We spoke to Matt Tattersley, Project Manager at the Caring Dads Programme in Leeds, about their motivational approach to addressing fathers’ abusive behaviours within families.
What is Caring Dads and what are the core components of the programme?
Caring Dads is a 17-week group programme for fathers who have been abusive to their partners or children; have weekly contact with their child; and have demonstrated some motivation to change their behaviour. The model is informed by research which indicates that men are more likely to engage in services to address harmful behaviour if doing so will benefit their relationship with their children.
The approach is designed to develop trust with the fathers involved, encourage them to reflect on the drivers of their behaviours, increase their awareness of the harmful consequences of their behaviours, and then to help them take responsibility for their actions by focusing on what they need to do for their children to feel safe and happy.
Motivational Interviewing, an approach designed to support people by harnessing their internal motivation for change, is at the heart of the Caring Dads programme. The programme also supports fathers toward change by incorporating child-centred parenting, cognitive behavioural therapy, and solution-focussed approaches.
To ensure the safety of the whole family, Caring Dads uses a collaborative case holder model in which an active case holder (usually the referrer) assumes safeguarding responsibilities for the family and can attend meetings, monitor and manage risk, respond to any safeguarding concerns identified by the Caring Dads team, and alert Caring Dads to any new safeguarding concerns. About 90% of Caring Dads’ referrals come from children’s social work teams for child protection-involved fathers. The remaining 10% come from a combination of probation, family support teams, or occasionally a pastoral support team within a school.
What is the evidence behind Caring Dads?
There is promising evidence that participation in Caring Dads leads to behaviour change among fathers and reduced risk to children and families. A 2017 study covering five Caring Dads centres in the UK found that risks to children appeared to reduce post-programme, with fewer reported incidents of domestic abuse from fathers and their partners. Fathers reported reduced parenting stress and improved interactions with their children, and children and partners described positive changes in fathers as well. Similarly, an Australian study based on fathers’ self-reports, mothers’ reports of fathers’ behaviour, and direct observation of fathers found promising evidence of behaviour change among Caring Dads participants across multiple indicators, including recognition of problematic behaviour, implementation of tools to interrupt harmful behaviours, and embedding positive and respectful parenting practices. Evidence also indicates that behaviour change is more likely to be sustained over time: a Canadian study found that, over the course of two years, fathers who completed Caring Dads were more likely to remain engaged and in contact with child protection workers, with significantly lower rates of re-referral when compared to fathers who did not receive an intervention.
What topics does Caring Dads cover and what does a typical session look like?
Caring Dads is split into four overarching goals that progress throughout the 17-week programme:
- The first goal is to create a safe space for fathers to be open. This approach recognises that before fathers can talk about their behaviours, they need to feel safe to share things that likely make them feel shame and guilt. This first phase of the programme focuses on enhancing men’s motivation to engage and avoiding dropout.
- The second main goal is to increase men’s understanding of child-centred parenting. This phase is educational and strengths-based, focusing on child development and helping fathers understand what children need at various developmental stages.
- The third goal is about addressing abusive and neglectful fathering, and is usually the most intense and challenging phase of the programme. Caring Dads uses cognitive behavioural therapy approaches to ask men about their thinking and feeling patterns. Each father takes a turn going through, in depth, the thinking and feeling patterns driving their behaviours. Although this can be very hard to talk about, there is typically a degree of trust and safety by this point in the programme, which makes sharing and reflecting among participants possible.
- The final goal is acceptance of the harm caused and identifying what rebuilding trust looks like for each family. This phase explores how to sustain the changes that the men are making, including by working with facilitators to identify ‘what’s next’ in terms of continued service engagement.
Although each week’s session will be different, the Caring Dads programme follows a roughly similar structure each session. First, the session begins with a check-in. During the check-in, fathers are encouraged to talk about their interactions with their children each week, sharing what has been working well and what has been challenging. There are usually one or two main exercises, which may be some combination of personal exercises (i.e. men sharing about their personal experiences) or educational sessions about a topic like child development and child-centred parenting. At the end of the session, there is a ‘check-out’ and men are given tasks to complete at home.
What is the history behind the Caring Dads programme in Leeds?
The Caring Dads model was developed in Canada in 2001, and came to Leeds in 2014 after Dave Evans, the male lead at the Leeds Domestic Violence Service, identified a gap in work being done with fathers who had caused harm within their families. He was interested in finding a model or strategy to work with fathers more productively, and came across Caring Dads. At the time, Caring Dads had been introduced in the UK and was being delivered in various boroughs of London, but was still in its infancy. After researching the model, the Leeds Domestic Violence Service obtained funding to deliver a series of pilot programmes of Caring Dads in Leeds. After a favourable evaluation of the pilot, a permanent Caring Dads team was created in 2016, which is housed within the Children and Families directorate.
Since the inception of the programme in 2014, 401 fathers have accessed Caring Dads in Leeds. Recognising that the Caring Dads programme might not meet the diverse needs of everyone, further interventions have since been developed by the Leeds team, including: the Journey Project, a one-to-one intervention for Black Asian and Minority Ethnic fathers; +1, a group intervention for younger fathers aged 16-24; and stop gap support, one-to-one work that started during the pandemic but has since continued.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the Caring Dads approach?
Before the pandemic, all Caring Dads programmes were face-to-face. During lockdown, Caring Dads had to re-assess its delivery model and think through how a remote programme could be delivered safely and responsibly given the risk that participation in the programme could, in some cases, raise tensions and stress. After careful planning and development, two Caring Dads programmes were delivered remotely during the pandemic. Despite the challenges of remote work, online delivery has allowed Caring Dads to reach fathers that had not been able to participate before due to distance and the logistical challenges of appearing in person.
Now, Caring Dads is delivered both online and in-person. One group face-to-face programme began in April 2022, and two programmes are currently being delivered online. The related programmes—Journey Project, +1, and stop gap support—have all continued to be provided remotely.
What is the process for a local authority to set up a Caring Dads programme?
Starting a Caring Dads programme means joining a network of professionals delivering the model both nationally and internationally. The first step is to be on boarded through Caring Dads’ central organisation in Canada. Then, there are two training centres within the UK (Leeds and London) which can deliver training to local authorities interested in the Caring Dads approach.
For more information or to find out more about starting a Caring Dads programme in your local authority, you can contact the following people:
Sarah Webb – Caring Dads Global Enterprise Manager
Matt Tattersley – Accredited Trainer (Leeds)
Dermot Brady – Accredited Trainer (London)
This case-study was compiled by Carolyn Lipp in 2022