Technical ReportPDF Available
‘Up Against It’: A progress report for practitioners
Building a Picture of Fathers
in Family Justice in England
november 2018
Dr Georgia Philip, Dr Stuart Bedston, Dr Yang Hu,
Lindsay Youansamouth, Dr John Clifton,
Prof Marian Brandon and Prof Karen Broadhurst
University of East Anglia and Lancaster University
The research team gratefully acknowledge the Nuffield Foundation
for its ongoing support for this project. We are also grateful to
colleagues at the Child and Family Court Advisory and Support
Service for enabling access to National data and offering advice
and guidance. We would like to extend our gratitude to all of the
local authorities participating in this research, for their partnership
working to date and for their continued support in facilitating the
national survey and enabling us to contact recurrent fathers. Lastly,
the team would like to thank our advisory board who continue to
share our enthusiasm for this project and to be encouraging and
constructive, through both formal meetings and ad hoc requests for
The Nuffield Foundation
The Nuffield Foundation is an endowed charitable trust that aims
to improve social wellbeing in the widest sense. It funds research
and innovation in education and social policy and also works
to build capacity in education, science and social science and
social science research. The Nuffield Foundation has funded this
project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not
necessarily those of the Foundation. More information is available at
Philip, G., Bedston, S., Hu, Y., Youansamouth, L., Clifton, J.,
Brandon, M. & Broadhurst, K. (2018). Building a picture of fathers
in the Family Justice System in England.
1 Summary 5
2 A comparison of mothers and
fathers in care proceedings 7
2.1 Party status amongst fathers and
2.2 Annual numbers entering s.31
2.3 Rates of recurrent s.31 proceedings
2.4 Comparison of non-recurrent and
recurrent mothers and fathers
2.5 Who recurrent parents return with
3 Challenges and issues in
developing practice with recurrent
fathers 15
4 Next steps 25
A Methodology 27
A.1 Legal and ethical permission
A.2 Research Questions
A.3 Quantitative analysis of court data
A.4 Focus groups of practitioners
References 31
1 Summary
The overall aim of our study, ‘Up Against It’: fathers’ experiences of
recurrent care proceedings, is to begin building the much-needed
knowledge base about fathers’ appearance and reappearance in
the family court. The study has three main objectives:
Map the scale and numbers of fathers in first and subsequent s.31
Build a picture of the circumstances of such fathers.
Generate insights into the lives and coping strategies of recurrent
The picture of fathers in care proceedings is currently very
limited. Although there has been substantial progress in
understanding the patterns, trends and underpinning reasons
for mothers’ appearances and reappearances in the family courts
(Broadhurst et al. 2015), this has not been matched by a parallel
programme of work on fathers. The human and financial costs
of high numbers of children being removed from birth parents,
significant numbers of parents experiencing repeat removals, and
the impact of such repeat removals cannot be addressed by only
focusing on the lives of mothers (Brandon et al. 2017; Philip et al.
This report marks the mid-point of the project and presents
findings from the first stage of our analysis of national
administrative data from the Child and Family Court Advisory and
Support Service (Cafcass). In addition we present findings from our
focus groups with practitioners, which reflect the landscape of work
with fathers in recurrent care proceedings, and raise discussion
points for policy and practice.
Key findings
The results presented here reveal what has previously been
unknown about fathers: namely the trends, patterns and profile
of fathers in s.31 proceedings. For the first time, we also compare the
profiles of fathers who have entered subsequent proceedings with
building a picture of fathers in family justice in england 6
those who have not. Our analysis of population-level data provides
five major insights:
Whilst nearly all mothers are party to care proceedings, only
86% of fathers are party to the proceedings. There has not been
an increase in the proportion of fathers’ with party status over
time. In fact, the proportion has decreased very slightly between
2010/11 and 2017/18.
There has been a rapid increase in the annual number of both
mothers and fathers entering s.31 proceedings since 2007/08. The
number of mothers and fathers entering have been increasing in
Mothers have higher rates of returning to court than fathers. The
lower rate of fathers’ recurrence is in part due to the invisibility of
fathers within administrative processes.
Little gender difference was found in the sociodemographic traits
documented by Cafcass (e.g. number of children in proceedings,
age of youngest child, legal orders that conclude proceedings)
between mothers and fathers in s.31 proceedings, apart from the
observation that the mothers are younger than the fathers.
Among parents who enter recurrent s.31 proceedings, a high
proportion return with the same partner. This suggests a need
to pay closer attention to relationships and couplehood in the
context of intervention and service development.
The findings from our focus groups with social work practitioners
demonstrate the practice landscape of work with fathers in recurrent
care proceedings. They also illustrate practitioner knowledge
and views about such fathers, their circumstances and what may
constrain or enable practice with them:
The resources and motivations for doing rehabilitative work
with recurrent fathers are limited and variable. Improving father
engagement remains an aspiration rather than a strategic priority
for local authorities.
Failure to support vulnerable men to be involved or better fathers,
regardless of whether they live with their children or not, impacts
on children, both now and in the future.
There is a need to recognise the ways in which services construct
and respond differently to men and women, as fathers and
More systematic and balanced knowledge is needed to mitigate
“mythical storytelling” about recurrent fathers.
2 A comparison of non-recurrent and recurrent
mothers and fathers: findings from population-
level data
In this section, we provide new evidence on the trends, patterns and
characteristics of fathers vis-à-vis mothers in s.31 proceedings, as
captured by the Cafcass administrative data. Particular attention is
paid to (i) gender difference (or its absence) between mothers and
fathers in recurrent care proceedings; (ii) similarities and differences
in the sociodemographic profiles of fathers in non-recurrent and
recurrent proceedings; (iii) the relational structure between mothers
and fathers as they move from first to recurrent care proceedings,
not as individuals but as couples. For a full description of our
methodological approach see Section A.3. Our quantitative results
provide five major insights.
2.1 Fathers are less likely to have party status in s.31
proceedings than mothers
For mothers, parental responsibility (PR) is an ascribed legal status,
whereas PR is an acquired legal status for fathers obtained through
marriage, jointly registering a child’s birth, seeking a parental
agreement or a PR order. We found that effectively all mothers have
party status to s.31 proceedings, whereas only 86% of identified
fathers were party to the proceedings. The prevalence of ‘missing’
fathers in s.31 proceedings is partly attributable to fathers who do
not have PR when a case is initiated.
