Why involving fathers is critical when working with vulnerable families


Men are often seen as invisible within families for a wide range of reasons. While this extract was written in the UK context, it also is surprisingly similar to the Australian situation. It highlights many of the less-spoken hopes and aspirations of many men from low income communities. If we talk about increasing the available resources within vulnerable families, greater involvement of the father can have an important impact. As you read this extract, reflect on how the fathers in your community are viewed?

A striking and recurrent theme is the vulnerability of the fathers which was illustrated in data on several areas. The majority were young, poor and unemployed,with low educational attainment; they had either been in trouble with the youth or criminal justice system or had been on the edge of it. Most of the men were the biological father of the child (85%). A minority had other children, and although none lived with children from other relationships, they were seeing these children at least once a fortnight. Eighty-seven per cent of the survey samples were white/white British, while 13% were from BME backgrounds.The surveyed fathers ranged in age from 17 to 34 years, some 58% of whom were aged 21 or less, while almost a third (29%) were teenage fathers. The age range of the mothers in the sample was 16 to 21 and this narrower age range is to be expected given that the service was targeted at first time teenage mothers.

There were some instances of older (and in a small number of cases significantly older) men with younger women. This finding is similar to other studies of teenage mothers where in general fathers were older than their partners (Miller 1997; Lane & Clay 2000). The majority of the children (80%) were one year old or younger and over a quarter (28%) were 6 months old or younger. There were some striking patterns in the men’s own family backgrounds. Over a third had experienced parental separation (37%), 70% of these separations happened before the men were 10 years old. Eleven per cent of the fathers had been in care and one was still in foster care at the time of the study. All of the men had siblings, while 70% had stepbrothers or stepsisters.

In terms of the men’s relationship with their own father, 50% described themselves as ‘very close’, while 30% ‘got on but were not too close’. Eighteen per cent had no contact with their fathers at all. This picture illustrates the widespread experience of having grown up in reconstituted and/or fractured families. In terms of education and training, 35% of the fathers had no qualifications at all, while 28% had qualifications in five or more subjects at age 16 (data on grades obtained were not systematically provided, but anecdotally most were low). Some 20% had a further education qualification. The majority (86%) lived in rented accommodation – either from private landlords (43%) or through social housing (43%). Almost a third of the men (29%) regarded their accommodation as temporary.

Three-quarters of the fathers lived with the child’s mother, either all or part of the week, while a quarter still lived with one or both of their own parents.Two of the respondents were in prison, one was in foster care and one lived alone. Of those who did not currently
live with the child’s mother, 19% said that they intended to live together in the future once they were financially stable, while only 4% said that they do not intend to. For just over half (57%) of the fathers, the pregnancy had not been planned. Although unplanned,

37% said that they were very happy when they heard the news.However, 17% were unsure or worried when they found out that they were going to be a father.The men’s knowledge of pregnancy prior to the conception varied enormously, a quarter felt it was ‘very good’, another quarter ‘adequate’, while a quarter felt it was ‘poor’ and another quarter ‘very poor’. The fact that at least half of the men entered pregnancy feeling that they knew little about it points to a broad lack of information and preparation for pregnancy for young men and raises serious questions about the passive role of schools in preparation for fatherhood (Ayoola et al. 2010).

A third of the fathers were in paid employment.The majority of men in the study had very low incomes and some had no income at all due to their age and the fact they were living at home with their parents. The largest proportion of fathers (40%) fell into the very low weekly income bracket of between £100 and £150, while 37% were on £150–300. Interviews showed that lack of spending power routinely prevented these fathers from buying their children (or partners) any presents or ‘little luxuries’ and sometimes rendered them unable to buy their children even essential items forcing them to borrow and rely on family. This was a source of great regret and pain to them. This is borne out by other research that shows how for younger and poverty-stricken fathers non-involvement is often due to their perception of a barrier between them and their children, often rooted in feelings of financial inadequacy and uncertainty about the type of support they should or can provide (Bunting & McAuley 2004).

In summary, the general profile of the fathers that emerged from the survey was of men whose lives were characterized as high in vulnerability factors. Their past and present experiences of difficult and challenging circumstances placed their capacity to be responsible,caring fathers at risk. Moreover, many of the mothers with whom the men were involved were also Early intervention work with fathers extremely vulnerable. Such was the overall challenge faced by the Family Nurse Partnership in seeking to engage the fathers and meet their often complex needs.

Extract from Ferguson, H. & Gates, P. (2013) Early intervention and holistic, relationship-based practice with fathers: Evidence from the work of the Family Nurse Partnership. Child and Family Social Work Journal.

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