Caring Dads is a voluntary program and importantly does not meet the criteria for an accredited Men’s Behaviour Change program. Caring Dads is however, able to work with clients who may be involved with the criminal justice system or who may have current, active Child Protection court orders.
We are sometimes asked about offering, or developing, separate Caring Dads groups for men who have mistreated their children and those who have exposed their children to abuse of their mothers. The reality is that there is considerable overlap between men’s perpetration of family violence and both their physical abuse and neglect of children.
Edleson’s (1999) review of the literature concluded that there is a 30 to 60% overlap of family violence and child physical abuse perpetration; a range that has been confirmed in subsequent reviews (e.g. Jouriles, McDonald, Slep, Heyman & Garrido, 2008) and on the basis of Canadian representative samples (e.g., Hamby, Finkelhor, Turner & Ormrod, 2010). In our clinical samples of men (from Canada), the degree of overlap is even higher with as many as three quarters of Caring Dads fathers having problems with both their relationships with their partners and with their relationships with their children (Scott et al., 2007). Given the overlap in these two presenting issues, we recommend that fathers who have mistreated their children and those who have exposed their children to family violence be treated together.
There is ongoing debate in the field on the best time to offer Caring Dads to men who have abused women, and more generally, on the relationship between Caring Dads and programs for family violence. Given the complexity of situations presented by men, women and children, we recommend against blanket restrictions (e.g. Caring Dads only after intervention for family violence) or invitations to service (e.g. all fathers in high conflict divorces) on the basis of any one feature of a man’s situation.
Instead, we recommend that there be open conversation between Caring Dads and other family violence intervention programs to facilitate easy referral from one to the other and that, in any individual case, the circumstance of men, women and children be assessed and considered to determine the course of intervention. One consideration is timing. The faster that we can engage high-risk fathers in interventions that involve assessing and monitoring their abusive behaviour in their families the better; so for men who are perpetrating violence against their children and their children’s mothers, referral will sometimes depend on which service they can access first.
A second consideration is accountability. Men are sometimes Court-ordered to attend a family violence intervention program, and we would never “substitute” Caring Dads for such a condition but rather recommend concurrent (in cases of moderate or high risk) or sequential service provision.
A third consideration is the nature of men’s presenting problems and of available referral streams. There are many families identified by child protection services, family courts, child and family mental health and fathering programs where men’s past perpetration of family violence is of concern. These men generally do not (and in some cases, cannot) access family violence intervention programs, particularly when men’s abuse has not been physical or included threats to his partners’ safety (i.e. emotional and verbal abuse only). Although for some of these men (i.e. men actively engaged in ongoing abuse of women), immediate referral to programs addressing abuse of women may be necessary, other men may be able to benefit from Caring Dads without having first completed a program specific to abuse in the intimate relationship. An example is cases where there is a documented history of family violence (and an absence of intervention), but where fathers are now the sole caregivers to children and where children’s mothers are not, or minimally, involved with their children.
Given the connection between the safety and wellbeing of mothers and that of children, it seems critical to understand and incorporate women’s perspectives on Caring Dads and other programs addressing parenting with abusive men. Pioneering programs have been vigilant to this concern, and most have involved women’s advocates as part of program development.
For example, Caring Dads was developed with a community advisory committee that included representatives from shelters, women’s advocacy services, child welfare, family court and child and family mental health services. However, a growing body of research on mothering in the context of family violence suggests that “hearing” women’s voices on the value and potential harm of parenting interventions for men who abuse is likely to be much more complex. Women who are abused face numerous unique challenges in mothering (e.g., Létourneau, Fedick & Willms, 2007; Levendosky & Graham-Bermann, 2001).
For example, Lapierre (2010) documented that abused mothers hold an increased sense of responsibility in regards to their children, and do so in the context of fairly significant loss of control over mothering due the impact of family violence on women’s physical and mental health, on the dysregulation of children’s behaviours and, sometimes, due to the multiple and conflicting social services involved in women and children’s lives. Importantly, Lapierre (2010) also documented the centrality of mothering in men’s violence. Women explained that men routinely used mothering as a target in their violence (e.g. by frequently criticising women for being bad mothers or by using or threatening to use violence against the children as a way to impact women’s parenting).
Caring Dads facilitators need to be vigilant to these concerns, monitor and assess them as part of mother contact and, to the extent possible, ensure that men’s participation in Caring Dads does not reduce mothers ability to advocate for safety for her children.
(In the three year Victorian trial, women are being requested to participate in The University of Melbourne’s evaluation).
Groups differ enormously in their goals, functioning and organisation. In an attempt to standardise understanding of groups and to develop reasonable training standards, the Association of Specialists in Group Work (ASGW) delineated major group types, two of which are relevant to understanding Caring Dads: psycho-educational and counselling/interpersonal problem-solving groups. Psycho-educational groups are those designed to give participants relevant information and skills, accompanied by the encouragement of interpersonal discussion and sharing, in order to enhance their understanding, development and decision making so that future problems are prevented. Most parenting groups are psycho-educational in nature. Psycho-educational groups are generally time-limited and focused on specific knowledge and skills-based goals.
Focus is generally limited to current problems (rather than issues from the past) and there is limited attention to the transference or counter-transference amongst members. Individuals skilled in leading psycho-educational groups are those who are knowledgeable about the problem area and skilled in imparting information and skills that match the group’s needs. Good psycho-educational group leaders are also able to mesh dynamics of the group with content so that the groups maintain an interpersonal, rather than a lecture or purely educational tone. Counselling/interpersonal problem-solving groups, in contrast, are designed to help group participants to resolve the unusual, yet often difficult, problems of living through interpersonal support and problem solving. Leaders of counselling groups achieve these goals with the deliberate use of major therapeutic strategies and techniques for problem resolution.