We found no increase in fathers being made party to proceedings
over time. In fact, the percentage of fathers being made party each
fiscal year has undergone a very marginal decrease, from 89% in
2010/11 to 85% in 2016/17. The average over this period was 86%.
Policy and practice implications
Consideration needs to be given, at both policy and operational
levels, to how PR status works in local authority and legal practice
with men. Our results suggest that the function of PR as a filtering
mechanism may inhibit, delay or create ‘opt-out’ points for fathers’
involvement in care proceedings. Policy and procedure changes in
building a picture of fathers in family justice in england 8
what appear to be gendered PR entitlements would be a crucial first
step to uncover ‘missing fathers’ in s.31 proceedings.
2.2 There has been a parallel increase in the annual
number of mothers and fathers entering s.31
Figure 2.1: Number of children,
mothers and fathers entering
care proceedings from fiscal
years 2007/08 to 2017/18.1
1Cafcass recording practices
between 2007/08 and 2009/10
did not make a distinction
between party and non-party
fathers. Our trendline has been
corrected for all fathers being
recorded as party in the first
three fiscal years.
The increasing volume of s.31 proceedings places an
unprecedented strain on the family court. As shown in Figure 2,
the annual volume of parents and their children entering the family
courts has increased rapidly over the past decade. Due to changes in
Cafcass’ recording practices, we can only reliably analyse the trends
from 2010/11 onwards. Between 2010/11 and 2017/18, the annual
number of fathers entering s.31 proceedings increased from 6,770 to
10,690 and that of mothers increased from 8,290 to 13,530. During
the same time period, the annual number of children increased from
15,610 to 24,430. Given that the capacity of the English family court
has stayed stable over the past decade, court staff are faced with an
accruing pressure to provide efficient and high-quality family justice
Fathers are far from ‘invisible’ in the overall picture of s.31
proceedings. The data clearly show that the majority of fathers are
identified in care proceedings. If we expect every child to have one
mother and one father, our results show that around 21% of fathers
building a picture of fathers in family justice in england 9
go unidentified. It is worth noting that although our data capture
the initial records documented at the beginning of the case, it is
possible that more fathers were uncovered during the proceedings
and are later added to a given case. Therefore, the actual gender
gap in the volumes of mothers and fathers entering s.31 proceedings
every year is potentially narrower than reported here.
Policy and practice implications
The increasing volume of s.31 proceedings is propelled by parallel
increases in the number of mothers and fathers entering the
proceedings. The average annual rates of increase have been similar
for mothers and fathers, at 8% and 7% respectively. Thus, it is the
dual increase in the number of both fathers and mothers, rather
than one or the other that has amounted to a looming national “care
crisis”. While it is a pivotal task to uncover the 21% of unidentified
fathers, it is equally important to engage the majority of fathers who
are already captured by the family court but may be insufficiently
involved in the process of care proceedings.
2.3 The rate of recurrent s.31 proceedings is lower for
fathers than mothers
Figure 2.2: Rate at which
mothers and fathers enter
recurrent s.31 proceedings (per
Fathers have a lower rate of entering subsequent care proceedings
than mothers, as shown by the Kaplan-Meier curves in Figure 2.
building a picture of fathers in family justice in england 10
Additionally, the increase in recurrent rates declines over time for
both mothers and fathers.
Within five years of their previous appearances in the family
court, we would expect 130 per 1,000 fathers to enter subsequent
care proceedings. The equivalent rate for mothers is 220 per 1,000.
If we follow parents for 10 years after their initial appearances in
the family court, the recurrent rates for fathers and mothers are 175
and 290 per 1,000, respectively. At the five-year point, mothers are
1.7 times more likely than fathers to appear in court, and the gender
difference is similar at 10 years, at around 1.7 times.
Policy and practice implications
Sensitively designed interventions could aim to reduce the number
of recurrent care proceedings immediately following the conclusion
of a case in the family court. There are two potential targets for this
work: the hard to locate, absent or non-engaged fathers who may be
a major cause of mothers’ recurrent appearances in the family court,
and the recurrent fathers who are present but appear at a somewhat
lower rate than the mothers. The lower rates of fathers’ recurrence
should not detract from the urgency of interventions aimed at these
present fathers. Finding the absent or non-engaged father poses
a more difficult challenge. As we discuss later, the lower rate of
fathers’ recurrence maybe, in part, due to the invisibility of fathers
within a local authority’s administrative processes.
2.4 There is little difference in socio-demographics
between fathers and mothers
Little gender difference in major sociodemographic traits is found
between fathers and mothers, in both the non-recurrent and
recurrent groups. However there are several differences between
the non-recurrent and recurrent groups. The only exception is
that mothers and fathers tend to concentrate at distinct life-course
stages. As presented in Table 1, mothers tend to be younger than
fathers, and parents who went on to reappear in the family court
tend to be younger than non-recurrent parents. The average age
of non-recurrent mothers and fathers are 30 and 33 years old, and
that of recurrent mothers and fathers are 26 and 31 when they first
appeared in the court. As recurrent parents tend to concentrate in
a relatively early stage of the life course, they are seen to appear in
the family court with younger children than their non-recurrent
counterparts. Apart from these differences, fathers and mothers
who have returned to the court, initially appeared with a similar
number of children, their youngest children were similarly aged,
and the legal orders concluding their first case were also similarly
building a picture of fathers in family justice in england 11
Non-recurrent Recurrent
Mother Father Mother Father
Parent’s age a, b, c, d
16-18 7.3 2.7 11.6 3.3
19-21 12.8 8.2 20.1 11.1
22-24 12.8 11.1 17.5 13.6
25-29 20.6 18.6 22.8 21.5
30-34 18.0 17.6 16.3 18.3
35-39 14.6 15.8 7.8 14.1
40-44 9.2 12.1 3.0 8.9
45+ 4.8 13.9 0.8 9.2
Number of children subject a, b, c
1 56.3 66.8 58.4 64.8
2 22.8 20.0 21.6 20.7
3 11.8 8.0 10.6 8.2
4+ 9.1 5.2 9.3 6.3
Age of youngest child a, b, c, d
Less than 0 weeks 1.6 1.3 3.4 3.5
0-3 weeks 17.8 16.8 24.3 25.6
4-52 weeks 22.1 20.5 28.1 27.6
1-4 years 31.4 32.0 32.3 29.1
5-9 years 16.3 17.9 8.6 10.3
10-15 years 10.8 11.4 3.3 3.9
Highest legal order group 4, a, b, c, d
Dismissed/ONO 6.8 6.4 4.4 5.4
FAO/SO 7.3 6.8 7.3 10.8
RO/SGO/CAO 12.9 12.5 11.8 10.4
CO/SAO 31.4 29.9 23.8 22.4
PO 22.3 24.0 33.1 29.0
Other 19.3 20.4 19.6 22.0
Partner status a, b
Identified 78.5 97.1 78.2 97.9
Unidentified 21.5 2.9 21.8 2.1
Parent-partner age gap a, b, c
10+ years younger 16.1 1.5 17.4 1.4
5-9 years younger 18.1 4.1 18.4 3.7
Less than 5 years 57.9 53.9 58.7 55.8
5-9 years older 5.6 21.5 3.9 20.7
10+ years older 2.3 19.0 1.6 18.5
Co-resident with partner a, b, c, d
No 69.5 73.3 74.4 67.5
Yes 30.5 26.7 25.6 32.5
Partner in recurrent proceedings b
Previous 35.7 74.9
New 40.6 22.8
Unidentified – 23.7 2.3
N31,770 32,630 8,590 4,480
Table 2.1: Descriptive
percentages of non-recurrent
and recurrent mothers and
fathers at their index s.31
proceedings, with the partner
they return with for recurrent
mothers and fathers.1, 2, 3
1By ‘index proceedings’ we mean
the first recorded s.31 proceedings
since 2007/08 as that is the start of our
observational window.
