Working with Fathers: Challenging our perceptions of men

By Richard Devine, Social Worker for Bath and North East Somerset Council

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Introduction: 

It is well documented that child protection social work tends to focus on mothers whereas fathers inclusion is partial, or non-existent. When fathers are included, they are often represented in terms of risk. In this blog I draw upon a paper that looks at empirical data, social-cultural factors, stereotypes, and evolutionary psychology to consider the reasons why we are more inclined to view men through a ‘risk lens’, at least compared to women. It provides an underlying explanation for how we evaluate risk in a way that adds a piece to the puzzle in understanding this important and persistent problem in social work of working with fathers. This has implications for how we understand the difficulties fathers experience, and the meaning we attribute to their difficulties and thus our engagement and support we provide to them.

Social Work and working with fathers: 

Studies and Serious Case Reviews have found that fathers details are often missing on case files and they are often not invited to key meetings, including Child Protection Case Conferences about their children (Strega et al, 2008, Bayne & Holland 2010, Roskill 2011, NSPCC 2015). Despite it being widely recognised that the exclusion of fathers is considered detrimental due to their potential as a resource being untapped, not least, their ability to help with the care of their children (Maxwell et al 2012, Featherstone et al 2014) this problem has been stubbornly resistant to change. A key challenge to working with men is the common perception of them being a risk to their family (Maxwell et al 2012). A label that is sometimes legitimate but not always. Scourfield (2003) has found that attitudes and conversations in social work offices office reveal that fathers can be construed useless, dangerous or absent. Or a father can be labelled negatively without the social worker ever having met the father (Brandon et al, 2009). Featherstone et al (2014: 123) astutely notes, ‘while men resist social workers, literally by not engaging or disappearing, social workers also ‘disappear’ men.

Echoing this, common themes identified from interviews with men about their views on social care found that they feel included as a last resort, labelled as difficult, and not getting a fair hearing (Brandon et al, 2017 cited Research in Practice 2017).

Clapton (2009) argued that a negative portrayal isn’t just evident in social work practice, but is more pervasive. It is evident in key policy documents and social work texts as well. For example, some prominent key social work text books provide several case examples all with very difficult, dangerous men seemingly with no redeeming features. Clapton (2009: 22) observed, ‘textbooks not only render fathers invisible or marginalize them, but when fathers are included in the literature they are regularly depicted as abusive’. Ferguson and Hogan report that ‘there is something in the very nature of social work and how it is organised and done which is currently antithetical to adopting a more holistic, father-inclusive form of practice’ (Clapton, 2009: 24 cited Ferguson and Hogan 2004, 9).

What is this ‘something in the very nature of social work’? Could it be wider than social work?

Underlying reasons:

In one of their (always brilliant) briefing papers on working with men, Research in Practice (2017) described the cultural shift in recent decades, in which the father is no longer just the ‘breadwinner’ and ‘playmate’ but an important parental figure in his own right. However, ‘these positive cultural shifts are neither linear nor straightforward’ (RIP 2017: 4) with men still being considered less competent as a parent. A view that has potentially been internalized by men. Perhaps then, there is socio-cultural residue from before changes have occurred where the division of child-care was much more one-sided. Professionals therefore, make presuppositions about men’s competence devaluing their importance. For fathers, this may reinforce pre-existing feelings of inferiority with respect to parenting that they have acquired from society and culture. 

In a paper by Georgia Phillip and colleagues (2018), she reported that men faced similar difficulties, and had similar needs to women, such as housing, employment, mental and physical health and substance misuse, although highlighted that they also had difficulties with violence. Of note, Philip et al (2018) found that professionals tended to view women’s difficulties as “vulnerabilities” whereas similar characteristics for men are considered “risk’ factors. This can negatively, albeit tacitly, influence levels of empathy, expectations with accountability and capacity to change. Therefore, another reason may be that we over-attribute risk to men and fail to account for their vulnerability and level of need, in a way that we are more readily able to for women. Recently, I read an interesting paper that I believe sheds light on this issue from an angle I had not previously considered.

