Third Voice: Dads have changed, so must the support networks

Duncan Fisher, director of Fathers Direct and an Equal Opportunities Commissioner

Fatherhood is all over the news these days, with ever more florid stunts by Fathers 4 Justice and cabinet ministers speaking eloquently about their fatherhood as they resign, having failed when in office to develop policies to tackle this important social issue. "Father chaos", as Third Sector's article on Fathers 4 Justice was titled (15 December 2004). But is it chaos?

A fundamental social change is under way: mothers work in more than half of two-parent families with under-fives. Women's behaviour and aspirations are changing as their education levels rise. Men are changing too: fathers now do one-third of all parental care, eight times more than 30 years ago; and their aspiration to be more involved with their children is virtually universal.

This is no middle-class phenomenon. Blue-collar fathers do more childcare than middle-class dads. Research by the Prince's Trust and at Bristol University shows that young, disadvantaged fathers have high aspirations.

Any educator in a young offender's institution will confirm there's nothing like fatherhood to spark resolution to change: 25 per cent of young offenders are fathers, six times the average for their age.

But the only support they'll ever get as fathers is inside - there'll be none when they get out. They, like all fathers, feel excluded by family services, where workers rarely have skills or self-confidence even to meet them. At a recent public consultation in my area, a senior midwife remarked: "Of course, by the time the baby is born, the young dads have all buggered off." Wrong. Most are still in a romantic (if often fragile) relationship with the young mother and want to be involved. An ongoing relationship with their father is shown to be particularly valuable to the children of teen mums.

Here's a challenge for the voluntary sector: do you know the literature on the impact of positive, negative or minimal involvement of fathers in children's lives? If you work with men, do you know if they are fathers and whether supporting their fatherhood could help achieve your aims?

If most of your users are women, do you know for sure that men don't want support, or have you not yet found ways of reaching them and meeting their needs? If you're a funder, have you adapted your strategies in line with the research evidence, and the changing social landscape?

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