2Parents were categorised as
‘recurrent’ if they returned within 5
years of their index s.31 proceedings.
3Missing values were ignored
for the purposes of calculating
the percentages, see Table A2 for
proportion of missing values in each
4If multiple legal orders were made at
the end of proceedings, then the one
associated with the ‘highest’ level of
potential removal was recorded for our
aStatistically significant difference
between non-recurrent mothers and
fathers at the 0.1% level.
bStatistically significant difference
between recurrent mothers and fathers
at the 0.1% level.
cStatistically significant difference
between non-recurrent and recurrent
mothers at the 0.1% level.
dStatistically significant difference
between non-recurrent and recurrent
fathers at the 0.1% level.
building a picture of fathers in family justice in england 12
Despite the lack of apparent gender differences in the individual
and case attributes of recurrent fathers and mothers, their
demographic profiles seem to challenge certain stereotypes:
Parents entering care proceedings with multiple children only
represent a small proportion of cases. As shown in Table 1, the
majority of recurrent fathers (86%) and mothers (80%) had only
one or two children subject in their index care proceedings, which
is not substantially different from the profiles of non-recurrent
fathers (87%) and mothers (79%). Only approximately 6% of non-
recurrent and recurrent fathers appeared in s.31 proceedings with
more than 4 children.
Whilst there are age gaps between mothers and fathers, the age
gap is not associated with the risk of recurrence. As presented
in Table 1, fathers were slightly older than their partners, with the
majority having an age gap of less than 5 years (approximately
55%). Cases in which fathers were much older than the mothers
do exist, we found that approximately 21% of fathers were
between 5 and 9 years older than their partners, and 19% were
10 years or older, respectively. This pattern was equally noted
among both non-recurrent and recurrent fathers.
The prevalence of co-resident partners is different between
recurrent and non-recurrent parents. Recurrent fathers are more
likely to be living with their partners than non-recurrent fathers,
at the percentage points of 33% and 28% respectively. Recurrent
mothers were less likely to be living with their partners – 31% of
non-recurrent mothers and 26% recurrent mothers cohabit with
their partners respectively. These differences by recurrence status
were found to be statistically significant at the 0.1% level for both
mothers and fathers.
Policy and practice implications
The comparative assessment of the sociodemographic attributes
of non-recurrent and recurrent mothers and fathers in s.31 care
proceedings suggests that efforts to prevent parents’ recurrent
appearance in the family court could effectively target parents
who are at an early stage in their life course. The individual traits
between non-recurrent and recurrent parents do not seem to vary
by gender, although it is possible that the problems faced by non-
recurrent and recurrent parents may be gendered.
building a picture of fathers in family justice in england 13
2.5 Of the parents who return to court, there is a
substantial proportional that return with their
previous partner
Figure 2.3: Percentage
breakdown of who recurrent
mothers and fathers enter their
subsequent care proceedings
Recurrent fathers and mothers differ considerably in with whom
they return to the family court. However, despite gender differences,
a large percentage of parents return with their index partner.
Figure 3 describes the ways in which fathers and mothers return
to court: with the previous partner, a new partner, or an unidentified
partner. Approximately 36% of mothers and 75% of fathers return
to court with the same partners as in their previous cases. In other
words, there is a significant group of ‘recurrent couples’ who are
either remaining together or reunite across subsequent sets of care
Recurrent mothers are 1.8 times more likely than recurrent
fathers to return to the family court with a new partner. Within
five years of their previous court appearance, 41% of mothers, as
opposed to 23% of fathers, return to court with a new partner.
Mothers are 10 times more likely than fathers to return to
court with an unidentified partner. The high level of unknown
or unidentified fathers is a characterising feature of recurrent
mothers in s.31 proceedings. Within five years of their previous
court appearance, 24% of mothers return to the family court with
an unidentified partner. In contrast, as low as 2% of fathers return
with an unidentified partner. This gender asymmetry resonates with
findings from our focus groups, where it was stated that fathers are
often identified through mothers in s.31 proceedings.
building a picture of fathers in family justice in england 14
Policy and practice implications
The evidence of recurrent couples appears relevant as a crucial
factor in explaining recurrence for fathers, but also for a sizeable
proportion of mothers. This suggests there is a sizeable group of
parents (fathers and mothers) who may not currently be served by
the existing interventions for tackling repeat removals of children.
As three out of four recurrent fathers return to the family court
with the same partners, it seems important to develop a more
couple-focused response, which can both address individual needs
whilst also working with the couple and co-parenting relationship.
Whilst current mother-focused programmes such as PAUSE are an
important part of service development, our evidence suggests that
more and/or different ways of working are needed to respond to the
full picture of recurrence.
