Final Year Dissertation:How Effective is Child Protection Social Work Practice at Engaging Fathers: As a Complex Mix of Risk and Resource

Jason Byrne: September 2014

How Effective is Child Protection Social Work Practice at Engaging Fathers: As a Complex Mix of Risk and Resource    


In social work practice there is a focus on anti-discriminatory and oppressive practice. The International Federation of Social Work addresses this approach to social work, arguing that,

‘Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversity are central to social work.  Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing’.(IFSW 2014)

The Equality Act Public Sector Equality duty (2010) places a responsibility on local authorities to: Eliminate discrimination, advance equality and foster good relations for those protected by the act including characteristics such as  gender. The social worker standards of proficiency (HCPC 2012) highlight the need for social workers to be aware of equality and diversity in practice and understand how their own values and views impact on different groups of service users. Social workers have a responsibility to ‘…challenge discrimination on the basis of characteristics such as ability, age, culture, gender…'(BASW 2012).

There is evidence to suggest that social work practice at the least struggles to engage fathers (Munro 1998; Coady et al 2013) and at worst puts children at risk of harm, through incomplete risk assessments of the family as fathers become ‘marginalized and ignored in child protection practice'(Daniel and Taylor 1999, p 209). With child protection practice and interventions frequently focused on the mothers parenting skills and protective capacity, fathers are often not being risk assessed or supported, in the same way mothers are (Clapton 2013).  Roskill et al(2011)argues that even when mothers are victims of domestic violence from their partners, the mother is often the focus of child protection investigations, assessments and support, with ‘social workers often failing to engage or assess fathers risks, especially if they do not live in the family home’(Roskill et al 2011,P3). Brandon et al (2012) uses the term ‘hidden men'(p190)to describe men who are often involved with mothers and/or families of a child at risk but who are not known to children’s services. Despite the risks posed by some fathers there is evidence to suggest that if the relationship between mother and father is not abusive then, fathers continued involvement with their children and families can support the mother, which in turn reduces any risks she may pose to the children along with providing increased emotional and financial resources. Clapton (2013) suggests that most children want contact with most fathers, even when it is in a child protection context. The Fathers Institute (2013, 2010) supports this view, arguing that when fathers are involved with their children, irrespective of whether they still live in the family home or not children are less likely to be involved with drugs and/or the police in adolescence, they develop greater self-esteem and do better at school. Father is used interchangeably throughout this review and represents step fathers, male carers, male relatives and men that are in contact or have regular access to children in families.


Baby P’s father claimed social services involved in the case “always took the mother’s point of view” and never assessed him as a possible carer, according to an interview included in the full serious case review of the case. The child’s father, known in the review as “Mr A”, said: “From day one, social services always took the mother’s point of view – so much so that I wasn’t allowed to take [Peter] and I was never assessed as a viable carer at this point. I felt sidelined – an extra in the play’. (Garboden 2010)

Before starting a social work training the author  worked across a number of areas within social care and the criminal justice field. Common themes that prevailed included, how men and boys are  engaged by professionals working in these areas, organisational policies and procedures, the prevalence of discriminatory and biased professional discourse, and the obvious overrepresentation of men and boys in the criminal justice, mental health and housing services when contrasted with children and family services. These experiences were crystallised during a second training placement which took place at a statutory children’s social work team. Whilst working there I  noticed some social workers not routinely consulting with fathers, even when it was known that the fathers wanted to be involved in an  investigation or assessment, the often derogatory view of men and fathers, the time scales for investigations and assessments and the impact this appeared to have on practitioners decisions to involve fathers. It was assumed that a  lack of child, father and wider family engagement regularly contributed to inadequate assessment of risk and protection of children as highlighted in previous serious case reviews.

A number of current and historical serious case reviews have highlighted the poor engagement of fathers in child safeguarding and protection. The Haringey safeguarding children’s Board (2009) baby Peter review highlighted at least two men who had access to Peter on a regular basis at home along with his biological father. Despite a section 47(Children Act 1989) investigation being triggered after Peter was taken to hospital due to bruising to the head and later bruises found on his body, none of these men or other adults and children living in the family home had been assessed as part of a child protection investigation. If police checks had been carried out police would have found that Barker and his brother had been charged with grievous bodily harm in 1995 after an assault on their grandmother.  After the killing of Peter, Barker and Owen were convicted of causing or allowing the death of a child. Another example of men in this case being marginalised and hidden was in relation to Peter’s father. After a strategy meeting between police and social workers had concluded Peter should not go home to his mother his father had offered to take time off work to look after Peter yet it was felt by professionals at the time, that a family friend was best placed to have Peter rather than his father.The mother had made an accusation about the father hitting Peter in the past but there appeared to be no risk assessment carried out as part of the overall  child protection investigation and neither  was there any mention of the father being invited or attending the initial child protection conference, core group meetings or being considered as part of legal planning. Similar examples of not considering the risks or resource of  fathers can be found in the Gamor (City and Hackney LSCB 2008) case. The father who had custody of his children due to the risks he felt his ex partner posed to their two children had been alerting the police and other services to his concerns about the mother having contact with the children for some time. Despite this there was no evidence in the review that suggested social workers,police and other professionals had liaised adequately with him, supporting the child contact arrangements which eventually  lead to the death of his two children.


