1. Priority must be given to the safety and well-being of children or fathers’ involvement in intervention should have the potential to benefit children regardless of men’s progress, or lack of progress, in making change.
The first and most important principle guiding our work is the priority given to the safety and well-being of children. Fathers who are in Caring Dads have already acted in ways that are abusive towards members of their family, thereby demonstrating a failure to make decisions in the best interests of their children. Accordingly, a response is needed that can simultaneously offer intervention to fathers, monitor their progress in making better parenting decisions, and contribute to efforts to ensure child safety and well-being. In practice, adhering to this principle requires that Caring Dads facilitators maintain open communication with professionals who have referred fathers to the group, that they write final reports evaluating men’s progress towards the goals of Caring Dads, and that they are prepared to help fathers reduce their risk to children. Although in most cases, risk reduction can be achieved while maintaining the father-child relationship, facilitators also remain open to the possibility that the best outcome for some fathers and children may be further restriction or monitoring of father-child contact or for fathers to gracefully exit children’s lives.
2. Abusive fathers are seldom initially ready to make changes in their parenting so systems must be prepared to address clients whose motivation for change is low.
Mistreating parents typically do not seek intervention voluntarily. Instead, the population of abusive, neglectful and violent fathers targeted as clients for Caring Dads often feel that they have been unfairly labelled and targeted. They are also often profoundly distrustful of a treatment system that can limit their contact with their children and may have already done so. We have come to recognise that in order for treatment to have any potential to reduce men’s risk of re-assault, fathers need to attend the program. Thus, our first goal must be to work to engage men and to increase their motivation to change. Adhering to this principle requires that Caring Dads develops relationships with referrers who can strongly encourage or mandate men to attend the group and facilitators of Caring Dads become skilled in therapeutic strategies such as motivational interviewing that promote men’s engagement.
3. Children’s safety and well-being is intrinsically connected to that of their mothers or you can’t be a good father and a disrespectful, abusive partner.
As has been convincingly documented in the empirical literature, child exposure to domestic violence has negative effects on children’s development. Moreover, men’s perpetration of domestic violence is related to more chronic, severe and potentially lethal child abuse.
Accordingly, Caring Dads commits to examining men’s fathering and relationships with their children in the contexts they occur, frequently that of abuse of children’s mothers. Practically, this means that one of the goals of Caring Dads intervention must be to end men’s abuse of children and their mothers and to increase their respectful and non-abusive interactions and that during intervention, children’s mothers are contacted to ensure safety and freedom from coercion. Finally, given the overlap between the abuse of children and women, Caring Dads should be actively partnered with services for women to ensure the program remains responsive to the perspectives, goals and potential safety needs of victimised women.
4. Intervention programs must identify and address appropriate targets for change, in particular, men’s lack of child centredness.
A critical starting point of intervention with mistreating fathers is an accurate characterisation of this population and, by extension, the identification of appropriate targets of intervention. Unfortunately, there has been very little research on the characteristics and needs of fathers who have been abusive, neglectful or violent in their families. However, based on clinical descriptions and on the few studies that have been done, focus in Caring Dads is on addressing men’s empathy with their children, abuse-supporting cognitions, respectful, non-abusive co-parenting or parallel parenting with children’s mothers, reliance on control-based parenting approaches, accountability for past abuse and sense of entitlement in parenting. This focus contrasts with the organising assumptions and aim of most group-based parenting programs that see a deficit in child management skill (e.g. giving good instructions, setting and following through on consequences) as an important target of intervention. Caring Dads has made a principled commitment to avoid child management intervention targets in favour of addressing more fundamental disturbances in father’s attitude towards, and relationships with, their children.
5. Because abusive fathers have eroded their children’s emotional security, the need to rebuild trust will affect the pace of change and potential impact of relapse on the child.
A primary need of children who have been mistreated is a sense of physical and emotional safety in their current surroundings and relationships. This is an element of all trauma treatments, and it is thought to be necessary for providing a framework in which children can heal. Practically, this means that, first and foremost, abusive fathers need to stop abusing their children and that Caring Dads needs to propel them towards this goal. It is only when fathers are able to provide a consistently non-abusive environment that children’s sense of emotional security can be rebuilt. Adhering to this principle also means that children should have some power to make choices about forgiveness and reconciliation. Thus, a component of ensuring child safety is to work with fathers, referral agents and sometimes other professionals in the system to ensure that children are empowered to contribute to decisions about level of contact with their fathers and have their fathers disengage from their often intense efforts to reunite the family as fast as possible.
For more information, see the following articles:
Scott, K .L. & Crooks, C. V. (2004). Effecting change in maltreating fathers. Clinical Psychology: Science & Practice, 11, 95-111.
Scott, K. L. & Crooks, C. V. (2006). Intervention for abusive fathers: Promising practices in court and community responses. Juvenile and Family Court Journal, 57(3), 29-44.