Quiet revolution of lost tribe of dads

October 16, 2004

<p>Family first ... estranged fathers are rewriting the rules on fathering.</p>


Family first ... estranged fathers are rewriting the rules on fathering.

Photo: Steven Siewert


If the women's movement was the defining social force of the past 30 years, estranged fathers are the next, writes Adele Horin.

Barry loved his children but he is the first to admit he did not know them. How could he? He worked 13 hours a day in the printing industry, six days a week, and on the seventh, rather than resting, he worked around the house.

He was a perfectionist, driven to volcanic fury by ordinary signs of household disorder. When he did see his son and daughter, they were afraid of him. And so was his wife. "I was not physically violent," Barry* said. "But I was aggressive. The place was never good enough."

Barry's anger and obsessiveness drove his family away. After he wrenched the phone from the wall and threw it across the room, Veronica*, his partner of seven years, took off. "His temper was getting worse and worse. The kids couldn't breathe," she said. "They couldn't cry at the wrong time."

Barry joined the legion of angry, bitter and sorrowful fathers estranged from their children, caught up in the Family Court, and the Child Support Agency, and the object of apprehended violence orders.

The formula that had worked for his own father had failed him. "I was a workaholic," Barry said. "It was my duty to be the provider. At the time I thought I was great. But knowing what I know now, I can see I was not a good father."

The re-evaluation of fatherhood is the next radical social agenda. Barry is among the tribe of lost, wounded "non-resident" dads who are rewriting the rules on fathering.

Across Australia, increasing numbers of men are seeking out - or being sent to - programs, courses and facilities that did not exist five years ago to help them be better fathers, or to help them learn how to father when they live apart from their children.

"Women redefined their job descriptions 30 years ago; many men are beginning to do the same now," says Terry Melvin, manager of the phone counselling service, Men's Line Australia. "With 50,000 separations a year, it is this that's helped men reassess what it means to be a dad."

While the spotlight in recent years has been on "angry dads", in conflict with the Family Court or the Child Support Agency, behind the scenes a quiet revolution in fathering has been taking place.

Thousands of fathers have taken a journey from bitterness and alienation to engagement and compromise, helped by an array of federally-funded programs such as Men's Line Australia, the Men and Family Relationships program, Children's Contact Services, Family Relationships Counselling, and Specialised Family Violence Initiatives.

The Federal Government spends $59 million a year on these programs, under the umbrella of the Family Relationships Services program. It is a drop in the ocean of need. Most of the programs are run by non-profit or church groups on a shoestring. But independent evaluations, as well as anecdotal evidence, indicate they can work miracles. Thousands of angry or grieving men have managed to shift focus from father's rights to children's needs.

Libby Davies, executive director of the peak body, Family Services Australia, said: "For the blokes involved they do work, but we're only touching a very small percentage of dads.

"The challenge is to engage with more dads, and to break down the blokey Australian culture that tends to steer men away from these sorts of programs."

The evaluation of the Men and Family Relationships program showed virtually all the men found the help "good" or "very good" and 99 per cent would recommend the programs to other men. It is a level of client satisfaction other social programs envy.

The main problem, as evaluations for the Federal Government point out, is long waiting lists for help, and grossly inadequate funding.

A Men and Family Relationships conference will be held in Sydney from Tuesday. Supported by Family Services Australia, Relationships Australia and Catholic Welfare Australia, it will review the lessons learnt by services which specialise in working with men, and review the challenges that lie ahead.

* Not real names.