Even after children are placed in foster care due to abuse or neglect, their fathers often express interest in maintaining a relationship, a new study suggests. Researchers found that social workers and policymakers tend to assume that a ward of the state needs to be protected from his or her father, even when this is not the case. They conclude that policy reforms are necessary to identify when involving fathers is safe, rather than stereotyping every man involved in child protections.
“The problem of father engagement is longstanding and persistent,” coauthor on the study Georgia Philip of the University of East Anglia’s School of Social Work, told Fatherly. She notes that prior research on the subject has been largely from the perspective of professionals, rather than parents. “Our study is important because it brings fathers’ voices and experiences directly into the picture.”
Philip and her colleagues examined 150 case files of children in the UK who had recently been removed from their parents’ care, and conducted in-depth interviews with 35 fathers in similar situations. They found that 100 out of 150 fathers remained involved and interested in their children’s lives even one year after child protection services became involved. Of the 35 fathers interviewed, many were living in poverty with significant illness and disability. They were also suffering from a lack of engagement, Philip found. “Fathers are often seen by professionals as hard to reach,” she says. “We found that when we approached them directly and were curious about their lives, they were not.”
While the findings showed that most of the dads were in bad shape, the researchers did not confirm whether the involved or uninvolved dads were actually safe for their children to be around—which means we can’t be sure that social workers didn’t have good reason for excluding these dads. “The purpose of our study was not to judge whether men were safe or not,” Philip explains, adding that she did confirm that none of the fathers involved in the study were in prison. “We were not seeking to corroborate everything they said.”
Other limitations of the study include a small sample size, reliance on self-reporting, and the fact that the work has not yet been peer-reviewed or published in a journal (Philip says she plans to submit her work for review in the coming months).”Future work should include larger samples of fathers, study cases over longer periods of time, and use quantitative methods, such as measures of child well-being,” Scott Leon, professor of clinical psychology at Loyola University in Chicago who was not involved in the study, told Fatherly. Leon adds that policymakers need to be careful not to overcompensate—children still need to be protected from potentially abusive dads. “Clearly, fathers who have been perpetrators should not be involved without significant intervention.”
Philip maintains, however, that her preliminary findings suggest that dads are being excluded without cause. “Fathers tend to be positioned as either a risk or as a resource,” Philip says. “Rather than recognizing and working with the combination of risk and protective factors that most represent.”