Young fathers in prison: helping them parent

Katie Buston and Daniel Wight consider how best to support the young men in Scotland's prisons who are also fathers.

It is generally accepted that around one in four young men in prison in the UK is an actual or expectant father (Macmillan 2005), though recent research suggests that in Polmont Young Offenders Institution (YOI) the figure is closer to one in three (Donnelly et al. 2010). Turnaround in YOIs is brisk, with many young fathers going in and out of prison.

Facing poor outcomes

Teenage fathers tend to have an accumulation of risk factors for poor outcomes for themselves and their children: poverty, lack of access to services, early risk behaviour including sexual activity and substance use, mental health problems, lack of social support, and low educational attainment (Bunting and McAuley 2004). They are likely to face financial hardship and unstable intimate relationships, making continued involvement with their child extremely challenging (Savio Beers and Hollo 2009; Bunting and McAuley 2004), and they are unlikely to know much about child development or effective parenting skills (Barlow et al. 2011). The problems associated with being a father at a young age are likely to be exacerbated by imprisonment (Kazura 2001). Offending young fathers are even more likely than their non-offending peers to have poor mental health, problems with literacy and numeracy, and to engage in risk behaviours. They are more likely to have been in care, experienced violence or sexual abuse at home, and/or experienced problematic parenting themselves. They are likely to have experienced a lack of trust in personal relationships and with social support agencies, and to have received little support from these sources (Shannon and Abrams 2007).

Wanting to be good fathers

However, our research (Buston 2010), and that of others (Shannon and Abrams 2007) suggests that most of these men start out wanting to be 'good fathers'. They are able to articulate what this involves: 'being there', being physically and emotionally close, doing things and going to places together, and providing financially. These are all aspects of parenthood which the men talked about and hoped to achieve. Their talk, at least, does not suggest resignation to being stereotypical feckless, good-for-nothing fathers. Some of these men will go on to be engaged fathers, perhaps with the help of their own mothers, the support of the child's mother, or maybe largely because of their own resilience. But the majority are likely to lose touch with their children altogether, or dip in and out of their lives, never properly engaging as a father in a way that their children would want. This is certainly how many of the men we talked to described their own experience of being fathered. What was striking, and touching, was that most of them were very defensive of their fathers, accepting them for what they were, good or bad. However, they were, mostly, clear about how they wanted to play a different role with their own child (Lamay et al. 2010).

Parenting and change

In general, active and regular engagement between father and child, whatever the economic status of the father, results in a range of positive outcomes for the child (Sarkadi et al. 2007). Furthermore, a wealth of research shows that offenders are less likely to re-offend if they have another, non-criminal, identity that they value and want to develop. Fatherhood is sometimes the motivation to change an offending lifestyle (Meek 2011; Reeves 2006).

Working with young fathers in prison

There have been many parenting interventions in YOIs over the last 20 years in the UK. Provision has, however, been patchy, with programmes running until staff leave or money runs out. Programmes have not been evaluated rigorously so little is known about what is effective in improving parenting behaviour and, crucially, child outcomes. Evaluative work that has been done, however, suggests that parenting programmes are well liked by offenders and staff (Buston et al. 2011). Certainly, targeting the men when they are, quite literally, a captive audience makes sense. Interventions for young offenders should be developed further, drawing on the best evidence from evaluations of programmes with fathers in general, and particularly young fathers, as well as programmes with adult prisoners. The most promising programmes should then be carefully evaluated to establish their long-term impact on children, fathers and families.

We have suggested that interventions should be targeted at fathers and expectant fathers within the YOI (Buston et al. 2011). They need to encompass more than the teaching of basic childcare skills. They should, for example, include practical help in parenting while inside prison, developing skills for contact, communication and constructive engagement with the child and their main carer from the prison. For example, how should a young man convey his support to his girlfriend as she takes on the role of caring for their baby almost single-handedly? Post-release issues need to be tackled, particularly in finding employment. Being able to provide for their child was the aspect of successful fatherhood most frequently referred to by the men we, and others, talked to (Buston, 2010; Lamay et al. 2010). Risk-behaviours, such as violence and substance abuse, need to be acknowledged and addressed in the context of parenting, with work done to raise men's self-respect and self-esteem. Putting the men in touch with agencies which can help them after they have been released is also important for enabling them to parent in an engaged way. Such agencies already exist, but a national parenting strategy should ensure that their place and role are well defined in parenting, and that they are protected and funded sustainably.

Looking ahead to a strategy

Cost, time and scope constraints are pertinent, but these sorts of approaches, which consider issues and skills beyond those relating simply to parenting skills such as nappy changing or preparing healthy meals, need to be taken. Such parenting interventions will never be the whole answer. There are too many inequalities in society, enduring across generations. However, they may be part of the answer, a relatively low-cost part at that, and they may contribute to ending the perpetuation of poor outcomes across generations. Such a combination of parenting work, which recognises the developmental, contextual and rehabilitative needs of such young fathers, combined with policies to address structural factors such as employment, housing, education and health, which can constrain positive parenting, is likely to reap rewards.

In order for children to be better supported, we need to support those who want to be engaged parents but who are in the least conducive positions to do this. We need to value them and their aspirations, not dismiss them, and help them to be the best parents they possibly can be, reducing some of the challenges and stresses they may face along the way. Parenting is hugely important but complicated and difficult - 'the most complex and important activity on the planet' (Popov 1997) - and particularly so for young fathers who have offended.

The national parenting strategy is an opportunity to help less-advantaged fathers to perform this vital role in a way that brings benefits to them and their children.

About the authors

Katie Buston is a senior investigator scientist in the Children, Young People, Families and Health Programme in the Medical Research Council (MRC) Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, Glasgow University. Recent work has included a review of parenting interventions for young men in prison leading to her current interest in evaluating promising parenting programmes for offenders.

Daniel Wight leads the Children, Young People, Families and Health Programme in the MRC Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, Glasgow University. He has studied parental influence on adolescent sexual behaviour, and is currently interested in how to engage socially-marginalised parents to improve children's outcomes. Other work includes parenting interventions in East Africa.


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