The number of children in England that were subject to a child protection plan in 2013 were 43,140(NSPCC 2013). Just under half(17,930) of these were recorded as neglect cases, with emotional abuse the second highest at 13,640, then multiple abuse 4,870, physical 4,670 and sexual abuse at 2,030.Those at highest risk at 30% were between the ages of 1-4, and the least at risk were children over 16 years at 2.5% of the total. There were 6,369 cruelty and neglect offences recorded by the police in England and Wales in 2012/13 which equates to about 6 in 10,000 children.There were no significant difference between the genders. The NSPCC report that there were 50,989 calls to the childline 2012/2013 of these 13,500 were due to neglect. Although the figures also include Wales there were 18,700 recorded sexual offences against children, of these only 3,600 defendants were taken to court and only 2100(11%) found guilty. There were 67 (under 16 years old)child homicides in England and Wales between 2012-2013(5 per million children).Children under one where the group most likely to be a victim of homicide at 21 homicides per million population(ONS 2013)This is a reduction from 7.1 per million in 1981.60% of the 67 deaths in 2012-2013 were from assaults. No statistics were located that broke down the homicides of children to the perpetrators relationship to the victims or demographics such as age, gender, culture, class etc.

When discussing the reliability of statistical data across professions, Bromfield and Higgins (2004) point out ‘the likelihood of compromised reliability and validity increases when data from several different jurisdictions are amalgamated'(p28). Added to this is a report from the HMIC (2014) which suggests that there are significant problems in the reporting of serious sexual offences, including rape, in England and Wales. This source suggests that there are up to 20 per cent of crimes that go unrecorded and that  these are part of a wider picture of ‘hidden and under-reported crime types, including domestic violence, sexual offences and child abuse'(p27). Based on this we can assume that much of the statistical data on child abuse and neglect is underreported and we are only getting a small picture of the actual maltreatment and abuse of children taking place in the UK.

The Children Act 1989 is the legislative framework for protecting and safeguarding children from harm and abuse. When this act came into force in 1991 it promoted a shift in focus from state care for children at risk, to a family support model which  became known as the ‘refocusing debate’(Horner 2005,p45).This emphasis included supporting children where possible if they were safe to remain in their family of origin. Broadhurst et al(2007)supports this view suggesting that there has been a move away from child protection social work practice that was focused primarily on ‘investigative child protection’(p443) which they argue meant social work practice was not able to provide holistic support for children and families. Davies (2013) argues that this move away from investigatory processes in child protection social work since the mid 1990’s has moved away from proactive child protection which she asserts has led to a demise of child protection systems and structures in the UK. Davies highlights the abolition of the child protection register in 2008 as the most significant change. Munro and Calder (2005) share the same concern. They argue that the shift in policies whilst maximising the life chances of all children the victims of abuse are in ‘danger of being lost’ as a child in need of protection has been renamed as a child in need. They Also assert that this exchange of language whilst ‘stylistically elegant…carries a very real danger of losing sight of the distinctive nature of child abuse work and the specific difficulties of working with suspected abusive parents'(p439). Broadhurst(2007),Hayes and Spratt(2009) describe this ‘tension between discourse of welfare and protection ‘that stops a move towards a more family welfare perspective on child protection social work but that this ‘Tug of War’(P1576) between child protection and child welfare Hayes and Spratt argue often exclude a balanced approach between the two. Davies (2004) promotes a more balanced view suggesting that safeguarding children effectively means a dual approach of both prevention and protection. Although not as explicit as previous statutory guidance (Department for Children School and families 2010) the Working Together (DFE 2013) multi agency guidance makes some distinction between the need for immediate action to protect the child and a process for assessing risks through S47 of the Children Act 1989. Despite this the guidance provides minimal frameworks for carrying this protective work out and it is unclear how joint work with police is carried out to effectively protect children who are at immediate risk. For the sake of this literature review investigation refers to the ‘Local Authority’s Duty to Investigate’ (Children Act 1989(S47)) and secure the protection of the child through interagency strategy discussions and joint working. ‘Assessment'(DFE 2013, p 17) is understood to mean a process of assessing possible risks and needs of the child over a period of up to 45 days.


The literature search took place between January-July 2014.Databases searched: Campbell Collaboration, British Education Index, CERUK plus (Current Education and Children’s Services Research), Academic Search Complete, Cochrane Library, Web of Science, Psycinfo, IBSS (International Bibliography of Social Sciences, Sciencedirect, Ingentaconnect, Social Care Online, Periodicals Archive Online, Social Service Abstracts, and CINAHL. Individual online journals were searched and included: British Journal of Social Work, Child Abuse and Neglect, Child and Family Social Work, Child Abuse Review and Community Care. Google Scholar was searched for internet based grey literature along with SCIE (Social Care Institute of Excellence) database, NSPCC Library Online to access serious case reviews, Parliament UK/Children First: Education Select Committee. The search strategy involved Keyword searches using ‘father’,’dad’,’stepfather’,’stepdad’,’male carer’ or ’male relative’ with  ‘section 47’,’S 47’,’child protection’, ‘child Protection investigation’, ‘Child protection inquiry’ or ’safeguarding children’. The initial search strategy was adapted with search terms ‘male’,’men’,’gender’ excluded as these keywords resulted in excessive results which more often than not located literature with no relevance to the research question. Snowball sampling was used, reflecting the development of the search strategy and literature located. It is acknowledged that this reduction in the use of search terms may have resulted in a limitation of research located and reviewed. The Children Act 1989 which underpins and informs child safeguarding and protection practice in England and Wales came into force in 1991 along with the UK ratification of the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the child (1989). As this ushered in significant changes in how children were protected and safeguarded the literature search was restricted to 1991-2014. The search initially located 465 papers. Titles and or abstracts were then reviewed with literature or studies that had not taken place in England or Wales were excluded. As were those that were not relevant to the review question, did not study or review direct safeguarding social work with fathers/carers, children’s and parents views of social work interventions. 27 studies were finally used for appraisal. The literature reviewed was coded by themes and a Narrative Synthesis (Becker, Bryman and Ferguson 2012) method was then used to integrate and synthesise these themes.