3 Challenges and issues in developing practice
with recurrent fathers: results from knowledge
exchange focus groups with social work
In June 2018, representatives from all participating Local Authorities
were invited to a Learning Network meeting. Three focus groups
were held with a total of 25 practitioners consisting of social
workers, managers, family support workers, social worker assistants,
and legal representatives. Of the 18 participating authorities, 16
were represented. The purpose was to firstly conduct focus groups
on the topic of working with recurrent fathers and secondly to share
initial results from our analysis of Cafcass court data. For a full
description of our methodological approach see Section A.4.
What follows is a summary of key themes and concerns discussed
by the groups. Direct quotations are used in places for illustration,
but no individual or authority is identified in the report.
The national service provision for fathers is patchy at
Services for fathers were generally seen as limited, tended to be
localised, reliant on short-term funding and/or the presence of
particularly committed individuals. There was acknowledgement
of the lack of post-removal services in terms of in-house provision,
commissioning and external organisations. Part of the discussion
focused on the lack of a link between children’s social care and
other provisions, where parental consent is needed for a referral
for services once children have been removed. “Mothers and fathers will
fall through the gap once
proceedings finish.”
(Head of Service)
Mothers and fathers will fall through the gap once proceedings finish.
There is nothing until you are pregnant with your next child. . . and
at the point when you have concluded proceedings trying to get their
engagement and consent [to refer to them to other services] can be
(Head of Service)
In addition, there was recognition that existing services tend to
focus on mothers. The growth of services for recurrent mothers,
building a picture of fathers in family justice in england 16
and in particular the PAUSE programme, was noted and debated in
terms of what the “active ingredients” might be, and whether such
services could, or should, be more father, or couple, inclusive.
This debate also reflected tensions around arguing for services
that engage and support fathers, without being seen as opposed
to, or in competition with, women-only services; a dilemma which
is even more difficult in the context of ongoing austerity. It also
identified the potential of a more couple-focused approach to
dealing with recurrence, alongside the tailoring of support in a
gender-sensitive way, including perhaps a bespoke service for men.
Practitioners noted that services available to recurrent fathers
are predominantly perpetrator programmes and/or accessible only
via the criminal justice system. Whilst being held accountable for
violent and abusive behaviour was thought to be crucial and a
commonly reported factor in recurrent cases, such services were
not felt to always be appropriate for recurrent fathers, or might not
address other significant vulnerabilities for example mental health,
past trauma or lack of stable housing. “We have nothing that
transcends across to
fathers around their own
(Social Worker)
We have nothing that transcends across to fathers around their own
needs, be it employment or education, or – we almost have got an
expectation that they will sort it out themselves really.
(Social Worker)
There are few examples of post-removal and pre-birth services
which explicitly set out to include fathers and include creative
thinking around adapting parenting programmes to the needs
of fathers without children in their care. However overall,
rehabilitative opportunities for recurrent fathers are limited,
incidental, or a postcode lottery.
There is complexity in developing rehabilitative work
with fathers at risk of losing multiple children to care
There was discussion of improving practice in the best interests of
children and the indication of a wish to include fathers as a matter of
principle. Some local authority representatives struggled to describe
any explicit motivations for rehabilitative work with recurrent
fathers. The wider view was that motivation to improve practice – in
order to directly support men’s parenting or to address longstanding
gender inequalities in parental childcare responsibilities – carries
limited strategic weight within local authorities.
More specific motivational factors included:
The high financial (and human) costs of public care.
The additional health and/or welfare needs of some children
born to recurrent parents.
The shortage of adoptive or long-term placements for children
with complex physical or emotional needs.
building a picture of fathers in family justice in england 17
The need for equity of service; in terms of positioning recurrent
fathers and mothers equally accountable, and in order to offer
equal opportunities for change and rehabilitation.
Whilst similarities were noted between the needs of recurrent
mothers and fathers; such as support with housing, employment,
mental and physical health or substance misuse, the view was also
that recurrent fathers often have particular issues with violence,
aggression and emotional regulation. It was acknowledged
that the distribution, design, and the routes into services have
gendered dimensions, which does affect the access that men have to
appropriate opportunities for change. For example, most perpetrator
programmes do not directly address fathering, and most parenting
programmes are not available to fathers without a child in their care. “It feels like a Catch 22.
(Legal Team Manager)
Sometimes that is the best time to do the work with the parents isn’t it,
when the kids aren’t at the family home. . . and yet on the flip side, it
may be that mum won’t attract this parenting course, or if it is a dad,
they may not get a place because they have not got the children, so
sometimes it feels like a Catch 22.
(Legal Team Manager)
There are perceived common characteristics of
recurrent fathers
A number of characteristics were attributed to fathers who reappear
in care proceedings, including: learning difficulties, out-of-home
care experiences, histories of violence and/or offending and
substance misuse. The view was that it is common for recurrent
fathers to have several or all of these characteristics.
In relation to learning difficulties and care experiences, some
practitioners noted the risks and vulnerabilities of couples where
both parties have these characteristics. However, it was also
noted that local authority services and systems tend to respond
to individuals, and to mothers in particular, rather than couples.
This constitutes one way in which fathers can be marginalised or
The focus groups also raised the issue of intergenerational
mobility in the care system, as children in care become parents
themselves and return to the system with their children. One
pertinent observation from a service manager was that histories
of local authority care and repeat removals could leave parents: “Systematically tired and
cynical of engaging in
assessment work.”
(Social Work Manager)
Systematically tired and cynical of engaging in assessment work. . . the
function of their behaviour is to be defensive and keep themselves out
of contact and out of view and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
(Social Work Manager)
There was discussion of current leaving care services in terms of
the extent to which pregnancy and parenthood are considered in
service provision and support offered. The consensus was that Care
Leavers’ services and the role of personal advisors do not always
respond to young adults as actual or potential parents:
building a picture of fathers in family justice in england 18
The focus becomes that young person in terms of the needs and the
accommodation, not that this young person is now going to become
a parent. . . and if they do, then again it focuses very much on young
women rather than young men.
(Social Work Manager)
In addition, the groups acknowledged that (young) men who
grow up without an involved father or father figure, or with
very negative experiences of being fathered, often have limited
understanding or capacity to enact responsible fathering. As a result
of this, these men would be expected to have a relatively stronger
emphasis on fathers’ breadwinning role and economic suitability
as a key part of their fathering capacity, and far less attention being
paid to care-giving.
