Searching for the story behind the ‘absent fathers’

One thing I have noticed when reading research and media reports on gangs is the ubiquitous mention of a dad-gap; ‘absent fathers’.

They are often cited as a contributory reason for young people joining gangs, who then search for replacements to the illusive ‘strong male role models’ to provide discipline, an example, a substitute family.

It occurs to me that the mention of the ‘absent father’ leaves a considerable amount unsaid. It’s an ambiguous term which offers no explanation. It leaves a space where the father is left unchallenged or critiqued. Being ‘absent’ doesn’t describe whether that means distant or dead, abandoned or absconded. When looking at these articles what occurred to me is that so often the absence of a father is mentioned; the invisible vital ‘role model’, the lack of a dad, the gaping hole in the child’s life.


I am left wondering, what about those whose absent fathers were abusive when they were there? What about those whose absence was more positive than their presence? Never mind the other information that may be useful to ascertain their impact; domestic violence perpetrator, abusive, neglectful.

Don’t get me wrong, not all fathers who end up being absent are abusive. However research suggests 1 in 7 young people in London live with domestic violence in childhood (Radford et al., 2011) so it is reasonable to assume that many are.

Several front-line workers who support men involved in gangs have anecdotally talked to me about the high prevalence of domestic abuse in the family histories of the service users they work with. Despite this there is very little existing research or even journalism that looks into the roles or lives of these absent fathers to confirm or deny this. There is far more that has been written about the single-parent mothers left behind, much of which has laid the responsibility of societal problems on their shoulders.

This dad-gap is well-known within domestic violence cases in social services too. Mothers who are victims of domestic abuse are often left being held solely responsible for dealing with the risks and the aftermath of the DVA when the father won’t engage with children’s services. It is easier to be the absent enigma than deal with the consequences of your actions.

Using the neutral term ‘absent’ cleanses the discussion and stops further explanation.

The continuing rhetoric that the boys involved in gangs are in search for a ‘strong father figure’ or a ‘male role model’ then serves to idealise the notion of the father. Agencies look to fill this missing male role model figure which is positive and valuable. However it supports a certain stereotype of fatherhood, as if the absent-fathers would just be kicking a football around with their sons if only they weren’t absent. I suspect the reality is far more complex.


In a landscape where absent fathers are often mentioned I don’t see many high profile media campaigns and initiatives challenging men to be better fathers. Holding men to account for being abusive. Supporting men to have positive continuing relationships after relationship break down, where safe and appropriate. Pressure to continue to parent.

So just naming the absent father doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact it seems to purposefully negate the story. It is simpler to be absent and to exist in a void than it is to be held accountable for the active or historical abuse, neglect, or absence. It also allows the notion of the idealised universal father ideal to live on unchallenged.

It is important that the narrative of the absent father is aired and explored, to find the fuller picture of the family and children’s experience.

It is imperative to ask, what was the story before the absence?

Behind the absence?

After the absence?

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