Although there have been some previous (Maxwell et al 2012; Fathers Institute 2001;Scourfield 2006)reviews of fathers and child protection those that are current have focused on generic social care or primary child welfare work with fathers rather than focusing on direct social work with fathers in a child protection context. The aims of this review are to focus on child protection social work practice, and explore how effective the current system is at assessing the father’s role within the family as a complex mixture of both risk and resource for their children.  Unlike previous literature this review will also draw on children’s and parents views of social work interventions along with an analysis of themes gathered from serious case reviews that make explicit reference to work carried out or not carried out with fathers and how this contributed to the outcomes for the child/ren along with a review of qualitative and practice research directed at service user engagement and feedback.

Gender discrimination

Ofsted’s(2010)review of 147 serious case reviews that were carried out in 2009 ‘identified concern about the lack  of consideration given to race,language,culture and religion'(p36)in these case reviews as social workers were assessing the risks and needs of the family. Despite some discussion and examples given where these considerations of cultural difference led to problems protecting the children in the family, little attention was given to the marginalisation and lack of attention attributed to the risks and needs specific to fathers in the family. This stands in contrast to guidance, policy and research literature that accentuates the need to recognise the cultural, physical and psychological needs of specific groups of people when carrying out investigations and family assessments. Featherstone(2006)criticises the lack of gender analysis in the then Labour government’s policy development in child welfare services asserting that this reflected a reluctance by the government to acknowledge the ‘structural inequalities and conflicts of interests between men and women'(p298).Featherstone draws on discourse and language analysis in her argument suggesting that language used by the government and media expressed an agenda to neutralise gender differences in child welfare using the term ‘family’ in most literature to avoid addressing the complexities of gender and associated power differentials between genders. It could be argued that this  gender neutralisation reflects the continued power hierarchy in a patriarchal society and an unwillingness to address the separate needs of male and female adults and children leaves these structural and individual inequalities unearthed. Despite Ofsted’s (2010) reference to the importance of gathering and sharing information about fathers involved with children, the analysis falls short of addressing the balance between the needs of fathers and or the risks they may pose to their children.

In contrast to Ofsted’s previous review a review carried out the following year, ‘The voice of the child (2011) focused on thematic analysis 67 serious case reviews paying much more attention on the importance of listening to children. The authors argue that:

‘A common theme in these serious case reviews, which has also been highlighted by Local Safeguarding Children Boards in previous serious case reviews, has been the tendency for agencies to overlook the role of fathers, male partners and other men living within the families. In many instances, the concern related to the risk that the men posed for the children, but in other cases the men had information that agencies would have found helpful in understanding the child’s situation, especially when the child concerned was too young to speak for itself.'(p9)

Scourfield’s (2000) ethnographic study of a social work team in England, found that the majority of the men involved in the 14 cases were either suspected to be or had been found to be, abusing or neglecting the children in the family. The author then draws a connection between this and the discourse in the office where the study took place. He suggests that the language used about men in the office reflected ideologies such as ‘dangerous masculinities’, this included ‘men as threat’, ‘men as irrelevant’, ‘men as absent, ‘men as no use’, ‘men as the same as women’ and ‘men as better than women'(p6) The author also argues that the discourse observed in the office was powerful and included men as a threat to women, children and the social workers themselves. In his study Scourfield drew on data gathered from observations of a localised community social work team, interviews with the individual social workers and a review of 14 cases on the then(1999)child protection register. He sets out the aims of the research as being primarily to ‘deconstruct the occupation of social work and explore the gendering of the child protection process'(p2). Despite this research being out of date in terms of current guidance and practice, it still emphasises a number of themes associated with men and fathers in child protection practice and literature. Scourfield argues that the office discourse reflects dichotomous thinking in that mothers are generally seen as good and fathers bad, unless the mother is the perpetrator then the father can becomes the ‘good parent’. This appears to suggest that their needs to be a bad-good parent split.Swann(Carson 2011)supports this view arguing that there needs to be a challenge to “the idealisation of motherhood and denigration of fatherhood” in children’s social care'(p2)

Maxwell et al (2012) develops this idea of dichotomous thinking. They argue that based on their narrative review there appeared to be a tendency of professionals to ‘…adopt what they term ‘rigid’ or ‘fixed’ thinking. Fathers were labelled as either ‘all good’ or ‘all   bad’, leading to attributions as to their reliability and trustworthiness’. (p162)They continue to describe how these splitting process is most visible when fathers appear to make changes when because of this dichotomous thinking social workers frequently labelled these fathers as ‘good and reformed’ often in the face of information to the contrary. Reder, Duncan and Gray(1993)use the term ‘rule of optimism’ to describe a process in child protection  where professionals assessment of risks to children can become skewed to always thinking the best of parents, despite information to the contrary which may reflect ongoing risks for the child. They contradict the idea that practitioners draw premature conclusions on risks posed to children instead suggesting that professionals generally resisted making definitive decisions on risks to the child, possibly they argue for fear of getting it wrong. Munro (2010) and Broadhurst et al (2009) take a systemic approach to the discussion of risk assessment and decision making stating that the ‘rigidity of a performance management regime…'(p59) in local authority social work practice can create the conditions for serious errors. Munro suggests that whilst management and monitoring systems are put in place to reduce case drift and open ended family assessments they also reduce practitioner’s autonomy. It could be argued that there is a risk in child protection social work where there clearly is a great deal of anxiety and pressure to make the ‘right decisions’ that this anxiety and need for certainty filters through to the work carried out with fathers that research highlight can be the biggest threat to the child and rest of the family.