There is a gendered attitude towards recurrence:
fathers are mostly seen as a risk factor while mothers
are mostly seen as being vulnerable
All three focus groups acknowledged a culture of risk aversion to
including fathers with certain characteristics, including substance
misuse, histories of childhood neglect/abuse, poor mental health or
offending behaviour. Yet where those same characteristics appear in
mothers, they are more likely to be responded to as “vulnerabilities”.
This is compounded by the prevalence of domestic violence or abuse
(DVA) as another factor associated with child maltreatment, and the
statistical pattern of a majority of “perpetrators” being men and the
majority of “victims” women.
Given that all the above characteristics are seen as associated with
recurrence, this suggests there may be a gendered attitudinal and
organisational response to recurrent mothers and fathers. This may
involve or include a different level of empathy, different expectations
in relation to accountability and capacity to change. Alongside this,
the focus group discussions also pointed to the enduring cultural
assumption that children “belong” with mothers, that mothers are
“primary” carers, and that the focus of services will be on mothers. “. . . we make her
responsible for his
(Social Work Manager)
Our traditional method of keeping children and women safe is to
make mum responsible for the family. . . so we make her responsible
for his actions.
(Social Work Manager)
Another practitioner concern regarding recurrent fathers
was described in terms of “roving” men who move in and out
of relationships without sustaining either partner, or fathering
relationships or responsibilities. This was often seen in the context
of interlinked, often deprived communities, where localities, families
or individuals can come to be seen as “notorious”. Paradoxically,
this suggests that both the presence and absence of a man in a
household can potentially be seen as troubling to social workers,
and as a risk to mothers and children.
building a picture of fathers in family justice in england 19
The focus groups revealed some awareness of the power of
extreme or memorable cases, which shape organisational thinking
and practice with recurrent fathers, something one social worker
described as “mythical storytelling”. The debate within the focus
groups was around the balance between acquired local knowledge,
which can lead to assumptions or preconceptions in relation to
recurrent fathers, versus the need for professional curiosity.
Practitioners go ‘don’t go, don’t do an alarm visit for that family, dad
is really aggressive’. . . so people are a bit reluctant to try and engage
the father then, because of the history. . . but that is not through their
own research or what they find out themselves – and it puts them off
(Social Worker)
Alongside this, there is little systematic data or information about
recurrent fathers; agencies often have no idea if a father is recurrent
until checks or assessments are made. Knowledge may only come to
light if the father has had contact with the police, other agencies, or
again is well-known anecdotally or locally.
Relationships continue to be seen as both a central part of the
problem of recurrence, and also part of a potential solution. Yet it
can be argued that the opportunities and constraints for forming
sustainable, safe relationships are different for fathers and mothers,
or indeed that factors mitigate against it differently, particularly
for vulnerable families. Different factors may be at stake when
relationships are formed or ended, including for example: benefit
entitlement, tenancies, childcare, emotional support, intimacy,
scrutiny from agencies or access to support. Taking account of
such differences may be valuable in terms of both building and
understanding the experience of recurrence for fathers.
Mothers and fathers are treated differently: fathers
have more opportunities to avoid engagement or have
their engagement limited
As the focus groups acknowledged, there is often a sense of fear
or suspicion of engagement among both mothers and fathers,
and particularly among those who have already had children
removed. Yet, how this fear is interpreted or responded to by
professionals may be different for fathers than for mothers, and
can be one example of the way fathers become excluded. Fathers
may be more likely to be seen as defensive or wilfully avoidant, and
indeed have more opportunities to avoid engagement given the
cultural and procedural focus on mothers. The group discussion
demonstrated that agencies may have different views or expectations
to fathers regarding what constitutes “engagement”, and without
transparency and clear communication an opportunity for
relationship building may be lost.
Maternal gatekeeping is frequently presented as a significant
barrier to professionals’ engagement with fathers; some mothers
building a picture of fathers in family justice in england 20
are reluctant to reveal the identity of fathers, others may refuse,
deny knowledge or only have last known address. Again, the
perceived prevalence of DVA in recurrent cases makes relying on
mothers as the route to fathers even more sensitive. Nonetheless,
there remained a sense that maternal gatekeeping was to some
extent inevitable and that jeopardising a working relationship with
mothers was a high-stakes option.
The focus groups discussed ways to address this issue, ranging
from the different mandate held by workers at different levels of
service, to changing the referral process, to fostering conversations
about why and how fathers’ information is important. For some, the
issue can be seen as another example of an organisational focus
on mothers, which can risk unfairly blaming them for fathers’
absence or abusive behaviour whilst also failing to protect them
from dangerous men. For others, the issue of reaching fathers was
framed in terms of children’s rights, and also the accountability of
agencies to do more to locate and engage fathers. “It isn’t just about
fathers. . . what about that
paternal family.”
(Social Work Manager)
It isn’t just about fathers – so if he is the notorious father that we
might rule out, what about that paternal family. . . I think equally
around life story work, but even if they can’t be in their paternal
family, children still have a right to have a connection.
(Social Work Manager)
The constraints a local authority has to work within
dictate the extent to which a father can be searched for
and worked with
Overall, the view was that there is commitment to, and some
improvement in, involving fathers in a timely way. However, there
was also debate around the shifting criteria, enabling or prohibitive
factors that may trigger activity to find or engage with fathers at
particular points in local authority processes.
To unpack this debate, two aspects of involving fathers seemed
prominent. One is the identification of fathers and obtaining of
contact details, family history and network; and the other is the
assessment of fathers as alternative carers for children. In terms of
notifying fathers of the local authority’s involvement and seeking
some form of communication with him about any process, the
view was that this is increasingly expected and sought at an early
stage. The main prohibitive factors still seem to be seen as mothers’
reluctance to share information, alongside practitioners’ sense of
‘mandate’ attached to different levels of service.
It is not until we are in a formal statutory process that maybe some of
them wider checks are done.
(Principal Social Worker)
In terms of how and when fathers are considered or included
in care planning for children when there are serious safeguarding
concerns, there was an acknowledgement of the potential for delay.
building a picture of fathers in family justice in england 21
This was seen to be due to the cultural and organisational tendency
to concentrate on the mother first, before seriously considering
fathers. In this way, fathers can appear as (or may feel themselves
to be) carers of last resort. “. . . if everything fails
then we look at other
options involving dads.”
(Social Worker)
I mean that is the reality on the ground, we work with mum first
and if mum is improving then there is a tendency that we don’t
look at dads to involve him as well. . . there is the general notion of
more pushes to the mum and if everything fails then we look at other
options involving dads.
