we describe and organise services, who we recruit and how we train and supervise those who deliver services is key, and getting it wrong can create difficulties when working with fathers. For those delivering Caring Dads, recognising the barriers and having a willingness to work with fathers who have perpetrated abuse is essential.

Caring Dads workers tend to be a positive, forthright, and persistent bunch. They work to motivate fathers who may be defensive, hostile or in denial about their abuse in order to stay on the programme, and to examine and change their behaviour. To achieve this, they need to be personable, child focused and non-judgemental. They must be able to understand and support the fathers, but never collude with or excuse abusive behaviour.

So how will I change my evaluation practice to include fathers? The next time I plan an evaluation design I will make sure we look for different effects for different genders of parents. Whenever I create a process evaluation I will consider how interventions currently engage with fathers and what could be improved. And I will prompt services and referrers to provide specific information about both parents, e.g. evaluation documents can refer to fathers instead of ‘parent or/and main carer’, which is often interpreted as ‘mother’ by default.

We can work differently to encourage the inclusion of fathers within service delivery and evaluation. With raised awareness, we can introduce small changes that cost little time, energy or money to implement, but will provide much better insights that will benefit children.

Further information

  • Visit the NSPCC Impact and Evidence Hub for more information about evaluation, research and evidence on what works to protect children from abuse and neglect.
  • Take a look at some great work already happening in this area such as CASCADE’s recent working with fathers event, and the Fatherhood Institute’s bringing fathers in resources for research summaries and practical tips on how to make changes to practice that promote engagement with fathers. 

Related Research in Practice resources: 

Rosie Smithson

Engaging Parents in Child Protection

Rosie Smithson, Senior Research Officer for Birmingham City Council’s Strategic Research Team, conducts in-depth, predominantly qualitative research into residents’, service users’ and staff experiences of Council services. Here, she discusses the voice of the child and the voice of the parent.

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