A report published by the General Social Care Council(2012)highlighted a predominance of female social workers in the UK, 77 per cent of registered social workers being female, and 23 per cent male.Gilighan(2012)found in their research that social workers were influenced by the gender balance in the workforce along with the discourse about fathers. They propose that social workers practice was partly influenced by their own experiences of fathers and fathering, as much as they were by their own training. These views of men the authors state were influenced by their own fathers, which impacted on how they understood and put into practice policy when working with fathers, children and family. As Munro (2010) highlights,

‘The emotional dimension of working with children and families plays a significant part in how social workers reason and act. If it is not explicitly discussed and addressed then its impact can be harmful. It can lead to distortions in social workers’ reasoning because of the unconscious influence it has on where attention is focused and how information is interpreted’(p38)

Sakamoto and Pitner’s (2005) paper on anti-oppressive practice in social work argue that practitioners own values, bias, assumptions and cultural views impact on how difference and power are perceived in practice. They support a view that their past experiences impact on their current world view positing that a critical reflective approach should incorporate shared professional-service user experiences of oppression empowering each other to challenge structural oppression. Wilson and Beresford(2000)who are survivors and users of the mental health system in the UK challenge the view that service user and professionals can work completely  collaboratively particularly in statutory social work where practitioners have a ‘coercive social control over people…'(p55).Despite this conflict between service user’s perspectives and professionals view of structural and anti-oppressive social work practice, the Gilighan (2012) study found that positive communication and employment of more men facilitated the engagement of fathers in the service. They also found that what became apparent was a requirement for services to recognise that the engagement of fathers into services is not a negligible option but essential for the lives of children, young people and we can assume families.

Mother as Gatekeeper

Many of the papers reviewed refer to the term ‘mother as gatekeeper’ to describe mothers who are ‘…reluctant to divulge information to social workers for fear that they may lose their children, not wish to include fathers if there has been a history of abuse or conflict between them, or may be unwilling to involve fathers in what they perceive to be ‘their territory’ (Maxwell et al 2012, p163). Maxwell et al intimates that some mothers who are fearful of their partners or ex partners have legitimate reason to keep fathers at a distance. This systematic narrative review carried out by Maxwell et al evaluated the international literature on fathers and mothers involvement in child welfare services between 2000-2010. The review was carried out systematically with a clear methodology and literature inclusion/exclusion criteria. As the most up to date and robust review located in the literature search,  Maxwell  et al paper has informed some of the literature and debates included in this paper. Despite this the limitations of this review when contrasted with this analysis is that it draws on literature from outside of the UK. It could be argued that drawing conclusions from outside of the UK and more pertinently England, undermines the applicability of some of its findings on child protection practice. Child protection social work practice in England takes place within a circuitous and often bewildering set of legislative guidance that are set within a wider system of practice, community/cultural, social and political contexts which are specific to how child protection practice engages with children and families in England.

A systematic case analysis of 20 files carried out by Osborn(2014)across six local authorities, reviewed case files across non statutory and statutory children and family services. They found that greater levels of support were directed at the mothers and they also argue that this places an unfair burden on mothers as they carry the responsibility frequently for the fathers. They argue that men achieving equality in Children’s services is slow which is undermined by the lack of research in this area. The authors move the debate forward suggesting that their findings are partly as a result of a ‘feminised culture in children’s services, created because service users and the workforce are predominantly female'(p504).Scourfield(2006) argues that a feminist discourse suggests that most child protection intervention with families is carried out because of men so therefore the focus on mothers is unjust to make women/mothers responsible for this by focusing the scrutiny of the state on them'(p441). Krane and Davies (1999) apply a feminist analysis of cultural and social constructions of mothering in child protection practice. They argue that mothers and more so ‘working-class and poor mothers disproportionately come to the attention of child welfare agencies(p40)mothers they argue are ‘nowhere more apparent than in child protection practice in response to allegations of sexual abuse’ and they use the term ‘mother blaming'(p40)to describe this process. Krane and Davies advocates for a feminist view in child protection as this enables a framework for critiquing risk assessments based on eurocentric views of risky mothering such as, single mothers, young mothers, working class mothers  etc. This seems to contradict the results of some feminist approaches to social work practice. For example it could be argued that a ‘commonality'(White 1999,p145) approach to engaging mothers which led to female social workers focusing on empathising and connecting with woman and mothers, may due to this exclusive focus have contributed to the exclusion of men from social work interventions and maintained the focus of interventions on mothers.

A Fathers Institute(2001)literature review found that abusive or non-abusive fathers may leave the family home once social workers become involved and referrals are more likely to be ‘screened out without investigation'(p3)if there are no men in the household. Despite Featherstone’s literature review (2001) not being explicit about its methods of review and the search strategy, she offers some evidence to support this argument in this review. The author  asserts that ‘Fathers’ involvement in households fluctuated and ‘More fathers were living at home at the start of inquiries than later, which…’[she argues]’… is perhaps predictable'(p180). With reference to risk, Featherstone argues that often fathers suspected of the abuse leave the home with no systems in place to monitor or treat them. Farmer and Owen(1998) argue that as a consequence of fathers leaving and referrals not being progressed to child protection mothers and children left behind may not get the support they need put in place as ‘…the referrals which concerned mothers who had parenting difficulties were not given priority and, indeed, were systematically passed over in the allocation of services'(p546).It could also be argued that as abusive fathers leave the family home some will move on to new families where children are then at risk. Alternatively if social workers withdraw from the family prematurely this could lead to fathers moving back into the family home where abuse of children and or partner continues unmonitored.