(Social Worker)
Other issues discussed in relation to the timing of fathers’
involvement, particularly in the context of care proceedings were:
A lack of time needed to support a man to take on full time care
of his children - including encouraging him to see this as not just
possible but acceptable as a man.
A lack of time required to locate, engage and establish a working
relationship with fathers.
Often fighting against social disapproval, or wider attitudes about
gender and parenting, when they did try to support fathers,
particularly as alternative carers for children.
Parental responsibility acts as a gatekeeping or filtering
There was evidence from the focus groups of variation in how
parental responsibility can constitute either a gatekeeping or
filtering mechanism. For local authorities, the difficulties in
identifying fathers often pose challenges in terms of how, when,
and with whom to engage. They may encourage fathers to seek legal
advice but do not actively play a role in supporting fathers to obtain
PR. It was also felt that there can be reluctance from the family court
to include or consider men such as step-fathers, mothers’ partners,
or father figures.
Fathers PR status also appeared to impact differently on inclusion
at various stages of involvement with local authorities:
Early help stage: Workers often unsure whether to override
mother if she says father does not have PR.
Public Law Outline (PLO) and pre-proceedings stage: Mothers’
account of father’s PR questioned or pursued further.
Proceedings and court phase: PR status dictates nature or extent
of inclusion.
building a picture of fathers in family justice in england 22
The relationship between parental responsibility and
paternity is complex
Gendered legal infrastructures focus on biological paternity as a
means of allocating a man’s rights and responsibilities towards
a child. There is clearly also an important political history to the
respective legal rights and responsibilities conferred on mothers
and fathers. Yet it seems clear that whilst grounded in certain
biological aspects of certainty over parenthood, PR produces a level
of complexity around the criteria for, and experience of fatherhood,
which does not exist for mothers.
The focus group discussions demonstrated that the issue of
paternity is highly pertinent, in relation to acquiring the legal
status of parental responsibility and to the inclusion of men in pre-
proceedings and care proceedings.
Across the focus groups three categories of fathers appeared, each
representing a context where paternity was troubling:
Putative fathers: either for a single child or sibling group – where
men are known to agencies, but paternity has to be confirmed, or
where a social father needs to be acknowledged
“Notorious” fathers: where paternity is uncertain, in multiple or
simultaneous cases, the men may be known by some agencies but
are rarely engaged with any
Unknown and/or “too dangerous” fathers: (usually due to DVA
or other violent or sexual offences) – where paternity is uncertain,
the men are not involved with agencies, and there may be good
reason for excluding him from the child’s life.
Some further general issues were illustrated in the focus group
discussions, in relation to PR, one being that local authorities
cannot control how the law defines parental responsibility for men.
However, in terms of how and when PR is used and who counts
as a father, there was a shifting sense of power and accountability,
between agencies, the courts, fathers and mothers. “I work with young
women with their
babies and they are
hugely vulnerable. . . but
somewhere out there
are the fathers of these
(Manager of Pre-birth Service)
Secondly, the view was expressed that, in terms of recurrence
and repeat removals, there may be a significant group of children,
likely to grow up without knowledge of their biological fathers or
paternal family. This was seen as ethically complex and troubling for
all concerned.
I work with young women with their babies and they are hugely
vulnerable and they come from really traumatic experiences but
somewhere out there are the fathers of these children. . . so we are in
PLO without dads at all and then they are perhaps named and these
men are excluded rightly, wrongly, it is not for me to say, but there is
a generation of children who are going to grow up without biological
(Manager of Pre-birth Service)
building a picture of fathers in family justice in england 23
It is unclear whether a service for recurrent fathers
should mirror what is available for mothers or should
be more bespoke
The question was put to all three focus groups as to what kind of
offer might be developed for recurrent fathers. Certain common
elements were identified, along with a sense of the similarities and
differences between the needs of recurrent mothers and fathers, and
recognition of resource gaps for men. Some felt that a “mirroring” of
post-removal services for mothers was a useful direction, whilst
others felt that more bespoke or creative ways of working are
needed to avoid making assumptions about what works for fathers.
Summarised below are key features identified across the focus
Openness to responding to recurrent fathers as vulnerable (not
just “risky”).
A focus on “containment” and emotional regulation, particularly
in terms of how pain, loss and shame are experienced by men.
The adaptation of parenting support (not necessarily manualised
parenting programmes) for fathers without a child in their care.
A holistic or “wraparound” service, to respond to all aspects of a
father’s life.
A personalised or key-worker approach, to build trust and broker
links with other organisations who can help.
Some element of men-only space, and/or men-to-men peer
support, as a way to both challenge behaviour and facilitate
4 Next steps
The evidence and discussion points reported here will inform the
ongoing data collection and analysis as the research project moves
into its second and final year. We will continue working with the
Cafcass data to improve our understanding of fathers involved
in care proceedings, what is associated with their recurrence and
how that might differ from mothers. We will build on the picture
presented here by collating and comparing findings from the other
two elements of our project: the national survey of fathers in PLO
and proceedings, and the qualitative ‘keeping in touch’ study of
recurrent fathers.
The survey will provide information on fathers’ personal, family
and material circumstances, and on the local authority concerns and
intentions relating to his child’s case. This information will build
knowledge of the context and characteristics of fathers involved in
first and subsequent care proceedings. The qualitative study will
provide detailed case studies of the lives of a group of recurrent
fathers as they unfold over time. This insight will build the picture
of the vulnerabilities, risk and resilience factors and relationship
challenges that such fathers face and represent.
At this point, one take-away message which overlays the many
issues raised by the findings presented here, is the value of thinking
critically about gender, parenting and relationships. At the levels of
frontline practice, organisational strategy, and policy development,
there may be a need for greater sensitivity to how services construct
and respond differently to men and women, as fathers and mothers,
as well as holistically to them as couples. Professional curiosity and
gender sensitivity appeared to operate as constructive forces within
the focus group discussions; our suggestion then is that they may
be equally important resources for imagining and implementing
change in local authority practice with recurrent fathers. As stated at
the outset, the far-reaching costs of recurrent appearances in the
family court cannot be addressed without the fullest picture of
both the mothers and fathers involved. Therefore, it is crucial to
uncover and address the underlying interrelation between mothers
and fathers as they return to the court as couples.
