Engaging Aboriginal fathers

developing practice coverThe following is the final submitted  version of an article (just published in developing practice) by me, Chris May and Craig Hammond, all from the the Family Action Centre at the University of Newcastle.While it is the August 2015 edition, it has only just been published.

The full reference is:

Stuart, G., May, C., & Hammond, C. (2015). Engaging Aboriginal fathers. Developing Practice: The Child, Youth and Family Work Journal (42), 4-17.

Introduction

The important roles fathers play in the lives of their children, families and communities are more clearly understood now than in the past and there is increasing emphasis on father-inclusive practice as a central component of working with families (Berlyn, Wise, & Soriano, 2008; Cameron, Coady, & Hoy, 2014; Fleming & King, 2010; Fletcher, Close, Babakhani & Churchward, 2008; Fletcher, May, StGeorge, Stoker & Oshan, 2014; Panter-Brick et al., 2014; Tehan & McDonald, 2010). Father-inclusive practice ‘responds to the needs of families as a system by including fathering in all aspects of the planning and implementation of service in a manner that enables families to make optimal use of their internal family resources’ (Fletcher et al., 2014, p. 5). While a range of service providers and funding bodies have demonstrated a commitment to working more closely and effectively with fathers (Beatty & Doran, 2007; Department of Families, 2009; Families First Northern Sydney, 2006; Family Action Centre, 2005) many practitioners and services still find it difficult to engage with fathers in their services, particularly when attempting to engage with Aboriginal (1) fathers (Hammond, Fletcher, Lester, & Pascoe, 2003). It is especially important when discussing Aboriginal fathers to adopt a broad definition of father, to include biological fathers, social fathers (men undertaking the role of fathers including step fathers, foster fathers, pops, uncles, the partners of mothers) and father figures (Fletcher et al., 2014).

Family-inclusive practice, which inherently involves fathering, has been well established in the administrative domain of family services but practice often fails to meet the rhetoric. Although Fleming (2002) argues that child and family welfare has a ‘long established tradition of attempting to involve both parents’ (p. 60), there is a tendency amongst family and child workers to overlook fathers (Brown, Callahan, Strega, Walmsley, & Dominelli, 2009; Cameron et al., 2014). Many professionals are also ambivalent about involving fathers in their work (Berlyn, Wise, & Soriano, 2008; Brown et al., 2009; Department of Families, 2009; Fleming & King, 2010; Panter-Brick et al., 2014). This ambivalence is further evidenced in family research where many studies fail to mention fathers and those that do often rely on mothers as proxy respondents for their partners (Mitchell et al., 2007). In a study of five social work journals and one family relations journal over a five-year period, only 24% of family-focused articles included information about fathers and only 12.5% included fathers as participants in the actual research (Shapiro & Krysik, 2010). Worryingly, fathers are often portrayed in literature in negative ways (Cameron et al., 2014; Fleming & King, 2010), for example as being ‘potential dangers to women and children’ (Cameron et al., 2014, p. 14). This characterisation of fathering has particular implications for Aboriginal families where the strengths and benefits of men are often overlooked (Department of Families, 2009; Hammond et al., 2003; Morgan, 2012).

The family studies literature frequently fails to take into account the diversity of families particularly in terms of race, culture, and sexual orientation (Allen, 2000); therefore it may not be surprising that there is even less literature on engaging Aboriginal fathers. There are a range of descriptive papers discussing specific family intervention programs focusing on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fathers (Beatty & Doran, 2007; Communities and Families Clearinghouse Australia, 2010; Hammond, 2010; McCalman, Baird, & Tsey, 2007; Stuart & Hammond, 2006) or engaging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men more generally (Towney, 2005; Tsey et al., 2003) but few published studies explore how services can effectively engage with Aboriginal fathers.