Scott and Crooks (2004) underline these risks concluding that,

Simply excluding an abusive father is insufficient: when excluded from a household, abusive men typically continue their behaviour with new partners; and when an abusive man leaves a family, he normally continues to interact with between 6-10 children or stepchildren’(p96 )

And as the Baby Peter serious case review highlights ‘One of the potentially dangerous scenarios in child protection is an unrelated man joining a vulnerable single parent family'(HLSCB 2009, p16)

Child Protection Investigation and Assessment

‘Professionals should be aware that children get support not only from their immediate family but from extended family and friends of the family. It is important to find out who in the child’s network might be a source of support by letting the child take the lead in describing who is most important to them’(Cosar et al 2011,p9).

Cosar et al qualitative study of 26 children who were on a child protection plan at the time of the interviews, asserts the need for professionals and in particular social workers spending more time with children to gather their views. The children interviewed said they not only wanted to feel protected, but also cared for. The findings of this research suggest that there can be a disparity between what the professionals think children need and what children want. This is important when we think about whom social workers might involve in an investigation, assessment and support/protection plans. It could be argued that if social workers spent more time with children gathering their views on what they want social workers would get a clearer picture of who is living at home, who poses a risk and relationships with family members and friends that are important to them. An example of not enlisting the voice of the child in protection plans was seen in the Gamor case serious case review (City and Hackney LSCB 2008).It was highlighted that the mother had killed her children during an overnight stay, despite significant risks posed by the mother to the children due to her mental illness. An initial meeting took place between Ms C and her children on release from hospital and that this supervised meeting was, ‘considered successful by professionals and parents’. Despite the ‘welfare Principle’ (Children Act 1989,S 1)and Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child(1998)which legislates for listening to and respecting the views of the child there is no mention of the children’s views of their mother and how they felt about reinstating contact with her. The father who had been proactive at highlighting his concerns about the risk he felt the mother posed to the children appeared not to be taken seriously.

The key findings in the Ofsted (2011) suggest that ‘There are five main messages with regard to the voice of the child. In too many cases'(p4) these include: The child not being seen frequently enough and therefore not asked how they felt of viewed what was happening at home, agencies not listening to adults who tried to speak on behalf of children and held important information, parents preventing access to children and too much focus on the needs of the adults/parents as opposed to the children’s needs. McLeod(2006) argues that in contrast to adults views of what they thought young people needed ‘…young people in contrast felt that listening was demonstrated by delivering services that accorded with their expressed wishes’(p43).Brandon and Jordan (2011) point out that what we think children need may not tally with what they feel they need,

‘Children and young people were not only worried about the things that happen in their families, but also in the community and at school. What concerned them might not coincide with the concerns that brought the family to professionals’ attention. Professionals need to be attuned to the child’s world, to pay attention not only to what the child says, but in some cases to what they are not saying and in all cases to how they behave. Professionals need to be aware that children may take responsibility for problems within their families, thinking that they are at fault and that it is their responsibility to sort things out.‘(p8)

There is clearly a division of power between children and adults with children it could be argued holding the least amount of power in families, communities and society, therefore having the least voice within these complex structures.Davies(2004)refers to this lack of power in the context of a need for community and professional support,

‘Multi Agency professional intervention, with community support, aims to pick up the pieces of an unjust and inequitable socio economic system in which children have little power—a system in which sexual exploitation and violence are endemic and where children are valued primarily as marketable commodities and potential consumers’.(p428)

Kaprowska (2008) argues that the child’s voice and needs are regularly overlooked in favour of the adults support needs which can move the focus away from the protection of children, to supporting the adults instead. Davies and Duckett (2008) argues for consideration of the term ‘childism’ (p45) which is used to explain the oppression and discrimination of children. In review of the literature discussed in this paper it could be argued that the lack of focus on children’s views and voice in child protection social work practice including investigations and assessments contributes to an ongoing ignorance of children’s needs and the risks posed by adults to children.

Fathers along with other family members that hold information about the child and family are not routinely included in child protection investigations or assessments (Ofsted 2011; Munro 2011).Ferguson and Hogan suggest that the earlier the contact and dialogue with fathers during child protection inquiries the more likely it is this will have helped to engage them and develop a relationship (2004). Goff (2012) argues that as much of the focus of professional support for families is directed at women, men may not be used to accessing or using professional support networks. Goff’s paper primarily draws on self-reported experience chairing child protection conferences in Nottingham, England. Although the methodology in Goff’s paper is vague and therefore compromises the findings its review of current literature and focus on child protection interventions through child protection conferences provides a view of how fathers are not effectively engaged in conferences. The authors conclude that as in other features in child protection procedures a conference is an opportunity to develop relationships with fathers and mothers and an opportunity to challenge fathers in a safe environment. Despite Goff’s assertions in this paper carrying out work with fathers in a child protection and core group conferences may not be the most effective environment for engaging fathers. Kelly and Milner (1996) argue that conferences like other group contexts are prone to ‘group-think'(p92). These are natural group dynamics which impact on individuals within the group and the group decisions as a whole. The authors purport that conferences in particular are prone to ‘…shared rationalizations to support the first adequate alternative suggested by an influential group member; a lack of disagreement; a belief in unanimity and cohesiveness; direct pressure on dissenters and a high level of confidence in the group’s decision'(p93). Qualitative research carried out by Hall and Slembrouck(2001)exploring the views of parents participation in social work meetings suggest that ‘The case conference has not allowed an alternative version to be heard and in that respect client participation one must conclude is fairly limited’(p157). It could be argued that fathers that may already represent a minority within the conference could become further isolated and less engaged in the process than before the meeting. As Goff(2012)suggests the chances of this could be reduced through carrying out some work with the father prior to the conference through,  ‘Avoiding delays in establishing who the father is and what his views are is a key issue in respectful and courteous practice'(p276)