Sex-differences and Moral evaluation

In a paper titled, ‘Man up and take it’: Moral Typecasting, Tania Reynolds et al (2020) explores the role of gender and how it affects moral judgements. Reynolds et al (2020: 160) refer to research in cognitive psychology which has found that we have ‘a host of automatic cognitive processes constructed by natural selection to facilitate rapid, reflexive decision making’. The mental shortcuts are used even in applying moral judgements, for example when evaluating the harm caused to others. However, these mental shortcuts often contain unrecognised biases that distort judgement and undermine rational evaluation. Reynolds et al (2020) identify one such shortcut, derived from the work of Gray and Wagner (2009) called moral typecasting. Moral Typecasting proposes that we instinctively divide moral behaviour between people in two, 1) the intentional ‘agent’, that is, the perpetrator responsible for deliberately inflicting harm and, 2) the suffering ‘patient’, that is, the helpless and vulnerable victim (Reynolds et al, 2020: 161).

The assignment of “perpetrator” or “victim” has implications. The “perpetrator’s” behaviour will be construed as purposeful, malevolently intended, and deserving of blame and punishment. Whereas the “victims” will be construed as helpless, mistreated and deserving of sympathy, support, and protection (Reynolds et al 2020). Drawing on this, Reynolds et al (2020) hypothesized that in scenarios of evaluating harm between genders a bias will be evidenced as a result of gender stereotyping meaning that men will be more readily cast as “perpetrators” and women will be more readily cast as “victims”.

This is predicted, in part because of empirical data demonstrating that men (on average) are more aggressive and violent (Pinker 2002, Williams, 2008) whereas women (on average) are more affiliative (Hrdy 2009, Schmitt et al 2008, 2016) as well as socially constructed stereotypes, but also because of evolutionary derived psychological differences. For example, Reynolds et al (2020: 122) note that ‘Women responsible for pregnancy, childbirth and lactation, and therefore contribute substantially to reproduction…the discrepancy in men and women’s reproductive contribution may have favoured motivations to protect women… people feel a stronger motivation to help women over men, but this gender bias disappears when considering toddlers or elderly relatives, life stages when women are not fertile… This particular pattern suggests that the preference to protect women over men may stem from evolutionary pressures to insulate reproductively valuable individuals from harm’.

Reynolds et al (2020) did a series of ingenious experiments exploring gender bias in moral typecasting (some of which are nicely summarised in a blog here). These experiments found the following:

  • We more readily place women into a victim role and feel more warmly towards women’s suffering.
  • Even when women are perpetrators, they are still given the qualities of a victim.
  • We more easily recognise harm to women compared to men.
  • We are more willing to punish men even for the same harmful behaviour shown by women.
  • We more harshly judge those who inflict suffering onto women than those who inflict suffering onto men.

This leads Reynolds (2019) to argue,

We more readily place women in the victim role, which makes us more sensitized to their suffering. We also more readily place men into the perpetrator role, which makes us more inclined to punish and blame them. This gender bias in moral typecasting has many important implications. It suggests that when we encounter men’s suffering, we will be less inclined to notice it, perceive it as unjust, or feel motivated to alleviate it.

Here is a short lecture by Tania Reynolds summarising her research.

Implications for Social Work: 

Social work has a rich literature on the history and social and cultural factors in understanding human behaviour,  but perhaps including ideas from evolutionary psychology we can develop a more holistic and integrated understanding, for example, of how sex-differences affect behaviour, and our judgement of others behaviour.   If we recognise that we may have a socio-cultural and evolutionary-derived bias for treating men and women differently, then we can perhaps counteract our in-built tendencies. We will be able to recognise that we are more likely to interpret women’s distress sympathetically and offer more compassion, whereas we are less sympathetic to men’s suffering, more likely to punish them for digressions, and thus, less likely to offer support. In doing so, we can form relationships with men and fathers that recognises not only their risks but also their vulnerability and importantly their need for support to ameliorate their suffering.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we should offer women less sympathy and support but recognise that our ability to provide this for men may be unintentionally and without awareness undermined by our biases (Reynolds et al 2020).

Conclusion: 

There are multifaceted and complex reasons as to why fathers are treated differently by social workers, in particular why they are considered to be a ‘risk’, instead of a resource, or both, as advocated by Featherstone et al (2014). Examining these reasons might help us understand the barriers and yield more inclusive practice. As pointed out by Rosenberg and Wilcox (2006: 25 cited Clapton, 2009: 31)

Simply put, it is impossible to be without biases and preconceptions about fathers. For any professional working with men, especially caseworkers in the very difficult and emotionally charged realm of child protective services, it is important to recognise and understand one’s own biases and preconceptions.

