skip to site navigation

Single Custodial Fathers – A Challenge For Social Services in New Zealand

By Harald Breiding-Buss

January 2000

An “appreciation (worship?) of the family is confined in [NZ] government philosophy tp the nuclear, two parents and children, family.” argues Hyman (1995:120).

Most New Zealand researchers, however, are very conscious of the diversity among families and family arrangements (e.g. Koopman-Boyden 1991, Maxwell 1989), but there is at least one type of family that tends to be overlooked in policy analysis, public debates and our social and community support system.

I am reffering to single custodial fathers. With this paper I am aiming to shed some light on problems single fathers often face, and the challenge arising for our social services out of these problems.

It draws on some published research, but largely on the experiences of the Father&Child Trust (Christchurch) and other fathers groups affiliated with the NZ Father&Child Society.

Examples of individual cases are given to highlight concerns, but also to show the human face behind the numbers.

In some cases reported here I have made changes to details to protect the clients’ privacy, or such changes have been made when these cases were published as indicated. About 30 individual cases were considered for this paper, and the sample is biased in the respect that all these fathers have contacted, or have been referred to, a support organisation.

Services directed at fathers, in particular services run by other men, are all still in the set-up phase, and in most New Zealand cities no significant services even exist.

As a result, the problems of single fathers largely remain speculative. This paper attempts to draw attention to these issues and to point to problems the full extent of which we do not know for certain.

Avenues to Single Fatherhood

In New Zealand about one in 7 single parents (15%) is a man (Davey,1999). This is a reasonably high figure internationally; the corresponding figure for the UK is only 1.3% (Burgess, 1997).

It is also a figure that has stabilised in recent years, largely unaffected by economic indicators. Children are the most likely to live with only their father the older they are and when they are male (Davey, 1999). Only about 500 children under one live with their fathers only in New Zealand, while in all age groups between 50 and 60% of those children are male.

Single fathers are more likely to be in part-time or full-time employment than single mothers, and less than 10% of DPB recipients (but 15% of sole parents) are male. It is also worth noting that there is a higher percentage of Maori among single fathers than among the general population.

While it could be argued that small minorities need small attention, our society in general tends to take the opposite view: that the issues of minorities need special attention and help lest they end up submerged under the majority with the result of being socially disadvantaged.

This is especially true when children are involved, whose wellbeing has to be the paramount objective in all social work, and whose “best interest” is the guiding principle of the Family Court. This particular minority comprises 28,000 children – a city the size of Nelson.

There are many ways a father can become a single father.

In the past the most common way was through the death of the mother, often in childbirth (George and Wilding 1972). Among the clients of the Father&Child Trust, inadequate parenting by the mother is the main reason.

This may be as a result of drug or alcohol abuse, mental illness, or violence (see single fathers and mother’s abuse below). In some cases the couple agrees to the father having custody when the relationship breaks up.

There is also a considerable number of cases where custody changes, often years after the breakup, from the mother to the father, usually due to the children’s choice, or problems with teenage boys the mother feels unable to cope with.

Such cases often lead to “split” custody: some children from the same parents living with the father, others with the mother. A small number of cases have come to our attention where a father has become the custodial parent after having been excluded from any contact with his children for several months.

In addition, while at any given time about 15% of single parents may be fathers, the number of separated men that will be single fathers during at least a limited period is higher.

In those relationships, where arrangements are made amiably after the breakup, living arrangements of the children tend to change frequently depending on the economic circumstances, career choices and personal and changing preferences of both children and parents.

Support And Services For Single Fathers

Support Institutions

Many single fathers share with partnered fathers in primary caregiver positions a sense of isolation (Calister 1995, Breiding-Buss, 1999).

The feeling prevails that the services available to parents and children are not intended for males. This message is conveyed through a playgroup called “mothers group”, a kindergarten asking for “mother help”, or a Playcentre newsletter focussing on parenting-unrelated women’s issues.

This suggests perhaps tolerance but not inclusion of fathers. This sense of not being included is not unique to New Zealand (e.g. Grbich 1997).

Some single fathers contacting us have been asked to wait until the mothers in a group have all been consulted if they feel comfortable about a man joining – and sometimes such groups have declined. One single father related a particularly frustrating event: He dropped in at the “Single Parent Association”, when his baby son was three months old, only to be told that this organisation had just changed their name to “Women Parenting Alone”.

