6 tips for engaging with fathers with a history of domestic abuse

Sharing the experience learnt from the evaluation of the Caring Dads: Safer Children programme

Dad playing with young boy in the garden

Caring Dads: Safer Children is a programme for fathers who have ongoing contact with their children but who have been domestically abusive. It uses the participants’ positive role as a father to motivate them to examine and change their behaviour.

Some fathers may be resistant to engage with services due to their previous experiences. A major challenge is how to encourage these fathers to stay with the programme. So we asked some practitioners to share their tips on what works to engage fathers. 

1. Have a positive, non-judgemental attitude

Attitude can be as important as experience. Being positive, non-judgemental, open-minded and believing that people can change their behaviour is essential. It not only helps who you're working with but it can also help you to remain motivated to work with difficult situations.

"You have to be open-minded...you need to have an awareness, but that awareness shouldn’t [affect] how you work with them and it’s always key to keep the focus that you’re working with the child invariably through the father."
Group facilitator

2. Show empathy

It's important to build a working relationship that'll help the father and the child. Practitioners need to show that they understand the father but not excuse or collude with his abusive behaviour.

Fathers that attend a programme are often negatively perceived by the public and statutory services. Practitioners need to show an awareness of how life experiences have influenced the father's views and expectations of:

    • maleness
    • the role of a partner
    • being father.

But they must also hold him to account for his abusive behaviour and the negative impact on his child and the child's mother.

3. Focus on the child’s needs

Keeping focus on the father’s child helps to retain a neutral stance. It also helps to challenge fathers who try to minimise the effect their behaviour has had on their children.

For example if a father says: “But, the child was upstairs”, this can provide an opportunity to bring in the child's experience and to share knowledge about the impact of domestic abuse on children.

"...the child may not see it happen to the mother but sees the black eye the next day, and what is the child thinking after that?"
Group facilitator

4. Identify positive reasons for changing

Motivational interviewing techniques help guide conversations so that fathers become more committed to changing their behaviour. 

They help the father to identify positive reasons for changing that will help their child. For example if a father shows respect for his child’s mother his child feels less ‘torn’ between both parents.

5. Recognise if he's ready to change

It's important to be skilled in assessing whether the father is ready to participate in the group at that particular time.

You need to recognise the father's stage within the change process. Consider whether he has:

    • demonstrated that he has begun to reflect on his behaviour
    • provided some insight in terms of identifying changes he needs to make
    • recognised and taken some responsibility for his domestically abusive behaviour.

6. Reflect on your own practice 

Making sure that you work with fathers regularly will increase your confidence in how to speak to them and help you become more familiar with their concerns.

It's important to keep up-to-date with changes in relation to domestic abuse. This includes being aware of abusive use of social media and how diversity can impact on awareness and understanding of domestic abuse.

Our evaluation found that fathers' motivation at the beginning of the programme usually determined how far they progressed through the change process.

It suggests that group programmes with practitioners who are skilled in motivating and engaging participants will be more effective and better at protecting children.

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