Scotland: Fathers Marginalized in Children’s Lives by Child Protective Services

November 23rd, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Ever since the Urban Institute issued its report in 2006 entitled “What About the Dads,” we’ve known that, in the United States at least, it’s the preference of child protective agencies to bypass fathers and place children directly into foster care when Mom proves to be unfit.  That’s true despite documents produced by the federal Department of Health and Human Services urging caseworkers to involve fathers in children’s lives and showing them how to do so.

It’s always seemed to me that that preference for foster care over father care comes in part from an anti-father bias on the part of social workers at those child welfare agencies.  Now this extremely important study out of Scotland demonstrates the antipathy with which fathers are held by child welfare workers in that country (Circle, 11/2012).  It is at once a shocking read and one that confirms much of what I’ve suspected all along.  Here’s an article about the study (Herald Scotland, 11/21/12).

It was conducted by researchers at the University of Edinburgh and Circle, a Scottish charity dedicated to supporting children and families in marginalized communities.  The researchers summarized earlier findings on child protective agencies and the social workers who make up the majority of caseworkers and supervisors therein.  It then asked fathers to describe their experiences with those agencies and verified what they said.  The fathers came to the attention of  the child protection agencies in a variety of circumstances, but all had been accused of some form of violence or abuse. The study goes on to make recommendations for change.

To say the least, the attitudes and behaviors of the social workers and agencies are outrageous, bred of an attitude taught in schools, that men are dangerous and not to be trusted.  To its credit, the study doesn’t pull its punches.  It’s about as straightforward as academic prose is likely to be.

In the 1980s when high unemployment blighted large parts of the UK, the breadwinner role was lost to many men, and largely negative stereotypes about their role in society generally, and in childrearing in particular, began to take root. These stereotypes have both influenced psychologies of men as well as professional responses to, and expectations of, men…

In the same year that Dad’s the Word was published, Christie (2001) noted how fathers were systematically excluded from the child protection system…

Since then there have been a number of developments. On the positive side, there has been a burgeoning interest and an upsurge in research in fathers and fatherhood (see Lewis and Lamb, 2007). The advantages of fathers’ involvement in bringing up children are now well established (Lamb, 2003)…

At a policy level the Gender Equality Duty [GED] came into force in the UK in April 2007. This requires that public authorities and publicly-funded services promote gender equality and tackle sex discrimination. This ought to mean that they take steps to address the needs of both mothers and fathers to parent their children. It is questionable whether the full implications of the GED have yet been understood by public authorities…

Social work, however, has remained largely impervious to the growing awareness of the importance of fathers in children’s lives…

More significantly perhaps, social work has been influenced by feminist theory, or at least by second wave feminism (Orme, 2003, Scourfield and Coffey, 2002)…

The survival of patriarchy as an organising construct is especially strong in social work (Scourfield and Coffey, 2002). In the UK, the education and training of social workers has contributed to an oversimplification of discussions around gender (Orme, 2003)… In this climate, gender perspectives have struggled to move beyond the grand narrative of patriarchy.

Patriarchy has become a dominant theoretical construct influencing approaches to men in social work, particularly in relation to domestic violence, which has, understandably, risen up the policy and professional agenda over the past decade. It underpins the major approaches to working with those accused of domestic abuse, based around the Duluth model, a North American domestic violence programme…

The Duluth model has, in fact, been compellingly critiqued both on account of its underlying ideological precepts but also on account of its low success rates (Dutton and Corvo, 2007). It nevertheless continues to exert an influence on practice far beyond any empirical assessment of its utility might justify.

Given that background, it’s no surprise that social workers enter the practice with profoundly negative and inaccurate preconceptions of men and fathers.  Ethnographic studies of British social workers “identified prevalent professional discourses of masculinity: men as a threat (sexual abuse and/or violence), men as no use (not working but not participating in child care), men as absent (potential clients to social worker but render themselves deliberately invisible), men as no different to women (in the context of long standing family problems where violence is seen as bi-directional), men as better than women (this occurs relative to perceived deficiencies in mothers’ parenting capacity). “Responses to fathers can be one dimensional, epitomizing a rather binary classification of them as ‘bad’ and mothers as ‘good’, or at least better than the father” (Lonne et al. 2008: 86). Fathers are effectively “missing in action”…’

Clapton (2009), having analysed social work publications, points out that fathers are either invisible or more likely framed as child abusers in social work texts and policy documents.

Child Protective Services Marginalize Fathers, but Mothers More Likely to Abuse or Neglect Kids

That’s true despite the fact that mothers commit far more child abuse and neglect than do fathers.

All this often results in a self-fulfilling prophesy on the part of social workers.  When a father finds himself involved with a child protective agency, he learns that social workers view him as dangerous and any claim he makes to the contrary is regarded as false and an attempt to game the system.  His legitimate needs, assertions of fact, etc. are ignored, resulting in his frustration.  His natural response is to become more assertive and demanding which labels him an “aggressor” and therefore likely an abuser, marginalizing him still further.

Of the studies which have sought to elicit the views of fathers to understand their perception of social services the message emerges of a marginalised group who feel disenfranchised from processes which impact on their family life (Dominelli et al, 2011; Gilligan et al 2012; Storhaug & Oien, 2012; Walker, 2012). These feelings of marginalisation might be understood within a wider critique of child protection as a system that is “close to bankrupt… which may be doing more harm than good…. and is shattering communities with dire consequences for civil society.” (Lonne et al, 2008: 4)

The upshot of all of this is that children and family services in Scotland remain female dominated and focussed primarily on mother-child relations (Children In Scotland, 2010). At the same time, responses to complex social problems remain narrow, unimaginative and often punitive, and merely reproduce the kind of oppressive relationships they seek to challenge, reinforcing what increasingly seems like a turn towards the criminalisation of social problems (Kim, 2012).

It is against this backdrop that this study seeks to hear the accounts of men caught up in the child protection system. Their voices are largely submerged within current social work discourse.

I’ll write more about this important study in a later piece.

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