This paper helps address this gap by providing a summary of the findings from four focus groups with family, health and community workers from the Hunter Region, New South Wales (NSW) that explored their experience of engaging Aboriginal fathers. We discuss some of the challenges faced by workers and identify strategies that helped them to engage with urban and regional Aboriginal fathers. We also discuss the implications for practice by identifying a number of considerations in developing strengths-based programs for engaging Aboriginal fathers and fathers of Aboriginal children.

Method

Four focus groups were held with 19 family, health and community workers from the Hunter Valley in 2010. Invitations to participate in the research were emailed through a range of networks (including interagency networks in the region) for workers ‘who currently work with Aboriginal fathers or would like to’. All participants who expressed interest in participating in the research were included in one of the focus groups. The focus groups were held at three or four week intervals and participants were invited to attend more than one group so that they could reflect on different discussions with different people. Four participants took up this offer.

The 19 participants of the focus groups included six males and thirteen females. Nine participants worked for family services, four had a community development focus, four came from Schools as Community Centres, one worked for a children’s service and one was a support worker at a public school. Four participants identified as Aboriginal. Participants were given the option of using their own name or a pseudonym; all but four chose to use their real name. In order to protect participants who chose to use their real name, occasionally a quote is not attributed to any of the participants.

The interviews were audio recorded, transcribed and analysed thematically using qualitative methods. The thematic analysis was undertaken by two of the researchers for this paper and the key themes were checked by participants in later focus groups or after the research was completed to ensure they accurately reflected the experience of practitioners and the validity of the data collected.

Cameron et al. (2014) suggests that it is important to be informed of the predispositions of investigators when interpreting their research. Our previous work has lead us to believe that all men have strengths that can be drawn on in their fathering roles, that fathers are important in children’s lives and that child and family services have a responsibility to engage with fathers, as well as mothers, in their work. We also believe that it is important for family service workers to consider a broad range of evidence in planning and evaluating their work. Humphreys (2011) proposes a knowledge diamond which identifies four major categories of knowledge (see figure 1). The present study focussed on practitioner wisdom.

The knowledge diamond (Humphreys, 2011)

Figure 1: The knowledge diamond  (Adapted from Walsh, Rolls Reutz, & Williams, 2015)

Findings

The Challenges

Some of the participants said that, at times, they found trying to engage  Aboriginal fathers frustrating, challenging and plain hard work.

Yes, it got really, really frustrating. You put all that work in. Especially with this [project] – and I went and saw the boys and said, ‘You make it look so silly, you let yourselves down really.’ I sort of put it all back on them. And then after that the group sort of kicked off again and we just let it go for a while and then it just dies off. (Trent)

Creating and maintaining momentum

A common challenge was creating or maintaining the momentum.

At [name of location]. I told them that I’ve got all these ideas and I wished to put forward to everybody and they’re saying, ‘Oh yes, we’ll be there, we’ll do it, just tell us when.’ Then when the word gets around, they don’t move. Had to go around and knock on his door and chase him up and drag them out of the house. [Chuckles] (Aaron)

Some participants felt that fathers tended to not do anything “until it gets to some sort of a pressure crisis point.” At times this meant that a problem had escalated to the extent where services were limited in the support they could provide and the fathers were unsatisfied with the response. This made further engagement less likely. Sometimes, by the time the worker could make contact, the crisis had passed and the father no longer wanted assistance.

Participants also described how they would establish an effective group for a while but numbers would dwindle off. Attendance could be spasmodic or decrease for a range of reasons – many of which were external to the program.

I started a men’s group at the end of last year called ‘Connecting Fathers’ at our school. It went real well last year – had about 15-18 people there, but this year because of all of the kids that are moving on to high school and a couple of families moving away, we got down to about six, seven people… (Dane)

Lack of male workers

Most participants in this research were female and/or non-Aboriginal, and this was clearly a challenge for some of them.