Counselling groups are also distinguished from psycho-educational groups in the attention paid to working appropriately with disruptive group members and with being aware of, and responsive to, interpersonal dynamics within the group. In other words, whereas leaders of psycho-educational groups aim to impart knowledge and skills that their clients can apply, leaders of counselling groups aim to make change in key aspects of their clients’ emotions, thoughts or behaviours.
Fundamentally, Caring Dads is a counselling/interpersonal problem-solving group – not a psycho-educational group. The overall aim and purpose of Caring Dads is to promote change in level of risk that fathers pose to their children’s safety and wellbeing. To achieve this change, the program makes deliberate use of motivational enhancement counselling strategies and of cognitive behavioural intervention to identify and counter men’s risk-related automatic cognitions. Caring Dads also make use of education and skills building, as is common in psycho-educational groups; however, even this education is provided with the intent to promote a shift in men’s currently problematic patterns of relating to their children and families. This important distinction informs all aspects of running Caring Dads, from the point of intake until the completion of final reports.
The decision to run for 17 weeks was fairly arbitrary, representing the program developers’ best compromise on covering necessary material and respecting cost restraints. Subsequently published meta-analysis of the literature on parent interventions for populations at-risk for abuse and reviews of fatherhood programs are consistent in concluding that treatments lasting a minimum of three months are associated with greater gains than shorter ones (Bronte-Tinkew et al., 2007, Lundahl et al., 2006). There is, however, no consensus on an optimal treatment length and some evidence that treatments that last for a year are more effective than shorter-term (i.e. two to three months) interventions (Skowron & Reinemann, 2005).
A frequently arising question about Caring Dads is whether it should be paired with concurrent intervention with mothers and children; and particular, whether mothers should be receiving similar messages about parenting. Female partners of men referred to Caring Dads have very wide ranging needs, a few of whom might benefit from concurrent intervention but many of whom would be better served by existing programs and resources.
We do include an assessment of risk in our intake process. At the onset, it is worth acknowledging that risk assessment is a fairly complicated science and that, to date, there are no risk assessment instruments designed to assess men’s risk of mistreating children. It is also important to note that
the vast majority of risk assessments capture static risk, not dynamic risk – in other words, they can tell you something about the overall likelihood of a man’s risk, but not about whether his risk at this moment in time is escalating or decreasing. One response to this lack of information is to take the position that, since we cannot be sure that we are assessing risk accurately, it is best to avoid assessment of risk altogether. Although this may be a reasonable position in the court system, we deem it poor practice clinically. Professionals involved with Caring Dads are working towards improving the safety and well-being of children. They benefit from having knowledge and understanding about what we do know about men’s risk, even if its application is not perfect.
There have now been a number of studies of very serious or lethal father-child mistreatment. For example, Cavanagh, Dobash & Dobash (2007) examined data from 26 cases of fatal child abuse perpetrated by fathers, Yampolskaya and Greenbaum (2009) examined characteristics and profiles of 196 male child abuse perpetrators in Florida including 126 who committed fatal assaults, and Coohey (2006) identify factors that predicted recidivism among physically abusive fathers. The results of these studies suggest that risk for this population might best be captured by an assessment for family violence (such as the SARA which captures risk for general criminality, risks relevant to mental health and risks specific to intimate partner violence), supplemented with the following indicators:
The program creators recommend to agencies running Caring Dads is to first look to men’s referral sources for level of risk already assessed. Ideally, men will have a risk assessment on file that captures general criminal risk, risk for family violence or risk for child mistreatment. Agencies can then supplement that risk assessment with questions on domains not yet covered. How and when this additional information is collected will need to be determined by each agency. Gathering additional information might be part of the intake discussions. Men might provide some of this information via self-report, or some might be gathered from the referral source. We also suggest that individuals across agencies think about the dynamic factors that influence risk for a particular father and child. Hence, it is useful for the referral to speculate on circumstances and conditions likely to increase and decrease risk for this client. Once all the information is collected, it can be used to help guide the level of monitoring and the urgency of response necessary for an individual client.
In the Caring Dads program, we do talk with men about child misbehaviour. However, unlike many parenting programs that teach a set of strategies to use when children misbehave, we encourage program participants to think more broadly about their relationship with their children. We do this because we believe that a parent can only be effective in managing child misbehaviour in the longer term if he has developed a strong and healthy emotional connection with his child. It is this relationship that forms the foundation necessary for effective discipline.
The diagram we use to represent this is the “Compliance Pyramid“. The pyramid represents the layers and factors that contribute to whether a child does or does not respond to a specific request or instruction in a way that a parent desires. The point of the pyramid analogy is that child compliance is multi-determined and that factors not immediate to the situation have a large role in determining child compliance. In other words, parents need to build up to child compliance layer by layer, starting with a good relationship, moving to positive beliefs, and so on. Even great parenting skills and child management strategies (top layers of pyramid) will not be effective if the bottom of the pyramid is eroded – if the quality of relationship between fathers and their children is poor. For this reason, in Caring Dads, more time is spent building fathers’ relationships with their children and exploring their beliefs than on developing immediate solutions for child management challenges.
We have decided to focus our intervention efforts on fathers alone because there is a general lack of parenting programs available to men. It is our belief that fathers can and often do play a very important role in their children’s development and that programs should be available to help men improve their parenting.
The Caring Dads program in Victoria will be evaluated in conjunction with the University of Melbourne. This evaluation will lead into a broader evaluation by the University of Toronto. See Program Efficacy.