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Page last updated at 09:42 GMT, Monday, 17 January 2011
Feckless father cannot remember children's names

By Declan Lawn
BBC Panorama

Keith Macdonald of Sunderland
Keith Macdonald, 25, has been the subject of tabloid headlines

Keith Macdonald is a difficult man to pin down, repeatedly changing our plans to meet up in Newcastle.

I'm not sure why I am surprised; Keith is not exactly a poster boy for reliability.

The tabloids have dubbed him - among other things - Britain's most feckless father.

At just 25, Keith has eight children by eight different women - and he never sees any of them.

When we do meet, he's not what I expected. Sharp-faced and wiry, he doesn't exude much magnetism. I had expected him to have the gift of the gab, perhaps to be a bit arrogant, but he is softly spoken.

He also seems bewildered at his notoriety, as if having eight children with eight different women and walking away from them all is a relatively natural state of affairs and undeserving of comment or censure.

If they want to come and find me when they're older, I'll talk to them
Keith Macdonald, father of eight

Keith's defence, which he gets in early, is that he has been much maligned - he does want to see his kids, he says, but he is not allowed to by their mothers.

If his ex-partners would only let him, he'd be a good dad. But they've moved on, says Keith. New partners, new lives. He reckons he has been frozen out.

OK, I say to him, so what are your children's names?

Keith hesitates, and then starts counting on his hands. At the sixth child, he gives up. Then, as I splutter my disbelief, he pulls a seventh name out of the bag.

The eighth eludes him. I don't quite know what to say to that, but Keith thinks that's natural - how can he be expected to remember his kids' names when he is not allowed to see them?

Nor does he support them financially - sleeping on friends' sofas because he's homeless, and drifting on and off benefits, he can barely do that for himself.

So why doesn't he use a condom?

"It's like wearing a wet sock. They're vile. I just can't do it"

No contact

I tell Keith that his argument about lack of access to his children doesn't really stand up - if he really wants to see his children, he can. He has rights. But when it comes to connecting with his own children, Keith is content to play the long game.

Father and baby
Some new fathers feel they are not needed in the family

"If they want to come and find me when they're older, I'll talk to them".

The good news is men like Keith are in the minority.

About one in four households in Britain are headed up by single mums, but even when a father has left the family home, usually he is still in regular contact with his children.

But it is still the case that a sizeable minority of children in the UK have no contact with their fathers. A report based on children under five from the Millennium Cohort Survey found that about one in eight of them rarely or never see their fathers.

What's more, absent dads are more common in disadvantaged areas with high unemployment.

Parenting in poverty

Former Minister and Labour MP Frank Field has just completed a report for Prime Minister David Cameron on how best to address poverty.

Man, woman, child
Declan Lawn presents Panorama: Britain's Missing Dads, BBC One, Monday, 17 January at 2030 GMT
Or watch it later via the BBC iPlayer

His main conclusion? The government needs to tackle poor parenting in the most disadvantaged parts of the country - and that means looking again at how the system works.

He said unemployment rates and the benefits system have meant that young men can now walk away from their children.

"We're the first generation in recorded history where society has not made the man who begets a child responsible for that child. We took the easy way out."

But not all young men want to walk away - some just need help clearing a path to a relationship with their children.

One prominent researcher in the field says we should be careful when applying the "feckless" label to every absent dad.

"The vast majority of those men want to see their children," said Adrienne Burgess of the Fatherhood Institute.

"Very often they're unconfident, they feel they have no value. There are all kinds of barriers that they may not be strong enough or confident enough to overcome, but they're not feckless in that sense of the word."

'Pied Piper'

Seany O'Kane has made it his business to do everything he can to bring young men who might first appear to be feckless back in touch with their children.

He is a young fathers' worker with a charity called St Michael's Fellowship and he has a simple job spec - he collects fathers.

He is good at it - so good he has been dubbed the Pied Piper of South London dads.

His approach is bases on simple persistence - Seany works the phones, sends texts, emails, and knocks on doors to engage young men who often have very significant problems in their lives preventing them from being good fathers.

Frank Field, MP
Frank Field has called for parenting lessons in schools

Once they are interested, he deals with their practical problems and starts setting up visits with their children.

Seany's determination is paying off - in the last two years St Michael's has reconnected at least 100 young men with their children.

It might seem like a small number given the scope of the problem, but for the fathers involved - and more importantly for their children - it holds tremendous significance.

Sue Pettigrew, the director of St Michael's, disputes the idea that there are a growing number of feckless fathers. She said it is an issue of not knowing where to turn for help in uncertain times and "not knowing where they can get support to be good dads".

The St Michael's approach is to address the problem one dad at a time.

Frank Field is a supporter of the project, but he thinks we also need to change attitudes on a much wider scale.

"It's got to be tackled at every possible opportunity and that is to re-establish those norms about what we expect from dads - that we expect them to work, we expect them to be engaged, that it's really important for their children and it's also quite important for their own long-term happiness as dads, that they are able to fulfil these roles."

Panorama: Britain's Missing Dads, BBC One, Monday, 17 January at 2030GMT and then available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer.

Growing up without a father
Tuesday, 8 December 2009, 09:50 GMT |  UK
Fathers 'unaware of their rights'
Thursday, 18 February 2010, 08:48 GMT |  Business
Britain's Missing Dads - useful websites
Monday, 17 January 2011, 13:34 GMT |  Panorama


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