I just think maybe because I’m female and I’m not Indigenous. I just think that was just – already that’s something there. You’ve got to just keep trying to say ‘hello’ to people and just try and build up a relationship with them and just take it to the next step – but I just find that quite difficult. (Gina)

This challenge may have been particularly salient for services with sole female workers who expressed a need for a male presence to combat a perception that family services were mainly for women as this exchange and Liam’s comment show:

Whitney: I think the thing that’s lacking is just that male presence. Just thinking of the three meetings that we’ve got set up. We don’t even have men on the planning side of things, so that’s – we could start there….

Trent: It starts from there doesn’t it, so there’s no men involved in that meeting or in that group, you’re not going to get men to —

Whitney: Exactly.

and

One of the Aboriginal men I work with at the moment, he came to me he said, ‘I thought you only looked after women. I didn’t think you looked after men.’ (Liam)

Not being an Aboriginal man

While it was not discussed to the same extent as being male, some of the workers discussed the challenge of not being Aboriginal. As one women suggested ‘it’s ideal if you’re black and hairy’, that is, visually clearly both Aboriginal and male. Part of the challenge was in knowing the best way to respond to male Aboriginal culture. At times there was a problem being outside the culture and receiving conflicting advice from different people.

And I was very much told [by a female Aboriginal worker], ‘That’s men’s business. No. Don’t go there.’ Ok. But then, when I was talking with [a male Aboriginal worker] about it, he said, ‘No. Go and talk to them.’ (Jennifer)

One way in which Jennifer attempted to address this issue was by using Aboriginal trainees; however many of these trainees were challenged by limited knowledge and experience.

We found those challenges; we had Indigenous trainees with one of our playgroups at one stage and the aim of those trainees was to bring the Aboriginal perspective to the playgroup and cultural activities. What we found was many of those kids [the trainees] didn’t even have a good sense of their own culture and identity.  How can you impart that information and knowledge? (Jennifer)

Lack of time

Time and funding structures could also become a major constraint for service providers trying to build meaningful relationships with Aboriginal fathers. A male participant, who had extensive experience with a variety of services, found that funding agreements requiring a certain number of clients meant that he didn’t have the time to build and maintain relationships with quite marginalised fathers. Others spoke about the time required to become accepted, particularly when they were not part of the local Aboriginal community.

And time, it takes a long time. My work over in WA for example, it took 18 months nearly, to actually start talking to blokes. So we’d only just started conversations – or men were only just starting to look for me for conversations. (Bruce)

Strategies

The service providers identified a range of strategies that they had used to engage Aboriginal fathers.

Building strong, trusting relationships

Participants frequently spoke about the importance of building strong, trusting relationships with Aboriginal fathers. Jo suggested that relationships were particularly important when working with Aboriginal communities.

I think my experience in the past is that Indigenous people work better with a person, rather than a service… If you can sit down, or you’re working with a man, they’re saying, ‘This is my problem’ they won’t walk into a building and go, ‘Oh, this building says they help kids with problems.’ They’ll go, ‘Who do I know that might be able to help me with this?’ (Jo)

It often took time to build trusting relationships and participants spoke about involvement in the local Aboriginal community and using non-work contexts as a means to help build these relationships.

And living locally where you work, you go shopping and to run in and grab some milk, takes you an hour and a half some days, because you get stopped as you’re walking towards the aisle you want to get to, as you’re walking back, as you get to the car, all by different people… It’s less confronting for them to walk up to you and chat like friends in a public place, they ask you a few things and you just say, ‘Come down and see me another day’, or ‘I can come around to your place.’ (Liam)

Some others, while recognising the value of being seen in the community and building relationships outside of work, expressed concerns about the demands that these expectations placed on their personal life. As one of the workers commented:

If I see someone up the street I’ll never ignore them, ‘Good day mate, how are you going?’ And then I’ll say, ‘No, just doing my shopping. Give me a call Monday morning mate. Come in and see me’ because I don’t, I can’t lower those boundaries… I don’t want to have to go to the shops and have to deal with a client; my life is very separate to my work.