After accounting for this, we also need to adjust the way we support fathers. On this issue, I return to the work of Georgia Phillips, and her colleagues who make the following suggestions: 

  • ‘Openness to responding to… fathers as vulnerable (not just ‘risky’) 
  • A focus on “containment” and emotional regulation, particularly in terms of how pain, loss and shame are experienced by men
  • The adaptation of parenting support (not necessarily manualised parenting programmes) for fathers without a child in their care
  • A holistic or “wraparound” service to respond to all aspects of a father’s life
  • A personalised or key worker approach, to build trust and broker links with other organisations that can help. 
  • Some element of men only space, and/or men-to-men peer support, as a way to challenge behaviour and facilitate change’ (2018: 23).

On a final note, improving our work with fathers isn’t just about fathers, but also their children, and mothers and families and communities. Failure to do so has significant consequences. Firstly, it limits the positive impact fathers could have on their children’s life. Secondly, it reduces the likelihood of the father’s family and friends being utilised as a resource. Thirdly, it overburdens mothers who are unfairly made responsible for caring for children, emotionally, practically and financially and if social care are involved, the mothers can become subject to professional scrutiny (instead of the fathers). Finally, it prevents fathers from accessing interventions to address the more concerning aspects of their functioning, and thus make the changes to be a more responsible and reliable parental figure (Linehan, 2014). 

Recommended viewing: A powerful video filmed by a hidden camera showing the how members of the public react differently to a women being attacked by her boyfriend compared to a man being attacked by his girlfriend.

By Richard Devine (09.04.21)

If you have found this interesting/useful, you may wish to consider scrolling down further, and join a growing community of 210+ others in signing up for free blogs to be sent directly to your inbox (no advertisements/requests/selling). I intend to write every fortnight about matters related to child protection, children and families, attachment, and trauma.  Or you can read previous blogs here

References: 

Baynes, P and Holland, S (2012) ‘Social work with violent men: a child protection file study in an English local authority’ Child Abuse Review, Volume 21, pp53-65

Brown, L; Callahan, M; Strega, S; Walmsley, C and Dominelli, L (2009) ‘Manufacturing ghost fathers: the paradox of father presence and absence in child welfare’ Child and Family Social Work, Volume 14, pp25-34

Brandon, M., Bailey, S., Belderson, P., Gardner, R., Sidebotham, P., Dodsworth, J. et al. (2009) Understanding Serious Case Reviews and Their Impact: A Biennial Analysis of Serious Case Reviews 2005–2007. Research report DCSF-RR129, London, DCFS. 

Clapton, G (2009) How and Why Social Work Fails Fathers: Redressing an imbalance, Social Work’s Role and Responsibility. Practice, 21:1, 17-34

Dominelli, L; Strega, S; Walmsley, C; Callahan, M and Brown, L (2010) ‘”Here’s my Story”: Fathers of ‘Looked After’ Children Recount their Experiences in the Canadian Child Welfare System’ British Journal of Social Work, Volume 41, pp351-367

Ewart-Boyle, S; Manktelow, R and McColgan, M (2015) ‘Social work and the shadow father: lessons for engaging fathers in Northern Ireland’ Child and Family Social Work, Volume 20, pp470-479

Ferguson, H and Hogan, F (2004) Strengthening Families through Fathers: developing policy and practice in relation to vulnerable fathers and their families Waterford: The Centre for Social and Family Research

Featherstone, B (2004) Family Life and Family Support: A Feminist Analysis. Palgrave Macmillan. 

Featherstone, B., Morris, K. and White, S. (2014). Re-imagining child protection : towards humane social work with families. Bristol: Policy Press.

Featherstone, B., Gupta, A., Morris, K. and White, S. (2018). Protecting children : a social model. Bristol, Uk: Policy Press.

Linehan, T (2014) The Risks of Excluding Fathers. Every Child Journal, 4(5), 2014, pp.70-76.

Maxwell, N., Scourfield, J., Featherstone, B., Holland, S. and Tolman, R. (2012) Engaging fathers in child welfare services: A narrative review of recent research evidence. Child and Family Social Work, 17 (2): 160-169. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2206.2012.00827.x/abstract

Osborn, M (2014) ‘Working with fathers to safeguard children’ Child Abuse and Neglect, Volume 38, pp993-1001

Philip, G., Bedstone, S., Hu, Y., Youansamouth, L., Clifton, J., Brandon, M. & Broadhurst, K. (2018). Building a picture of fathers in Family Justice in England. Nuffield Foundation. 

