North East Young Dads And Lads; Much More Than Changing The Narrative

“We walk alongside these young men – until they say, “I’m great”. We’re here as long as that young man needs us.”
Colin Petch
September 22, 2022

In 2015, Kevin Stoodley, a vastly experienced North-east based Youth Worker, was asked by a Young Women’s Project in Gateshead to work with a few Young Dads – who were involved with the Mums they were working with.

There had been a Young Mum's service in Gateshead for sometime (originally as an integral part of the Youth Service). After funding changes for Teenage Pregnancy projects – the Young Women’s Outreach Project, with a dedicated function to support Young Mums, became a CIO (Charity in own right) in 1992.

Kevin came from a background of work around Sexual Health and Young People and had previously been involved in a great deal of ‘Men and Boys’ initiatives: “The first thing I asked was - who’s here in our region from the days of the teenage pregnancy work? There was quite a lot of Fatherhood work going on for a period. The Local Authority had a Teen Dads service for a while. There was also a Northumberland County Council project working with Young Dads – and similar stuff in North and South Tyneside. Newcastle had a Barnardo’s based service.”

All except the Barnardo’s project had ceased to operate in the preceding 5 year period. Barnardo’s was also experiencing funding uncertainties – and had planned to change their offering, working with families involved with Social Care only.

There was a clear sense that much of the expertise in the area had been lost – and there was no blueprint to follow, so Kevin looked further afield: “We spoke to John May and Errol Murray in Leeds, who were running projects. We also talked to a project in Manchester and The Young Dad’s Collective in London – all of them were really helpful.

“There wasn’t a lot going on. The approach I took initially – and Doug picked that up with me, [the inspirational Doug Laidlaw, who’s worked alongside Kevin from the outset], because he has the same sort of skill set – was just supplying youth work skills, to engage, get to know. Don’t come in with any assumptions, any judgements.”

The new team quickly identified that there was a sense they were being invited in to deal with a ‘problem’ of the Young Men. It was initially the team working and talking with Gateshead’s Young Women that established there was a need to engage with fathers/fathers to be.

Kevin: “They were talking to the young women – hearing about their challenges. There was a lot of work going on around Social Care proceedings, so they would follow families through that Child In Need/Child Protection process – and what came up a lot – and continues to do so, is issues about Dad. Concerns around relationship breakdown. Maybe concerns around domestic abuse. Dads not being engaged.  

“There has been that sense that Young Dads were portrayed quite negatively in the Statutory and Third Sector: ‘Dads are a problem really.’ It’s reinforced by a lot of the research stuff we’ve read – that Mums are viewed as vulnerable and in need of support – and Dads are seen as vulnerable – and a risk.

That overwhelming belief that Fathers are the problem, removes the responsibility to offer Dads support – and that unfortunately and counterintuitively, has dogged NEYDL as a charity.

Doug: “At the beginning it was: You need to FIX these young men. (Without asking them - ‘What did they want?’ And what were their needs?)

[We were being told] “The Mums are saying: ‘this’ is what’s happening – so you need to tell them they need to step up. These Young Men weren’t hard to reach – people just weren’t asking them the right questions. Ask the right question and they became involved.

“We meet with the Young Men and ask – 'fancy going for a cup of tea?' They think we're going to come in and [immediately] risk assess, but we go in and say: ‘First of all congratulations – on becoming a parent.’ 99% Of the Young Men I work with have never been congratulated on their fatherhood status.

“We don’t go in. Assess. Put a 12 week plan in place – and then we're off again. Let’s have a conversation about what it’s like here and now for you – and what it will look like going forward.

"They’re in charge of what we do with them – and we can offer a range of packages of support tailored to their situation.

“There aren’t two Young Dads you work with the same way. Life’s not linear.”

Originally, bids for funding centred on delivering a 12-month project which would focus on parenting skills, first aid and developing relationship skills. They were the core areas that the team believed the Young Men needed, but it was more apparent as they became an increasing part of their lives, that some might not have a positive father figure in their life. They may not have other men they can speak to and trust. Kevin confirms: “They look up to our staff team – over time they open up about the challenges. Often young men don’t come with everything on display, they’re guarded.

“They want to progress. They want to go on and do things. Develop skill-sets in youth work. safeguarding, research skills, filmmaking – this is what we offer.”

