My work with families has, for a very long time, been underpinned by gender equality. This is not about rights and it’s not about equally shared parenting, both of which are about replacing one set of social values with another. Gender equality, however, as part of a society which offers equal opportunities, ensures that men and women are treated in ways that enable them to face the challenges in their lives and take up support that they need to make choices, free from stereotypes.
This work, which has led me through the years to the heart of the discriminatory policies and practice around the family, was kicked off almost fifteen ago by the experience of opening the door of our drop-in centre to a young man in tears. In his arms he held a three month old baby. As I helped him in with his pushchair, he struggled to speak. I made him a cup of tea and helped him to settle into one of our armchairs to give his baby a bottle. As he fed the child, he told me what had just happened to him. What I didn’t know then was that his story would start, for me, the journey towards excavating my whole professional practice and my understanding of what it is to truly support families in crisis.
This young man, let’s call him Sean, was nineteen years old. His baby son was just three months old that week. Sean had been living with his son’s mother until two days previously, when she told him she was leaving to work abroad. Sean, in his shock and his despair was, quite literally, left holding the baby. Either he could care for it, his partner had told him, or it would go into care.
Sean had, that morning, pulled himself together enough to try and work out what to do. He had been working in a part-time job and living with a friend along with his son and his partner. The friend, however, was also leaving with his partner to go and work abroad. Sean faced the loss of his partner, the loss of his home and the prospect of caring for his baby son, alone. His own family lived many miles away in Scotland and he was estranged from his father.
He had decided, earlier that day, that the best thing for him to do would be to go to the Housing Department of the local Council and ask to be put on the housing list. Sean didn’t know much about housing policy, he only knew that he was in desperate need. Three hours later, after being threatened with the Police by the Housing Officer who interviewed him, he had stumbled out into the street in tears; bewildered, frightened and humiliated. Whoever had thrust the leaflet for our help centre into his hands that day, was his Guardian Angel; and mine…
Sean’s journey was the start of my journey. As I listened to this young man tell me of the humiliation of being placed in a room and interrogated about the baby, about his motive for asking for housing, about whether or not he had ‘borrowed’ the baby to make a fraudulent claim, I began the laborious process of putting the jigsaw pieces of understanding together. The understanding that has, some fifteen years later, pushed us, in our work with families, on and on and on to find the key that will unlock the door of perception for those who allow this misery to be perpetrated.
I say misery. I should really say discrimination. Discrimination of the kind not seen since the cards in the windows saying NO BLACKS, NO IRISH were accepted and common place. A discrimination which runs rife throughout our family services and which is condoned, supported and reinforced by government after successive government. A discrimination which perpetuates the acceptance of policies and practice which effectively state NO DADS whilst consistently blaming dads for not being part of their children’s lives. Just like NO BLACKS, NO IRISH (we don’t want them because we have preconceived ideas about who they are), NO DADS says ‘we don’t want them because we have preconceived ideas about who the proper parent is’. As such, it reveals everything about our insitutionalised acceptance of discrimination against men as fathers.
The Housing Officer who had interviewed Sean had, eventually, threatened to call the police if he did not confess to having ‘borrowed the baby’. At this juncture, Sean had escaped, his son in his arms, and made his way to us. When we telephoned the Housing Department we were told that ‘young men cannot be single parents’ and the phrase ‘he has borrowed the baby to make a fraudulent claim’ was repeated. It took us sixteen months to challenge that Local Authority, who eventually admitted to gender discriminatory practice and housed Sean and his son.
Sean and his son were finally safe and, in my mind, so were other dads out there who may need the help of that Housing Department in the future – our work with the Local Authority having protected others from discrimination.
Scratch that last sentence and fast forward to August 2013. Same Housing Department, same Local Authority, a young man with a daughter living in one room and at risk of homelessness. A young man who receives Child Benefit, a young man who is legally his daughter’s ‘primary carer’. A young man who was, early last week, telephoned by the Housing Department to be told that he was not entitled to housing because ‘his daughter could live with her mother.’ Was this a case of NO DADS written large in housing policy? We checked it. Apparently not. NO DADS, however, was written right through housing practice in the shape of the female housing officer who presumed that this dad was ‘pretending to be the primary carer in order to obtain housing.’
Fifteen years separates Sean from this dad. It took a civil rights movement to stop the NO BLACKS, NO IRISH policies that discriminated against vulnerable people back then. What will it take to stop the NO DADS policy currently alive and kicking in this Local Authority and that social work team and every feminist Social Policy Department in the universities across this god forsaken land?
Sean’s son is now going on sixteen. Last I heard, he was doing well and preparing for his GCSE’s, happy with his dad and his step mum. The family still live in the house that took sixteen months of struggle to obtain for Sean. But one happy ending is not enough. How many more fathers and their children in this country are going to find themselves in the same position as Sean or the young man this week who is starting to realise that being a dad does not automatically entitle him to respect, care and equality of opportunity?
Until fathering is respected, valued and championed for the wonderful thing that it brings to childrens lives. Until fathers can expect – routinely, without exception, without question – the dignity of being treated with absolute care. Until we root out and destroy those discriminatory attitudes which are accepted, tolerated, perpetuated and created by people who would, in another era, have cards in their windows saying NO BLACKS, NO IRISH HERE, your son and mine will be left like those other oppressed groups in the past; homeless, hopeless and blamed for it. And their children, for whom those who perpetuate this misery and discrimination are supposedly concerned about? Homeless and hopeless, too, simply for having a father caring for them and not a mother.
NO BLACKS, NO IRISH is banned now but has been replaced by NO DADS and no-one appears to care. For shame. That is not the kind of society that I want to live in. Do you?