A Methodology
A.1 Legal and ethical permission
Permission for the study was granted by Her Majesty’s Court and
Tribunal Service (HMCTS) and the Cafcass Research Governance
Committee. Ethical approval was also granted by the Association
of Directors of Children’s Services (ACDS), the University of East
Anglia and Lancaster University.
A.2 Research Questions
The following research questions framed this report:
1. What are the patterns and over-time trends of mothers vis-à-vis
fathers in s.31 proceedings?
2. What is the rate of recurrence for mothers and fathers? How do
they differ?
3. How do recurrent and non-recurrent mothers and fathers
compare in their individual, case-level and relational attributes?
4. What do Local Authorities consider the barriers and motivations
for working with fathers to be? And what are the possibilities for
service development?
A.3 Quantitative analysis of court data
Data source
In order to answer research questions one to three, we analysed a
data extract based on administrative records maintained by Cafcass
in England. Our data extract covered all care proceedings from fiscal
years ending March 31 from 2008 to 2018.
Analytical sample
In order to identify an analytical sample of mothers and fathers for
our analysis, we imposed several sample selection criteria. These
are summarised in Table A1 along with the resultant sample size
reduction and the percentage change with each additional criterion.
One omission from this sample, and from the administrative
records generally, are parents who were unidentified by the local
building a picture of fathers in family justice in england 28
Sample selection criteria N%
Parents 176,540 100.0
+ has gender 176,450 99.9
+ is not aged under 16 175,790 99.6
+ has at least one child aged 15 or less1174,280 98.7
+ is party2163,480 92.6
+ entered between 07/08 and 12/13377,470 43.9
Table A1: Sample selection
criteria for parents party to care
authority. Our dataset captures parents who have been made
respondents to care proceedings. The parents either have PR as
automatically recognised by the family court, or have successfully
applied to the family court to be made party.
1This sample was used to determine
the percentage and trend of fathers
being party to s.31 proceedings.
2This sample was used for measuring
total parents entering s.31 proceedings
each year, and for estimating the rate of
3This sample was used for comparing
non-recurrent and recurrent mothers
and fathers.
Sample 1 and analytical strategy
The analytical sample for the first research question includes all
parents who were party to care proceedings (N163, 480). The
outcome of interest was the duration between the start of index
care proceedings to the start of subsequent proceedings. Because
it is possible for proceedings involving different children of the
same parent to overlap, we used start-to-start time interval between
proceedings rather than the interval between the end of index
proceedings and the start of subsequent proceedings to measure
the timing of recurrence. Those who do not enter subsequent
proceedings were classed as “right-censored” with a duration equal
to the time between the start of their index proceedings and the end
date of our observation window (March 31 2018). Due to the varying
lengths each individual was observed, the Kaplan-Meier estimate
was used to calculate the cumulative incidence over time i.e. ‘the
risk of recurrence’, with mothers and fathers being included as two
separate strata. The cumulative incidence was then expressed as a
rate per 1,000.
Sample 2 and analytical strategy
For research questions two and three, parents who were party to
a first care proceedings between fiscal years 2007/08 and 2012/13
were selected for analysis (N77, 470), i.e. they had been
observed for at least five years. This helps us build a snapshot of
their recurrent profile at the five-year cut-off point. If a parent
entered a second set of care proceedings within five years of their
first proceedings, they were classified as ’recurrent’ as opposed to
’non-recurrent’. We then disaggregated recurrent and non-recurrent
parents by gender, which yielded four comparison groups, as
described in Table 1. Chi-squared tests were conducted to test for
statistical differences in our focal variables (1) between non-recurrent
and recurrent mothers and fathers, respectively, and (2) between
mothers and fathers within the non-recurrent and recurrent groups,
respectively. Significant differences were determined at the 0.1%
building a picture of fathers in family justice in england 29
Our analysis focused on the following variables measured
at index proceedings, percentage missing for each variable is
presented in Table A2: a parent’s age at the start of care proceedings,
number of children subject to the proceedings, age of the youngest
child involved in the proceedings, and whether one’s partner is
identified or unidentified. For those with identified partners, two
additional measures were also included: parent-partner age gap
and co-residential status. As a summary of the outcome of index
proceedings, the last legal order that was sufficient to close the
proceedings was measured. In cases of multiple legal orders, we
measured the order that resulted in the ‘highest’ removal which
were grouped as follows:
Returned home: Dismissed / Order of No Order
Parental care: Family Arrangement Order / Supervision Order
Extended family: Resident Order / Special Guardianship Order /
Care Arrangement Order
State care: Care Order / Secure Accommodation Order
Adoption: Placement Order
Variable Mothers Fathers
Parent’s age at start of proceedings 5.9 15.0
Number of children subject to proceedings 0.0 0.0
Age of youngest child subject to proceedings 0.0 0.0
Highest legal order group 0.0 0.0
Parent-partner age gap 12.4 16.0
Partner status 0.0 0.0
Co-resident with partner 14.5 17.2
Recurrent partner 0.0 0.0
Table A2: Percentage of
missing data for variables used
to compare non-recurrent and
recurrent mothers and fathers.
A.4 Focus groups of practitioners
In order to answer the first research question, we ran three focus
groups to seek the views of practitioners. There was also a wider
aim which was to generate research data that can be considered
alongside the perspectives of recurrent fathers themselves (from the
qualitative longitudinal element of our project).
Eighteen local authorities (LA) were already actively involved
in the research project and were invited to send up to three
representatives to take part in the focus groups. Within these
authorities, relationships were established with the research team,
and LA co-ordinators and facilitators for the research had been
The three focus groups were held in June 2018 in which 25
practitioners attended, representing 16 of the 18 local authorities.
building a picture of fathers in family justice in england 30
The participants were a mixture of social work managers, social
workers and family support practitioners. Within this there were
principal social workers, heads of service, team mangers, and
solicitors from local authority legal services.
Participants were asked for written consent, which included
consent for the discussion to be audio recorded. It was explained
that the recordings are stored securely, are shared only with the
research team, and that no individual or authority will be named in
any reporting. Each of the focus groups was one hour in length and
was facilitated by two members of the research team. In each focus
group, the following questions were asked:
What is the ‘profile’ of recurrent fathers?
Is there delay or ‘drift’ in including fathers?
Is there a need for greater clarity or consistency in how PR is
understood and applied in practice with fathers?
What are the motivations for your authority to do rehabilitative
work with recurrent fathers?
