One in six fathers: David Lammy’s inadvertent error

A new statistic has begun to do the rounds within family separation and fatherhood circles and seems to be fast gaining the of credibility and authority that comes with repetition.

It comes from David Lammy’s book Out of the Ashes: Britain after the riots, London: Guardian Books (2011) in which he states that ‘only one in six absent fathers is judged to present a ‘significant problem’ for his children’ (Page 103).

The word ‘only’ suggests that Mr Lammy intends to play down the danger of fathers to their children and it is set within a context that promotes the role of fathers in children’s lives. But one in six? Really? That’s almost 17% of dads!

Unfortunately (or, perhaps that should be, fortunately) Mr Lammy has either misunderstood or inadvertently misrepresented the research.

What he appears to use as his reference is an article written by Rob Williams, the former Director of the Fatherhood Institute, for the Family and Parenting Institute’s report ‘After the riots – Where now for UK parenting?‘ where he says, ‘of the men who lose touch with their children only one in six present significant problems as fathers’.

It seems that this statement is derived from a single source; a book by Geoffrey L. Greif, Out of Touch: when parents and children lose contact after divorce, Grief, G.L New York: Oxford University Press (1997). Unfortunately, I do not own this book and so I’m unable to take a view as to the validity of his research methods. However, it should be noted that this was a small study and the group that Grief was looking at was those fathers who have absolutely no relationship whatsoever with their children.

The critical issue, here though, is that Mr Lammy has substituted the phrase ‘men who lose touch with their children’ with ‘absent fathers’.

What we know is that the term ‘absent father’ is shorthand (typically pejorative) used by politicians, commentators, lone parent campaigners, social policy researchers and others to encompass any father who is separated and does not have the main day-to-day care of his children. In other words, 90% of separated dads.

I think that it is also important for us to consider the context within which this issue has to be addressed at all and that is, I would argue, that there is a strand of feminism that has sought to remove fatherhood and masculinity from family life has consistently portrayed men as inherently dangerous to mothers and children.

This attitude has become so embedded in social policy and service delivery that almost all discussion around fathers and fatherhood is conducted from a deficit perspective – in other words, fathers have to prove that they are fit to have relationships with their children in a way that is never required of mothers.

It seems fairly self evident that there are some fathers who pose a ‘significant problem’. But how do we define ‘significant problem’ and are those problems any more prevalent in fathers than in mothers?

How many fathers completely lose a relationship with their children? The statistics vary massively depending on whether we’re castigating fathers for abandoning their offspring, in which case it’s around 42%, or whether we’re proving that there isn’t a gender bias in the family courts, in which case it’s around 1%.

What we can say with absolute certainty is that the ‘one in six’ figure is hugely misleading and just plain wrong. Those repeating David Lammy’s assertion are proposing that around17% of separated fathers pose a ‘significant problem’ to their children. And that is, clearly, a farcical suggestion.


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