Aboriginal workers who worked in the same community they lived in were under particular pressure.

We had some really good [Aboriginal] health workers in Newcastle. They got burned out and moved on… They get that constant interruption from community when they’re outside their work hours. (Liam)

Having male and Aboriginal workers

In terms of the importance of gender and Aboriginality, many of the participants felt that these factors needed to be taken into account in service design. They described how people coming to a service might want to see a male staff member and how having male or Aboriginal staff encouraged Aboriginal fathers to become involved.

I think it does make a difference if you’ve got an Aboriginal worker or project within your organisation… because what often happens in welfare services is they’re seen as a female service and therefore males aren’t welcome… And I think quite often Aboriginal workers and males in the organisation helps to change that opinion. (Sue)

Where having Aboriginal male staff wasn’t possible, an alternative was having somebody who was known to, and accepted by, the local Aboriginal community.

You could have a non-Aboriginal person, but it’s got to be somebody that really gets [the Aboriginal] culture and gets the diversity of communities… There’s a lot of guys who are well and truly accepted in the Aboriginal community that aren’t Aboriginal, but they’ve grown up there and have been part of that community and are very well accepted. (Jennifer)

Services with only female staff (often projects with a sole worker or only a few staff) sometimes tried to find men who could take a lead role or worked in partnership with other services who could provide a worker who was male, Aboriginal or both.

So when our playgroup first started up… we had a grandad coming along and he’d take his son and they’d come with the grandad. And we found that was brilliant. You’d sit at the table and have five or six dads and uncles and granddads and aunties, so it was really lovely. He got a job, not that far into it and that’s when we found the engagement of the dads really dropped off from the playgroup. The mums would still come, but we lost the dads. (Jennifer)

Creating father friendly environments

Participants also spoke about the importance of creating a father-friendly environment. An important starting point was the physical setting (colours, posters, reading material).

We had lots of pinks and things… and we changed them. There’s the pictures that we put up and we changed a lot of things around encouraging both dads and Aboriginal families, because there wasn’t a lot of that a couple of years ago, there were just scenes with single mothers and kids. (Jo)

As well as the physical setting, it was important to signal to fathers that they were both welcome and safe. As the following discussion suggests, female-dominated services could be challenging for some fathers:

I find that we’ve some of our younger dads are not bad looking and you’ve got all these single mums there. Some of them come out with the most inappropriate comments to the guys ‘Oh, what’s he like?’ ‘Is he single?’ … They [the fathers] laugh it off at the time, but I’m sure for a lot of them, particularly Aboriginal dads, they get quite shamed by it and it puts them well out of their comfort zone. (Jennifer)

Organising specific events or activities

One of the more frequent strategies employed to engage Aboriginal fathers was the organisation of specific events and activities. For example, NAIDOC (National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee) week was often seen as a good opportunity to engage Aboriginal fathers.

On Monday we had NAIDOC celebrations and we had Rika Alley [an Aboriginal performer] come…. Basically he did this dance to engage with them and the kids came up and it went right through, up to the teachers and then he called parents as well. I was quite surprised how many parents went up. And it was all, you know, with the dads and the kids just loved it and laughed. And it was just breaking that ice. (Gina)

However, relying on these one-off events may not be enough. As one person said, ‘You can’t continually have these big celebration things.’ Fathers would come for the special events but not continue their involvement with the organisation afterwards.

When we have formal assemblies at the school where there’s different awards or whatever, there’ll be a heap of dads. Education week we have big open school, we do get dads through. So, we’re getting them, but it’s just that momentum of keeping them. (Jennifer)

Providing camps and cultural activities

Most of the male participants in the focus groups had been involved in running camps for Aboriginal fathers and saw them as generally being successful in both engaging fathers with the service and in the lives of their children.