Philip, G, Youansamouth, L, Bedston, S, Broadhurst, K, Hu, Y, Clifton, J & Brandon, M 2020, ‘“I Had No Hope, I Had No Help at All”: Insights from a First Study of Fathers and Recurrent Care Proceedings’, Societies, vol. 10, no. 4, 89, pp. 1-16. 

Roskill, C. (2011) Research in three children’s services authorities. In: Working with Risky Fathers: Fathers Matter Volume 3: Research Findings on Working with Domestically Abusive Fathers and Their Involvement with Children’s Social Care Services (ed. C. Ashley), pp. 29–80. Family Rights Group, London.

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (2011). Mothers and others : the evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. Cambridge (Mass.): Belknap Press Of Harvard University Press.

Sandstrom, H; Gearing, M; Peters, H E; Heller, C; Healy, O and Pratt, E (2015) Approaches to Father Engagement and Fathers’ Experiences in Home Visiting Programs Washington DC: US Department of Health and Human Services

Schmitt, D. P., Realo, A., Voracek, M., & Alik, J. (2008). Why can’t a man be more like a woman? Sex differences in Big Five personality traits across 55 cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 168–192.

Schmitt, D. P., Long, A. E., Mcphearson, A., Obrien, K., Remmert, B., & Shah, S. H. (2016). Personality and gender differences in global perspective. International Journal of Psychology, 52, 45-56.

Scourfield, J. (2003) Gender and Child Protection, London, Palgrave Macmillan.

Stewart-Williams, S. (2020). The ape that understood the universe : how the mind and culture evolve. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Strega, S; Fleet, C; Brown, L; Dominelli, L; Callahan, M and Walmsley, C (2008) Connecting father absence and mother blame in child welfare policies and practice. Children and Youth Services Review, Volume 30, pp705-716

Pinker, S. (2002). The blank slate : The modern denial of human nature. London: Penguin.

Published by Richard Devine's Social Work Practice Blog

My name is Richard Devine. I am a Social Worker in Bath and North East Somerset Council. After I qualified in 2010 I worked in long term Child Protection Teams. Since 2017 I have been undertaking community based parenting assessments. I obtained a Masters in Attachment Studies 2018.

4 thoughts on “Working with Fathers: Challenging our perceptions of men

  1. An interesting post. Thanks, Richard.

    Re fathers with learning disabilities, see also the findings of Dugdale, D. and Symonds, J. (2018) Fathers with learning disabilities: experiences of fatherhood and of adult social care services http://www.bristol.ac.uk/policybristol/policy-briefings/fathers-for-fathers/

    and also the views of the fathers with learning disabilities with whom we worked to produce videos and leaflets for other dads.

    See Resources http://www.bristol.ac.uk/sps/wtpn/resources/

    Best wishes,

    Nadine

    Nadine Tilbury Policy Officer for Working Together With Parents Network Norah Fry Centre for Disability Studies School for Policy Studies 8 Priory Road Bristol BS8 1TZ

    Tel: 07500 294577 http://www.wtpn.co.uk

    (My working days are usually Tuesdays, Wednesday am and Friday am)

    ________________________________

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  2. Very interesting Richard. I have also noticed the relative proximity of any new gender horison achieved by social workers, including myself, who are aware of and actively reflecting upon and intercepting some of these gender bias (that overburden mothers and reduces responsibility of and attention to fathers). It seems even that questioning, how we question, is full of conceptual pitfalls that can take us back to (again) reinforcing the deeply seated biases, to the detriment of the families we work with. Helpfully, I think you hit a really useful point to intersect/interrupt this with victim and perpetrator archetypes. I think the clues for practitioners are in the value and complexity, love and care they have put in to understanding and unpicking the story of each parent, whether present or absent, and to consider that by gender. If there are more layers and dimensions to one than the other then bias is probably present. Same goes for if we want to justify or explain why. This is a big area of interest for me and so I hugely appreciate your thoughts and work on this. You’ve opened up some new thoughts and lines of enquiry within this area for me. I can now see a blog unpicking the role of epistemic reflexivity for helping to overcome gender bias. Loving your work as always. Thank you!

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  3. I enjoyed this. At the root of this all is the toxic effects of patriarchy, which has not only diminished a woman’s quality of life but also men’s. Men can be loving and kind. We need to cultivate an environment that supports this and help to restore some of the balance in world. In terms of child protection, my experience has been similar to the sentiments of the article. If we include fathers and their extended family this can also be more work for us; but in the greater scheme of things it’s better for children, families and their communities.

    Like

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