What would a service for recurrent fathers look like?
All three focus group discussions were audio recorded and
transcribed. The transcripts were summarised and analysed
thematically and these summaries were then shared and discussed
first by the researchers directly involved in the focus groups, and
then by the wider research team. This process involved identifying
issues that were prominent for the participants, but also those
which resonated with the wider research and policy context. A
final synthesis of the key issues raised in response to the questions
together with some exploration of the implications for practice was
then produced.
Brandon, M., Philip, G. & Clifton, J. (2017). Counting fathers in (full
research report). Retrieved from
Broadhurst, K., Alrouh, B., Yeend, E., Harwin, J., Shaw, M., Pilling,
M., . . . Kershaw, S. (2015). Connecting events in time to
identify a hidden population: Birth mothers and their children
in recurrent care proceedings in england. The British Journal of
Social Work,45(8), 2241–2260.
Philip, G., Clifton, J. & Brandon, M. (2018). The trouble with
fathers: The impact of time and gendered-thinking on
working relationships between fathers and social workers in
child protection practice in england. Journal of Family Issues,
... Previous research has shown that a sizeable proportion of this demand is generated by local authorities bringing the same mothers back into the family court (Broadhurst, Alrouh, et al., 2015;Broadhurst et al., 2017) Between 2008 and 2018, an estimated 29% of mothers entered a recurrent set of care proceedings after their previous appearances before the family courts (Philip, Bedston, et al., 2018), typically under the age of one (Broadhurst et al., 2018). ...
... Previous research has shown that a sizeable proportion of this demand is generated by local authorities bringing the same mothers back into the family court (Broadhurst, Alrouh, et al., 2015;Broadhurst et al., 2017) Between 2008 and 2018, an estimated 29% of mothers entered a recurrent set of care proceedings after their previous appearances before the family courts (Philip, Bedston, et al., 2018), typically under the age of one (Broadhurst et al., 2018). ...
... There are a number of programs targeting recurrent mothers and mothers at risk of losing children to care. However, the interest in understanding fathers' participation in or need for services has not yet sufficiently extended to fathers' involvement in care proceedings (Philip, Bedston, et al., 2018). Our evidence underlines the need to consider recurrence as a potentially couple or family experience, as well as illuminating its gendered and life course dimensions. ...
Full-text available
In the wake of a “national care crisis” in England, an increasing number of parents return to the family court as repeat respondents in care proceedings and lose successive children from their care. Despite considerable progress in understanding the trends and patterns of mothers’ (re)appearances in care proceedings, knowledge of fathers and of parents’ family relationships in recurrent care proceedings remains very limited. Whilst such relationships are fundamentally at stake in care proceedings, they remain largely unexplored. Analyzing population-level administrative data from the family courts in England (2007/08–2017/18, N = 25,457), we have, for the first time, uncovered a five-fold typology of family relations between mothers, fathers and children as they navigated repeated sets of care proceedings. We show that each identified profile is characterized by parents’ gender as well as distinctive life-course positions of the parents and children. Our findings show that a substantial number of fathers are ‘visible’ in care proceedings, and that the majority of those that return to court do so with the same partners and children, as part of either a recurrent family or recurrent couple. Mothers’ recurrence is characterized by their re-partnering experiences and lone appearances before the court. The results underscore the value of applying a relational approach in social work research and practice, to build a fuller picture of recurrent care proceedings. This research provides new evidence to inform the development of holistic, gender-sensitive and father-inclusive services in the English family justice system.
A pilot Family Justice Observatory for England and Wales is being launched in Spring 2019. Its overarching aim is to address concerns about the limited and uncertain place of empirical evidence in the family justice system. The Observatory will focus on providing intelligence about how the system is working, especially through the accelerated use of electronic population level data on family justice cases. Drawing on collaborative relationships between data providers and users, as well as policy and practice colleagues, the Observatory will improve collective understanding of the needs of children and families and how they are met by the family justice system. Decisions made in the family courts have lifelong effects on the lives of children and families. However, there is insufficient research evidence about the immediate and longer‐term outcomes of family court decisions as an international trend. Greater use of large‐scale datasets produced routinely by the family courts and related agencies can shed light on the impact of family court decisions, addressing questions of both transparency in family court practice and effectiveness. Administrative data refers to information about persons or organizational activity that is collected routinely by government, statutory, or other agencies. The advantages of using administrative data for socio‐legal research lie in sample size, electronic format, and that records often date back a number of years. Use of this data is an efficient means of generating intelligence about how family justice systems are working, and where researchers can be provided with safe access to anonymised records. Looking ahead, the further digitization of not only records but also services will create even richer data resources for socio‐legal research.
Full-text available
The lives of families entering the child protection arena may be shaped by a range of troubles, including material deprivation, physical and mental health problems, and substance misuse or domestic abuse. Despite the interest in whole family approaches, the issue of how professionals fail to work effectively with fathers is long-standing and resistant to change. This article illustrates challenges in building working relationships with men, including the challenge of avoiding binary thinking in the assessment of fathers as “risk” or “resource.” Drawing on our qualitative longitudinal study of men’s experiences of child protection in England, we highlight how both organizational (clashing time perspectives) and cultural (gendered-thinking) factors can trouble the potential relationship between social workers and fathers. We argue for a more gender sensitive approach to social work practice, which can respond more fully and effectively to the experiences of fathers and mothers.
Full-text available
There is international concern about the population of birth mothers who experience repeat court-ordered removal of children. This article reports the findings from a population profiling study that provides the first picture of the scale of women's repeat involvement in public law proceedings in England. Based on national records from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) (n = 43,541 birth mothers, 2007–14), two subsets of mother, child and legal proceedings data were created. The aims of the study were to:(i) produce a descriptive profile of recurrent cases, (ii) estimate the probability and timing of recurrence and (iii) examine the relationship between maternal age and recurrence. Quantitative analysis comprised descriptive statistics for profiling purposes and methods of survival analysis to estimate probabilities. Findings indicate that the family justice system recycles a sizeable percentage of women (24 per cent) through repeat episodes of care proceedings, with young women aged sixteen to nineteen years most at risk of recurrence. Implications for social workers and the family courts are outlined with reference to new innovations in England.
Counting fathers in (full research report)
  • M Brandon
  • G Philip
  • J Clifton
Brandon, M., Philip, G. & Clifton, J. (2017). Counting fathers in (full research report). Retrieved from