One dad said, ‘Well I’ve got three daughters and really I don’t know what to do with them or how to connect with them. At home it’s always mum, mum, mum. If they get hurt, they fall over, whatever, it’s always mum.’ When he went on this camp, he did everything and he had to do everything. And he loved it. (Trent)

Cultural activities were also seen as a particularly good way to engage Aboriginal fathers.

They liked doing Aboriginal painting and stuff, so they wanted to do a painting course… And we got blokes down wanting to do Aboriginal [hunting] weapons and stuff; wanted to show the kids how to make didgeridoos like I make them; wanted to do boomerangs, battle axes, that sort of stuff. (Dane)

Engaging family and community gatekeepers

Focus group participants identified the importance of recognising gatekeepers and ensuring they were supportive. Mothers and other female family members could play an important role in facilitating the engagement of Aboriginal fathers in a service and with their children, particularly in relation to their role as a gatekeeper to engagement with the children. Services needed the support of these important family members.

And I actually think that when I have a lot of Aboriginal clients over the years, of the male clients, probably 80 percent of those, the icebreaker was by a woman, who has actually brought them there; it could have been an aunt, or a mother or a sister, who has actually brought that person into the service, because a male person had the perception we don’t help men. (Janelle)

In Aboriginal communities, elders frequently play a vital role in engaging other community members. Gaining the support of elders could be quite beneficial for services.

And we’ve got a couple of key local elders that did have a lot of grandkids at the school and all those grandkids have now moved on, but we still have very close connections, but it has backed off a bit since the last of the grandkids moved onto high school – which is a shame because we really made a point of having that connection with local elders because they’re really the key people to get involved with. (Jennifer)

Having flexible programming

Flexibility was important in a range of areas including the hours of operation, location and way of working.

We do after hours work, long weekends. It all depends what the client wants. (Liam)

I do my groups of a night. I’ve had more males turn up to the night groups than the day. Out of 46 I’ve had six males. And most of them at night. (Sharon)

Participants also suggested that it was important to be flexible in terms of group membership so that extended family could be involved.

Yes starting to get some of the young fellows coming up to the group too like, some of the kids’ brothers and stuff were coming up – the dad or someone couldn’t make it, the pop would come or the uncle would come, so someone was always coming up to the group. (Dane)

Creating a sense of ownership

Finally it was important that participants had a sense of ownership of the programs.

Almost every group of mine that hasn’t worked has been a suggestion by somebody to do a group that I’ve had no connections with and what happens is I get a flyer out and often what happens is the mothers put down the father’s name and phone number…and it doesn’t work…. There was no connection. (Bruce)

Discussion

The present study identified a number of issues which need to be considered in developing strengths-based programs for engaging Aboriginal fathers and fathers of Aboriginal children. The strategies identified by the participants in this research offer suggestions for ways to address these issues. It is important to note that our paper is grounded in the specific context of Aboriginal fathers in urban Newcastle/Lake Macquarie and the more rural setting of the Upper Hunter Valley. Despite the Hunter region’s history of colonisation, with the first European settlements being established very early in 1800s, and the major impact of oppressive, divisive and discriminatory policies, there is still a very strong sense of culture and identity within local Aboriginal communities. While some of the findings may be relevant to other contexts, there may also be differences. The experience of Aboriginal fathers in regional NSW context will be very different to Aboriginal fathers in other contexts such as remote communities. Despite these differences, there are also likely to be similarities.