The invisible father or ‘hidden men'(Brandon et al 2009) were most evident in serious case reviews where fathers had been living at home with the mothers prior to the death of or abuse of a child and who had not been seen or assessed as part of an investigation or assessment. Despite serious case reviews being a ‘hotly debated topic in children’s services'(Long 2014)and a social work poll highlighting that ‘…67% say they “only sometimes” get to read the actual recommendations from any Serious Case Reviews (17% say they never get to read them)…'(BASW 2014)they are an opportunity to reflect on and analyse the work carried out by social workers and partnership agencies that may have contributed to a child dying or being seriously harmed, abused or neglected as a result of organisations not having worked together to safeguard the child.  Munro (2011) asserts that,

‘It is particularly important that the perspective and engagement with the male carer/father is pursued and undertaken. This process should include a historical understanding through to the present day. Family networks/systems are complex and can involve several households’(p109).

Ofsted (2010) supports the view that practitioners working with families should ‘routinely involve fathers and other figures in the family in assessing risk and in gathering all the information needed to make an assessment'(p15) Munro (2010) argues that social works inability to focus on the child is in part due to an over bureaucratic practice framework that gets in the way of child centred practice. Munro asserts that there needs to be a balance between allowing children to remain in families where they are being neglected or maltreated and adhering too closely to performance indicators and assessment timescales. ‘The hypothesis is that, whilst timescales and fixed stages of assessment provide some control of the child protection system…they can do so at the expense of thoughtful social work practice’ (p18).

Domestic Violence

The Pan-government definition of domestic violence is:

‘…any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to: Psychological, physical, sexual, financial, and emotional’. (MOPAC 2014)

MOPAC (2014) reports that metropolitan police statistics suggest that there were 41586 victims of domestic violence in London in the financial year 2013-2014. Of these 20% male 78% female with the difference unknown. The Office for National Statistics(2013)estimate that 7% of women and 5% of men were estimated to have experienced domestic abuse in 2011/2012 equivalent to an estimated 1.2 million female and 800,000 male victims in the UK. What we know from the domestic abuse literature is that both male and female experiences of domestic violence are underreported with approximately only 21% of victims of partner abuse reported it to the police (Bardens and Gay 2014).In 2010/2011, an average of 2 women a week were killed by a male and/or former partner and 20% of male homicides in the same period were perpetrated by women.

A press release by the The Family Rights Group (2014) who offer independent advice and advocacy to families whose children are involved with child protection and safeguarding services report an increase of 803% of calls to their helpline in the past five years due to domestic violence issues in the family. CAADA (2012) found in their research that 66% of victims of domestic abuse had children and 35% of these were already known to social services. Although the method of data collection in this research appeared unorthodox and implicit it captures data collected by practitioners working directly with victims of abuse. The authors report that up to 130,000 children were living with domestic violence in 2011-2012.

The effects on children of living with domestic violence is widely known in the literature (CAADA 2012) and child protection practice which is reflected in the definition of significant harm in S31 of the Children Act 1989 which was adapted through the introduction of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 which widened the definition to include harm suffered through the ‘impairment suffered by hearing or seeing the ill-treatment of another’. Working Together (2013) statutory guidance for multi-agency child protection and safeguarding working highlights domestic violence as being a contributory factor to children and families at risk recommending that ‘Professionals should, in particular, be alert to the potential need for early help for a child who is in a family circumstance presenting challenges for the child, such as substance abuse, adult mental health, domestic violence and/or is showing early signs of abuse and/or neglect.'(p12).Ofsted’s(2010)Learning Lessons from Serious Case Review supports this view in their findings which highlighted the presence of parental domestic violence, substance misuse and mental health in many of the 147 SCR they reviewed as part of their analysis.Cossar,Brandon and Jordan(2011)carried out

Baynes and Holland (2010) case study of 40 child protection case files in an English local authority found that domestic violence was the most frequent reason for convening an initial child protection conference at 60%. Of the 24/40 domestic violence cases 14 were male or female/4 female on male. The authors also suggest that based on their findings domestic violence was frequently underplayed with fathers less engaged than mothers and little attention played to men’s practical caring skills. Although at the outset the authors of the paper had highlighted that a small number of fathers had also been victims of domestic violence albeit as a result of violence from them to their partners there was no discussion about the impact of this on the children’s welfare or on the mothers-perpetrator engagement in the child protection process. Based on this literature review and previous research it appears that mothers as perpetrator in a child protection context is an area of study currently lacking in the UK. A Systematic Review carried out by Robinson and Spilsbury (2008)  focusing on the experiences and perceptions of domestic violence victims of healthcare service provision in the UK, Australia and USA found no research papers addressing male victims views…

Ferguson’s(2012) editorial addresses the reasons for the exclusion of fathers in child protection arena,suggesting that one reason for fathers not being worked with enough in is that some fathers can be violent and pose a risk and social workers fear of violence results in them avoiding them for fear of their own safety. Brandon et al (2009) review of serious case reviews discusses this ‘hostility to professionals'(p67) in physical abuse cases with aspects of neglect. They argue that aggression and distrust expressed towards practitioners was most frequently carried out by the father but in some cases it was mothers. This hostility expressed by either parent was often through controlling behaviour that ‘dictated the terms of the relationship with professionals'(p67).This view is echoed by Ofsted(2011) which found that not just fathers but mothers also prevented access to children through the use or threats of violence to social workers. Unlike other research included in this review Ofsted develop the analysis of parental aggression and domestic violence in case reviews to highlight a connection between the practitioner’s experience of this aggression and how this could be used to better understand the children’s experience within these kinds of family dynamics. In Ferguson also locates not just discourse around gender debates and fathers, but also themes around ‘lower working-class men…[who]…can’t and don’t care'(p232) which Ferguson argues, feeds into a view of fathers in families where there are safeguarding concerns as dangerous ‘based on their ‘hard’ appearance or assumptions of fecklessness'(p231).