Believing to be automatically suspected of child abuse simply for being male is another reason for single fathers to be hesitant about approaching support services.

A report to the Australian Department of Family and Community Services found that this may not be such a far-fetched idea: a large number of professionals showed very distorted views about child abuse and 30-40 % vastly overestimated the proportion and actual extent of male child abuse, especially sexual abuse.

Single fathers often consider it safest to keep their “heads down” and to “tough it out”. The deep sitting mistrust even towards organisations such as the Plunket Society would probably surprise their workers.

And yet in the eyes of many single fathers they are part of a system that upholds mothers’ superiority in parenting and allocates only a secondary role to fathers. Many believe that if they seek support from Plunket this will be seen as a symptom of the typical male inadequacy in parenting, and this in turn triggers deep sitting fears of having their child taken from them or at least their lives unreasonably intruded upon.

Feelings of inadequacy sometimes surface in the fathers themselves – some feel that their children are missing out on an essential ingredient for healthy growth through not living with the mother. A poem by a single father published in Father&Child (#7, 1999) sums these feelings up (excerpt):

I know they ask themselves
“What have I done wrong”
Innocents who deserve all there is
Stuck with this!
A child without the mater blanket
The warmth and snuggle of a breast and breath of that
That carried them
Only to deliver them to me.

I Know I do my best
But I know my best at times is not good enough for them
I know I can’t give them the breastfed smothering of “Don’t Climb Trees”
As my urges are to push them out onto the limb

There is little research available on the subject of the characteristics and wellbeing of children in single father families – there is certainly less concern about the “motherlessness” of these children than the “fatherlessness” of the children in single mother households (Davey, 1999).

There are some indications that the parenting styles of single fathers are not too different from mothers (Downey, 1998; Cohen, 1995).

Where there is support for single fathers, it can often make a dramatic difference. One single father, whose son was severely abused by a boyfriend of his mother, reports how his wounds only started to heal when he got involved with the Father&Child Trust in Dunedin (Father&Child #8, 1999):

“That was the final piece in the puzzle. I’m pulling off the bandages. I’m feeling better than I have in five or six years.”

Those support services available to fathers struggle to make themselves known, as fathers are not part of the networks that mothers form, often with the help of health service providers, during their first pregnancy.

Mothers often find out about support services by being referred from another service – most often a midwife, nurse, childcare supervisor or other women they have met while using a service for mothers. These avenues are much less accessible to fathers and they depend on the general media or the presence of posters and information in public places to find out about such services.

Fathers groups do not normally have the means to advertise in this way.

Government Agencies

Government agencies such as WINZ reflect the ambivalent attitudes of society towards single dads, which seems to swing between supportive comments for a particular father and negative feelings about childraising not being a proper job for a man.

In one case, a single father of four was so upset about persistent negative attitudes by his WINZ case worker that he no longer used their services even when, through a series of unfortunate events, he could not bring food on the table for his children.

He said he was regularly abused by the WINZ worker and told to “get his life together instead of playing childcare centre”. He was later caught stealing fruit in a supermarket.

Another single father of two boys reports that he had been told he was “pushing shit uphill” by a Social Welfare worker, and “don’t expect to get invited around for cups of tea with the mums in the area.”. In his own words (Father & Child #8, 1999):

“Social Welfare, friends, family – everyone was telling me the kids need their mum, not their dad. […] I could see my future only in terms of a downward spiral. So I sent the kids back [to their mother].”

Single father families can have very complicated structures if children from more than one mother are involved.

The Family Court appears to have a tendency to keep children from the same mother (but sometimes different fathers) together. As a result some single fathers are custodial fathers of some of their children, but non-custodial of others.

While they receive income assistance for the children in their custody, they are liable for child support for those that aren’t and at the same time they tend to maintain a house and car big enough to accommodate all children, custodial and non-custodial.

Our parent support system may not be geared very well to accommodate the logistics of such complicated cases. To illustrate, in one case a Maori father had custody of his two oldest children from a previous marriage, another younger child from a different partner, and shared custody of a 2.5 year old girl with yet another woman.

