Seany O’Kane explains why he’s a champion for young fathers
—This is article #83 in our series of #100Voices4Men and boys
Time and time again when the subject of ‘young fathers’ is written about in the UK press, it’s not surprising to see words used such as ‘feckless’, ‘irresponsible’ or ‘absent’ to describe them. Scandalous headlines often conjured up by reporters who have a total disregard for how complex the lives of young dads are, in some cases, a teenager embarking upon parenthood with no knowledge of what it means to be a man, never mind be a dad.
If anything the use of the word ‘absent’ when discussing young fathers should be aptly described when discussing just how much lack of support exists for them.
As a specialist fatherhood practitioner, I dedicate my time to bettering the lives of young men who require such support in relation to their parenting. Several years ago my organisation wanted to bridge a gap that existed within children and young people’s services particularly in South London, a gap that failed to address the needs of fathers in social care, specifically younger fathers from much more disenfranchised backgrounds.
Mums get better services than dads
Services to help these young men were much less limited than those in place to help young mothers and what was hugely evident was when dads received support in the run-up to becoming a parent, they were more likely to be a prominent figure in their child’s life. Therefore minimising the socio-economical risk factors often associated with children growing up without a father present.
The work I carry out ensures that young fathers are provided with a tailored service, helping to address their parenting needs but even before I am able to get a young expectant dad to grasp his role in relation to fatherhood; it may be that he has other presenting factors that hinder his ability to appropriately safeguard his child.
For example, I have to assess each young father or expectants level of need and work with them to achieve their parental goals, but when dealing with challenges such as gang involvement, homelessness, domestic abuse and drug misuse to name but a few, it certainly makes the role of a fatherhood practitioner much more intricate.
One of the biggest obstacles I am likely to encounter throughout this area of work is not the engaging of the young men themselves in the service (if anything it is their sheer determination to want to have a relationship with their child that contributes to achieving outcomes in a much quicker timescale), but the difficulties that I face when working with external health and social care professionals to make changes to their practice.
Dads are part of the solution
Time and time again I witness young fathers whose children are part of a social care plan and yet they have not been asked to attend any child protection meetings arranged by social services to determine the outcome for their child. Young men in situations like this are left completely out of the picture suggesting that the local authority must view young fathers to be part of the overall ‘problem’ within social care.
Yet I know that when a dad is considered in the future of his child’s life, if he is part of a child protection plan and he himself is offered the right support to make changes for the better, his involvement can actually become a major part of the solution in the deciding factor of the child’s future.
The same can be said for young expectant fathers who are completely left out of antenatal care. I have assisted hundreds of young men who have expressed that they have never met their family midwife or ever received contact from her (in 2012 there were 132 practicing male midwives out of 20,000 registered in the UK).
Dads want to be involved
Despite this unsettling information, the one other thing that all these young men had in common was that they ‘did’ want to be included, that they wanted to be acknowledged as the equal parent and that they just wanted to be validated in some way by the health professionals who were in place to ensure their unborn baby was properly cared for.
It’s not uncommon for a midwife to carry out a home visit to a young couple’s home and for the young man to feel that he isn’t being included, that the midwife will focus all their attention towards mother and the unborn baby not even enquiring how he might be feeling or exploring what support he might benefit from. It’s common for young couples to undergo difficulties in their relationship following the birth of a baby often resulting in separation.
If the young man feels excluded as an equal parent right from the beginning and if he is being prevented from having contact with his child by the mother, the option to ‘walk away’ may appear to be in his best interests when in reality, given the chance he would like nothing more than to be there for his child, this applies to young dads I have assisted regardless of whether they are aged 14 or 25.
So what needs to change?
There needs to be a real cultural shift in the way health and social care throughout the UK considers the role of a young father in the lives of their children and to ensure that the appropriate education is offered to students training to become midwives, social workers, health visitors etc. so that they have a genuine understanding for father-inclusive practice.
The end result will mean more confident health practitioners and more young fathers feeling included and equal in their child’s lives regardless of whether or not they are in a relationship with the child’s mother. This will result in less children being separated from their fathers and contributing to overall healthy child development. Happier healthier children will mean a much happier healthier society for all of us. After all isn’t that what we all want?
Seany O’ Kane is fatherhood practitioner at the St Michael’s Fellowship.
You can find all of the #100Voices4Men articles that will be published in the run up to International Men’s Day 2014 by clicking on this link—#100Voices4Men—and follow the discussion on twitter by searching for #100Voices4Men.
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