Baynes and Holland’s (2010) research corroborate this view. In their review of 40 child protection case files they found that the language in the case files frequently underplayed the details and focus on the domestic violence of mothers as victims, instead ‘…in the majority of cases the focus of concern shifted within the meeting to concerns about mothers’ ability to protect and/or parent their children…'(p63).

Implications for Social Work Practice

Many of the papers reviewed, discussed the impact of gender on social work practice and policy. When issues of discrimination were raised and discussed though, it was  generally presented as ‘gender bias’ rather than discrimination. It could be suggested that the use of the term gender bias instead of gender discrimination, placates the act of discrimination itself through replacing the word discrimination with the less  benign term bias. Communication theory, structural and discourse analysis argue that communication is not only an exchange of symbols and signs, every day conversations are also underpinned by power relations that maintain cultural and societal norms. As Thompson(2011)asserts, these  verbal and nonverbal exchanges  in discourse can maintain cultural symbols of power as  ‘…not all meanings and communications have equal value and validity. Indeed we can recognize a hierarchy in which certain meanings are given higher status and importance than others'(p18). Supporting this view, Hick and Murray(2011)argue that these cultural and social structures that reflect particular ideologies and views, are asserted by ‘powerful elites'(p87)who maintain dominance over less powerful groups. Taking this view  forward it could be suggested that through using the term gender bias in place of discrimination allows a more powerful influence over groups and individuals whilst negating the oppression experienced by women and men.

According to the literature review  social work practice and in particular child protection practice is fraught with gender discrimination, child and family stereotypes and a complex mix of idealisation and denigration of  father/mother roles. These dynamics can be evidenced through social work interventions which on the one hand focuses on the mother’s relationship, parenting capacity and ability to safeguard her child.On the other fathers are often nowhere to be seen. Feminism argues that state intervention in the form of child protection is a way of ‘evaluating maternal capacity'(Davies et al 2002, p625)against a Eurocentric view of the good mother/bad mother. As the evidence suggests this has led to fathers not being under the same level of scrutiny and not having the same level of responsibility placed on them as mothers to safeguard and protect their children. This according to the evidence suggests fathers are not being factored into systematic family risk assessments or investigations,  which leads to incomplete risk assessments putting children at risk, along with fathers not getting the support they may need.

Despite this there needs to be proactive policy and practice encouraging the engagement of fathers in the child protection arena. A number of papers reviewed highlighted the benefits of engaging fathers early on. Maxwell et al(2012)argues that this level of engagement should begin after the birth. This could include active engagement of fathers through health visitors and family centres.Baynes and Holland(2012)found in their research that up to 60% of fathers had not had contact with a social worker prior to the initial child protection conference.There was evidence to suggest that fathers in this study were more likely to have seen professionals in probation, police, prison and substance misuse workers. This might suggest co working and partnership working with professioansl from areas where men are more engaged.As Gilligan et al (2012) found in their smal study, services could further facilitate fathers enagment through openig hours outside of core work hours when some may have finished work. They also suggest an increase in positive male language and increased numbers of male staff.

The literature reviewed is evidencing that part of the difficulty of engaging fathers is related to a general lack of focus on relationships between social workers and children, immediate and extended family, the community and professional support networks. What became clear as the literature was being reviewed was that social workers and other professionals are clearly not listening to children and other adults(including resident and non resident fathers)that held important information that could provide a contextualised picture of risks to the child. This view is demonstrated in the Munro review of the child protections system(2011)which based on her findings purported that children are not being effectively involved in child protection work and professionals are not speaking to the children enough.

As discussed in the literature review the lack of engagement of children  reflects the lack of power children have in society when contrasted with adults and those at the top of the power hierarchy. It could  be argued that applying a structural analysis of systems surrounding the child, highlights powerful forces within the power dynamics that reduce and stop those with the least amount of power and voice in society asserting their voice which includes children and vulnerable adults.  Systems theory proposes that in order for systems to work effectively and  interdependantly they need to have ‘permeable boundaries'(Agazarin and Peters 1981,p45). Permeable boundaries allow the flow of information gathered to move across family and organisational system boundaries. If, as the literature suggests individuals who are part of the child protection  system including children, mothers,fathers,grandparents,neighbours, professionals etc are not able to  contribute fully to an investigation or assessment  then this creates blocks and units of important information that undermines an analysis and conclusions drawn on the risks posed to children by those in this system.  Davies(2004)asserts the need for a more contextual and systemic approach to child protection investigations and assessments suggesting that ‘safeguarding children effectively requires a dual strategy— prevention and protection…[and]…The community have an essential role in both’.(p426).

There is ‘…a lack of research evidence about family welfare interventions for fathers'(Scourfield 2014,p976)which reflects a general lack of robust research in child protection social work generally  across the board. Difficulties defining abuse, interventions and outcome measures along with research designs are well documented in the social work literature (Davies and Ward 2012;PreVail 2010). This review of the child protection literature suggests a diversity of views of practice interventions and it appears this difficulty in the literature and research to convene on good practice means that there can be more of a reliance on statutory guidance and policy which can lead to managerialism and bureaucratic approaches to child safeguarding practice.Rogowski(2012)argues that ‘…the impact of managerialism cannot be overstated’ in child protection practice, suggesting that this focus on scrutiny and monitoring of social work reduces the time available to spend with children and families.


