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Inside Track: Time to speak up for the rights of fathers

Why does a request made this week by Families Need Fathers Scotland seem implausible?

"Fathers in Scotland would appreciate enormously a speech by the First Minister or senior ministers that unequivocally spoke with warmth and enthusiasm about the overwhelmingly positive contribution of fathers to the care and welfare of Scottish children, without ... the need to view parenting by fathers through the prism of child protection," the support charity said.

This is part of a submission to the Equalities Committee from the organisation, which is largely free of quite such emotional appeals. Instead it sets out simply and persuasively the range of barriers and outright suspicions separated fathers can face. Some schools - not all - will not communicate with a non-resident parent. This is usually the father - only an estimated 8% of Scotland's 165,500 single parents are dads. Hospitals may deny information about treatment, GPs surgeries likewise, and fathers often feel they have to prove themselves, even if they have been actively involved in their children's lives before separation.

John Forsyth, of Families Need Fathers (FNF) Scotland, says: "We often hear [them saying]: 'I felt I was assumed to be guilty of something, but the stronger I argued my case to carry on being the father to my kids, the more I could see suspicion in their eyes.'"

Fathers talk about the court process being profoundly shocking, feeling as if they are on trial and can only have contact if they can prove their worth.

Why is there an immediate suspicion levelled at non-resident dads? FNF itself faces similar caution. Some people will still assume they are connected with groups of militant dads from down south, who dress up as superheroes and abseil prominent buildings. They are not.

Neither are they alone in having concerns about the attitudes of some services. One Parent Families Scotland, in its submission to the same committee's inquiry, says: "UK research on services for families found many are very gendered and make assumptions about the role of fathers."

Research supports these concerns, according to Dr Gary Clapton, of Edinburgh University's School Of Social Work, an expert in fatherhood and fathers. He argues social services should work more with dads and says there is evidence that involvement with fathers is beneficial for children, particularly vulnerable children, and could save money in residential care costs.

One key question is whether legislation or policy change would help, though. Dr Clapton has recently surveyed education, welfare and policy documents in Scotland and found an interesting pattern. "It is striking how absent men are from depictions of families," he says. From the Government's early-years framework to the leaflets on offer in GP waiting rooms, much official literature helps reinforce one idea: "The default position is that children are women's responsibility and men are optional extras."

Strikingly, he says, a lot of social work literature will refer to mum and the father, sometimes in the same sentence. While such subtle distinctions permeate official attitudes, it is a shift in social attitudes that is needed, not legislative change. Perhaps fathers really do need that speech from the First Minister.

Contextual targeting label: 
Families

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