Podium: A new vision for absent fathers

From a speech made to the Commonwealth Fund by its Harkness Fellow
MANY NON-RESIDENT fathers want to remain active players in their children's lives, but to date our culture and our policies have not encouraged this. The 1991 Child Support Act makes fathers financially responsible for their children but has had little to say about their role as caretakers and custodians of their children's future. Partly as a a consequence, many non-resident fathers feel excluded from their children's lives and cope with this by reneging on their child support payments or becoming increasingly distanced from their children, a process with adverse consequences for the health of both parties.

As the perverse effects of the Act come to the fore, pressure to increase child support collections will increase as attention turns to tackling child poverty and reducing financial costs to the state. We should anticipate the adoption of vigorous child support enforcement techniques such as aggressive campaigns to establish paternity, revocation of drivers' licences for non-payment of child support, and naming and shaming advertisements modelled on the American experience.

Pressures to reform the system will also mount because of awareness in the policy-making community of the financial and emotional costs incurred when fathers are not present in the lives of their children. As boys continue to underperform in schools, attention is already turning to the causes of male under-achievement and to the impact of fathers' absence on boys.

Measures aimed at strengthening the ties that bind non-resident fathers to their children will rise to the top of the domestic policy agenda. Today's Government speaks the rhetoric of deadbeat dads and emphasises only the financial responsibilities of non-resident fathers; tomorrow's policy debate will emphasise fathers' nurturing responsibilities as well.

Pressure will mount for policy-makers to develop "one-stop shopping", a single point of access whereby everything related to the breaking up of a household - finance, access and issues related to parental visits - can be dealt with holistically, regardless of the marital status of the couple concerned. Resources should also be directed to low-income non-resident fathers, through targeted welfare to work schemes, including personal and social skills training. At the same time, we should expect to see tougher rules for those fathers who can pay, but won't pay. A number of American states are already experimenting with such approaches.

If their experience is anything to go by, tomorrow's policy-makers will be changing their own assumptions, bringing fathers into the family equation in unprecedented ways. The direction of family policy, which has historically marginalised fathers and concentrated on the mother/child dyad, will have to be reframed, the emphasis as much on shifting gender cultures within the bureaucracies, and the culture at large, as on programmes and policies.

Policy-makers will need to retain women's confidence. Women who have had negative experiences with their men are often reluctant to allow them back into their lives. However, innovative "team parenting" initiatives in America have achieved some success in involving fathers and mothers as stakeholders in their children's future. Multi-agency fatherhood task forces at community and national level could become commonplace in Britain, as could media awareness campaigns actively promoting the virtues of involved fatherhood, and involving sports figures, a technique used to great effect in America with such catchy headlines as "Fatherhood is a contact sport" and "Be a hero to your child. Pay child support".

Popular culture has best captured the emotional landscape of non-resident fathers. The Hollywood movie Mrs Doubtfire is emblematic of the plight of many middle-class dads. In a clever inversion of the Victorian "guilty wife" who returns in disguise as a governess to see her children, the male character played by Robin Williams is reduced to dressing up in drag and masquerading as a nanny as the only means of gaining meaningful access to his children.

Closer to home, the working-class hero of The Full Monty takes a job as a male stripper to pay his ex-girlfriend child support which will enable him to continue seeing his son. In the end he discovers a new masculinity by proving to his disgruntled ex that he can be a responsible father.

Here we see men rejecting cultural stereotypes, and finding innovative ways of maintaining their relationships with their children. Policy- makers should capitalise on these value shifts in the future.