The aims and objectives of this dissertation was to answer the question, how effective is safeguarding and protection social work practice at engaging fathers and how these findings could be applied to social work in this area. The outline was developed out of a brief analysis of the literature on social work practice and the authors work experience prior to beginning the literature review. This experience suggested a disparity between the engagement of mothers and fathers which clearly impacted on the outcomes for children in a number of serious case reviews(Ofsted 2010;Ofsted 2011;Brandon et al 2009)and practice observed during a statutory social work training placement. It was proposed that the lack of engagement of fathers resulted in a an unequal focus on mothers(Roskill et al 2011)during child protection investigations and assessments which led to men becoming marginalized and hidden with the risks they may pose to children in the family not being adequately assessed.

The literature search and review located a number of themes which included, gender discrimination, mother as gatekeeper, domestic violence, child protection and investigations. These themes were synthesized and analysed drawing in particular on systems and structural social work theories. The results of this review and synthesis when applied to social work practice provided an understanding of the difficulties but facilitators of proactive engagement of fathers in child protection investigations and assessments. What became clear was that a better engagement of fathers must begin with an acknowledgement that gender discrimination takes place in child protection work. As the evidence suggests discrimination takes place between social workers and service users due to their own experiences of fathers along with  societal and organisational stereotypes of parental roles which create structural inequalities and oppressions. There was some evidence to suggest that social workers hesitancy in engaging fathers was due to concerns for their own, child and mothers safety()yet this was also discussed in terms of negative discourse in the office further fueled by a large proportion of social workers being female which appeared to impact on how men and fathers were viewed as ‘bad fathers’.Some research suggested that with counter positive male and father discourse, recruitment of more men and policies on the proactive engagement of men could impact on the engagement of fathers.

The engagement of fathers and the wider family was set within the discourse around child centred practice. The literature was most vocal on the historical and current failings in child protection social work to focus on the voice of the child rather than the needs of adults in the family. Suggestions were made in the literature and whilst reviewing the implications for practice that better engagement of children would result in better engagement of fathers as social workers gather the needs and wishes of the child. Which would include their views and concerns for involvement of fathers and wider family members that may or may not pose a risk to them.

Social workers and the organisations in which they work, have a responsibility to highlight discrimination and inequality(HCPC 2012;BASW 2012). In particular they have a responsibility to develop personal and professional awareness of their own values that impact on them and the service users they work with, incorporating this learning into further research and practice. The research reviewed in this paper have highlighted that further robust research needs to be carried out generally in child protection social work. More specifically research exploring the obstacles to engaging children, fathers, mothers,  and the wider social network should be focused on the emotional impact that child protection work has on the individual practitioner and their choices of how to carry out their work within the systems  they work.


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Letter sent to Havering council to challenge the inequality of DV services in the borough

To Whom It May Concern,

I would like to make a formal complaint about the following:

I have read the boroughs domestic violence guide to services 2012 at the following link:

This literature is inaccurate and misleading. It states on page 4 that 95% of victims of domestic abuse are women. This is not accurate information and misleads men and women to believe that only 5% of victims are men. The Mankind initiative and Refuge highlight the following:

‘38% of domestic abuse victims are male: for every five victims, three will be

female, two will be male.

(2) 7.1% of women and 4.4% of men were estimated to have experienced domestic

abuse in the last year, equivalent to an estimated 1.15 million female and 720,000

male victims.

(3) 30% of women and 16.3% (one in six) of men have experienced domestic abuse

since the age of 16. These figures were equivalent to an estimated 4.9 million

female victims of domestic abuse and 2.7 million male victims’(

A crime and disorder committee in Havering(May 2012)reported:

‘The recent strategic assessment for Havering has found that between 1st of January 2011 and the 31 st of December 2011 there were 1214 domestic violence offences within the Borough’.(p2)

Of the 1214 offences 80% were female and 20% male victims.

‘It should be noted that in addition to the 1200 reported offences there are a further 2872 incidents recorded on the CRiS system where the incident was of a domestic nature but no statutory offence had been committed’.(p2)

Havering Women’s Aid supported 1192 women, 539 children and 20 men between 2010/2011. Based on the figure of 1214 offences Women’s Aid supported 98% of the female victims in the borough between 2010-2011.This is excellent and encouraging for female victims of DV. For men in the borough the support outcomes appears very different. Although 20% of the 1214 figure were men Women’s aid only appear to have engaged and supported 1.6% of the 1214 figure. Alternatively only 20 out of 242 men were supported. That means at the least 222 male victims in the borough between 2010-2011 did not gain support from Women’s Aid.

The Equality Act 2010 Public Sector Equality Duty states clearly that public sector organisations have  duty to:

  1. Eliminate unlawful discrimination
  2. Advance equality of opportunity
  3. Foster good relations

I would suggest that the literature outlined above containing inaccurate information fails to address the ongoing discrimination of male victims of domestic abuse and fails to advance the equality of opportunity for these victims. Further to this the service providing support for men in the borough is called Women’s Aid. I would argue that this suggests the service is for women only and creates barriers for men accessing support in the borough again this does not meet the duty under the Equality Act.

The Human Rights Act 1998 Article 1 argues that the UK government has a duty to protect  ‘Everyone’s right to life…[and]… shall be protected by law’. The boroughs failure to eliminate, encourage and advance equality of opportunity contravene the rights of men to be protected in the borough.

Many Thanks,

Jason Byrne