One of the team in the office on the day of our visit is Robert – and his progress is highlighted. He was one of the project’s first beneficiaries – and is now a paid member of staff, with responsibility for Perinatal work. That reflects the ambitions of the charity. Kevin is clear: “We see them as the experts and we’re guided by what they want to do.”

For any Dad, there is a perception that you can 'hack it'. It’s bloody hard being a parent. What this charity is doing – changing the narrative around Young Dads, is essential. Society needs good Young Dads.

Kevin: “For the first couple of years we tried to find ways in. The assumption was that you couldn’t have a service that works with Young Men. It was almost an offensive thing to say that you’d dedicate a service to Young Men.

"We’re not ‘Fathers for Justice’. With all the negative stuff going about Young Men –  we’ve just given Young Dads a voice. They’re keen to talk to media and get involved with film work. They’re creating amazing content for DigiDad [the charity’s online learning platform] and producing podcasts – and talking to professionals.

"It’s been their ambition and desire to change that narrative – and all we’ve done is give them a platform so they can do that.”

Both Kevin and Doug are anxious to confirm that they haven’t met a Young Dad yet who doesn’t want to be the best Dad they can be. While they are working with some young men who aren’t yet ready to be actively involved in a child’s life, those individuals are no less eager to develop their skills.

Doug clarifies: “We don’t write them off. All of them one day want to be able to prove to their child that they tried.

“What we have encountered from Social Care is that once that Dad’s removed from the child’s life, from a social care/legal perspective – that Dad is forgotten.

“That young man’s going to have another relationship. He’s carrying a lot of loneliness, isolation, grief and loss. No one’s ever helped him to address the underlying challenges that there are in his life. All you’ll do is recycle that again with a new family.

“Just being able to offer young men a chance to meet – to talk – with other Young Dads – one of our main successes is just connecting young men.

“We’ve got a group of 5/6 young men (3 or 4 are staff members now) – who all lived on the same estate and went to the same Primary School. Not one of them knew the others were Dads – because Young Dads don’t celebrate that…The moment that happens [becoming a father] – services will often judge. Communities will judge them.

“Often there’s gatekeeping by grandparents on both sides…then the professional stuff. These lads aren’t wearing the ‘Dad badge’ with pride – so they’re invisible.

NEYDL work with a mix of estranged and ‘with partner’ young men. Often when they start their journey as a parent – it’s also quite a new relationship with Mum - and navigating that, with the fact that parenthood is approaching is daunting to anyone, regardless of background.

Doug: “There’s not many people who meet their life partner in their teens/early twenties. The nature of young relationships can be stressful for a number of reasons. Jealousy, control, violence.

“There’s also young men who haven’t had a relationship with Mum – but want to have a relationship with the child – and build that again. Also there are Dads who are separated – but have a positive relationship with Mum.

“We find that with very Young Dads, the ‘gatekeeper’ to the relationship between father/baby and father/partner – is the maternal grandparents: We spend a lot of time negotiating with grandparents, to facilitate Dad’s involvement.

A great deal of NEYDL’s work is around what can be done to support Dads to re-establish contact. That may be through formal mediation, informal talking, or accessing family lawyers. However, there are many Dads that have been with their partners constantly throughout their involvement with the charity. Some of those babies are now heading into Reception. That’s a massive WIN for NEYDL.

Doug: “The media portray that every Young Dad is going to go off and sire half a dozen kids – and not care. That’s a rarity.

“This is the opportunity to BE and DO something different. A chance to draw a line in the sand – and perhaps prove to themselves it is possible to break a cycle. The earlier we are involved in the fatherhood journey, the more engaged that young man becomes – and wants to help and make a difference. There are lots of barriers and lots of services telling him that he can’t.

Once a New Mum has her 12 week scan, a network of support is activated for her. Dads may be ‘invited’ but the reality is they are still not actively ‘encouraged’ – and at that moment, NEYDL are ready to help with advice and guidance. Young Dads can self-refer and increasingly the charity is receiving a growing number of peer referrals…Dads telling Dads.

Kevin: Dad’s like us. Dads trust us – and Dads tell their mates about what we do.

“Increasingly we’re seeing Mums. We’ve been involved in an exhibition recently with BALTIC [Centre For Contemporary Art] –and it was stunning how many Mums were there too. Mums value the fact that their man is getting support.

There’s lot of fun stuff too. A Cycling project, football, a beekeeping project, baking, bushcraft. It’s clear that whatever the young men accessing the service are interested in – NEYDL will give it a go to provide positive experiences.