A key learning from this research is the need to carefully build strong and trusting relationships before meaningful intervention can begin. Urban Aboriginal men have often moved to be with their partners and therefore their family and community connection are in other communities. This means they may be poorly connected to the community in which they live. Many will also experience distrust that has arisen from factors such as colonisation, cultural disconnection, family disruption and intergenerational trauma (Bowes & Grace, 2014; Lohoar, Butera, & Kennedy, 2014; Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, 2010). Building connections with these men requires both skill and credibility, particularly as the men often seek informal references from people they know within the community before engaging in any form of relationship with a service’s staff. Having male Aboriginal workers within the program has the potential to minimise barriers such as these and to reduce the risk that an engagement will fail before it has begun. The value of having Aboriginal male workers has been emphasised in previous literature (Beatty & Doran, 2007; Berlyn, Wise, & Soriano, 2008; Communities and Families Clearinghouse Australia, 2010) but, as identified by participants in this research, this can be difficult for sole-worker service or services where all the staff are women. Services can address this by strategies such as adopting partnerships with Aboriginal workers, employing local Aboriginal men on a casual basis and recruiting well supported male volunteers.

Mothers, and their families, play a key role in managing the lives of children in urban Aboriginal communities (Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, 2010). Mothers are more likely to talk to teachers, attend services and provide a greater proportion of care to their children. If mothers are sceptical or anxious about a program then it is unlikely that fathers will be encouraged, or given permission, to attend (Tehan & McDonald, 2010). A key tenant of a program’s success may therefore lie in the ability to win the confidence and support of mothers. One strategy to manage maternal concerns is to operate programs out of services that mothers know and trust, and to incorporate the involvement of workers that have previously formed trusting relationships with the mothers.

Like fathers in other communities, Aboriginal men often rely on signals that a program is going to focus on their needs rather than fit them into a program designed for mothers. This may particularly important for Aboriginal men because of highly differentiated maternal and paternal parenting roles that characterise many Aboriginal communities (Department of Families, 2009; Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, 2010). Programs should therefore aim to create environments that explicitly welcome men and signal to them that they are in a man’s space (Berlyn et al., 2008). Programs should also aim to focus their activities on factors that relate to fathering roles in Aboriginal communities such as culture and connection to community. One means of doing this is to link fathering activities with well-established cultural events. A program, however, needs to create more opportunities than those afforded by these intermittent celebrations of harmony or culture. Holding camps where fathers can engage with their children around cultural activities was identified as an important way to fulfil many of these requirements within a program (see also Communities and Families Clearinghouse Australia, 2010). However, it was also recognised that programs needed to actively engage with, and manage, potential maternal concerns that could easily arise from such activities.

Strengths-based approaches to working with fathers and Aboriginal communities are important in challenging some of the negative, disempowering approaches that have often been adopted when working with Aboriginal communities. Lohoar, Butera, and Kennedy (2014) argue that Aboriginal cultural practice and cultural identity is a strength that ‘acts as a protective force for children and families’ (p. 2) and a range of authors have advocated a strengths-based approach to working with Aboriginal families and communities (Armstrong et al., 2012; Bamblett & Lewis, 2006; Geia, Hayes, & Usher, 2011; McMahon, 2003; Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, 2010). Recommendations developed from the present study are therefore strongly grounded in strength-based approaches that have the potential to empower urban Aboriginal fathers to develop, strengthen and reclaim relationships with their children and families.

Footnote:

(1) We recognise there are differing opinions about the use of the terms Aboriginal, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Indigenous. We have used the term Aboriginal because this is the term used the most in the communities where these interviews were conducted.

Acknowledgement

This research was supported by the NSW Government’s Aboriginal, Child, Youth & Family Strategy through the then Community Services.

If you liked this post please follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. Navigating dilemmas of community development: Practitioner reflections on working with Aboriginal communities
  2. Creating positive images of Aboriginal fathers
  3. Workshop for Aboriginal fathers in prison – what worked
  4. Stan Grant “Racism is destroying the Australian Dream”
  5. Being a father
  6. A great 1 minute video of fathers and their kids

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About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
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One Response to Engaging Aboriginal fathers

  1. Catherine Winfield Johnston says:

    Good one, especially setting up camps and cultural activities for Dads to engage with their kids. In fact setting up any activities that give them purposeful interaction opportunities. Keep up the good work. From little things big things grow. : )

    Liked by 1 person

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