At the moment the charity is working with over 40 Young Dads. Some on an intensive basis and some less so. In common with other organisations doing utterly essential work in our communities, there is a capacity issue. In a small, grant-funded service, There’s inevitably a challenge around what can be achieved. A new project recently started in the Tees Valley is likely to be over subscribed.

Jonah York is responsible for NEYDL’s Online Peer Support and is also the organisation's Training Officer. “Born over Covid, we were thinking about our offer and how we could tackle anxiety around attending group services. We developed a YouTube channel and an E-Learning Platform – which has been really well received…there has been around 950 hours of views with the main demographic being men aged 17 – 33, so we’re hitting the right demographic.

The online courses started as Parenting, but we identified that there’s a need around information on the Courts Process, so we have an 8-part series on that. We have Professors of Mediation, CAFCAS [Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service], a Senior Partner at a huge law firm – who have all contributed – and are big advocates for that work.

“What’s lovely about this charity – is we’re very good at recognising other peoples strength's in the field who are Young Dad friendly and who share the same ethos – and we use that expertise to enhance our offer.

Kevin: “There is a shift now. What these Dads have done around telling their story – there’s certainly a warming around what we do. The policy stuff is slower coming, but the Perinatal Mental Health work now talks about assessments for Dads as well as Mums.

“The recent Safeguarding Panel Review nationally around non-accidental injury to children – was quite damming of Health and Social Care’s failure in the past to engage and talk to Dads.

“Coming from a teenage strategy workload [both Kevin and Doug were from a sexual health background] there was a ten year strategy going back to 2000, that was really good at thinking about Mum – which created a legacy – and a lot of the drivers were around preventing men from being fathers in the first place. It was about contraception. Perhaps a reflection of how we see men in childcare – as opposed to women?

How much change has there been? Is that still the perception?

Kevin: “We’re not there yet. It’s down to where the funding is…We’ve been lucky in sourcing funding from NHS CHC [Continuing HealthCare] to invest in testing out a service offer for the fathers of partners affected by Perinatal Mental Health issues, but we’re not seeing investment from social care, education – it’s not yet enough of a policy driver. There’s a real missed opportunity.

“When you have young men and there are issues around criminality, drug and alcohol misuse, unemployment, economic inactivity, school exclusion – you would hope that at the point that young man becomes a father – he’s really heavily motivated to revaluate his life – and with the right support at that point – you can get him on a different journey.

“Services have missed that opportunity. They’re not asking “Are you a Dad?" – and realising the potential of that. NOT THINKING DAD. Not valuing that status and that position as a gamechanger for those young men. WE SEE IT.

“To change that, firstly – the narrative has to be changed and recognise the potential of young men. There must be more investment in services like NEYDL. There must be a concerted effort to mainstream provision. If Fatherhood projects are repeatedly halted because funding ends, then the collective knowledge and expertise in those projects is lost. There is clearly a frustration with the funding landscape that’s often driven by mother and child. There’s a father that’s part of that solution as well. The anti-violence work we see with Mums – there’s no engagement with Dads. Short-sighted.

The team are constantly telling the story: “You have to keep repeating yourself. We know the reality of what a Young Dad can represent to his family.

Doug: “We support Young Dads so their children grow up with a positive male role model in their life. The work that we do is to ensure that child reaches its milestones. We know that if both parents have active roles in kids life – outcomes are better at school, progressing to further education, endless research that confirms that if both parents are involved in early childhood experiences – their life chances dramatically increase. That’s what we need to promote.”

There is hope: nationally, NEYDL have presented to the ‘All Party Parliamentary Group on Fatherhood’ – and there are national umbrella organisations including ‘The Men and Boys Coalition’ and ‘The Fatherhood Institute,’ – so progress is being made.

But ultimately, the primary concern of the team at NEYDL is the young men they work with:

Doug: “It doesn’t matter what happened previously. We’re going to draw a line in the sand now. We have to recognise the past and the history (but a lot of services focus on the past – that’s what they risk assess). We recognise it, but we’re going to focus on the future. What you want to be as a Person. As a Parent. As a Partner. What is it you want to do – and what can we do to support you in that? It might be about them going back into education or employment – or it might be to support them to say, “I want to be a full-time parent”. We’re helping to increase confidence and skills – make them ready to take the next step.

“We walk alongside these young men – until they say, “I’m great”. We’re here as long as that young man needs us.”

All images: NEYDL Visit to Chopwell Woods

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