After a sexual abuse allegation involving stepchildren from his first partner (that were later shown in a CYPFA report to be unsubstantiated), custody of the two oldest children changed to the mother and he could only see those children under supervision.

However, when he once arrived late for supervision because of illness of his youngest child, the service provider indefinitely terminated his access unilaterally. In a written explanation they claimed the father had red eyes and appeared to be “under the influence of drugs”.

The father says he had never taken any drugs and just came from a sleepless night with a pre-schooler that came down with a serious stomach infection. The idea that a parent can have supervised access to some of his children while being the custodial parent of others seems alien and defying common sense.

But this case, while far from common, is not unique.

Friends and Family

Single fathers also do not seem to have the same family support networks as single mothers (although it may be that this more isolated group of fathers is particularly likely to seek the services of the Father&Child Trust and therefore come to our attention).

This observation is in line with O’Brien’s (1987), who found that compared to married fathers, single fathers on average have less contact to their families and less social contacts in general. At the same time, there is a subgroup of single custodial fathers who have much more family support than the average married father.

As with solo mothers, some solo fathers may, indeed, become closer again to their own parents after separation (as an example see: “Rediscovering my parents”: Father & Child #9, 1999).


Funding for community-based parent services is often part of the general social services funding system. More often than not, social services funding guidelines specifically state the enhancement of the position of women in society as a goal (see, for example, COGS application forms and guidelines).

Committees deciding about funding under the Community Organisations Grants Scheme have special representatives for women.

Forms for Lottery Grants Board applications also ask for the gender of the beneficiaries of the project.

The Father&Child Trust Christchurch, the largest community organisation with specifically father-targeted services in New Zealand, has received a total of $1500 from government sources in the 1999/2000 financial year – less than 5% of its total budget, less than 10% of the amount applied, and significantly less even than the income the Trust generates itself through membership and service charges.

More than 2000 children live with their fathers only in Christchurch alone.

Even if all funds of the Father&Child Trust were directed at these families, in the absence of any other community or support services for single fathers this would mean total government funding for community services for the children in single father families amounts to less than $1 per head in Christchurch – and no more than a few cents across the country.

Both, the Australian and US federal governments have made substantial amounts of money available for support and research of fathers.

Current NZ funding policies encourage the development of services for mothers only and discourage a focus on whole families or co-parenting (see for example COGS application forms, guidelines and committee structure).

While it could be argued that partnered fathers benefit at least indirectly from the services offered to their partners, single fathers have very limited access to services sponsored by the government’s community funding system.

With little money available to target services to both parents relative to targeting them only to mothers, those funding policies may lock in a status quo that policy makers recognise as undesirable and, in fact, limit women’s choices.

Special Issues

Single fathers and mother’s abuse

A significant number of fathers gain custody of their children as a result of clearly inadequate parenting by the mother: very often drug or alcohol abuse, compounded by child abuse or neglect.

In our experience these situations seem more common among Maori children.

Nevertheless it is a common complaint by such fathers that they feel anxious of having to hand custody back to the mother as soon as she “feels better”. In the view of these fathers, the “system” does everything to help the mother get back on track and is particularly careful in allowing plenty of contact with the children.

At the same time they believe that they would not be helped in the same way in a similar situation – that if they would show the slightest inadequacy as parents their children would be taken away from them.

There is no doubt that many fathers take custody of their children after a long period of abuse or neglect by the mother. In all all such cases that have come to our attention those fathers had to go to considerable lengths to be given custody of the children, in particular if they had not been living together with the mother.

The children, as a result, have special needs, but the fathers’ mistrust of government agencies and a lack of services specifically for men prevents them from seeking assistance in the important task of helping children cope with the aftermath.

The concerns of this group of single fathers are similar to the concerns of mothers with children from abusive fathers, but they are compounded by a lack of father-friendly support services.

Where unsupervised contact with the mother continues the fathers feels worried and helpless.

One father reported that the mother of his child grows poppies in her garden in order to bleed them for opium in late spring/early summer. His son had once reported that her mother had let him “taste” the paste.

On another instance this same child had, at the age of two, witnessed his mother giving herself a shot and becoming unconscious as a result, leaving him completely unsupervised for more than two hours.

The father’s attempts to let the mother have access only under supervision – and preferably not at all during the time the poppies are mature enough to be bled – have consistently been thwarted by the mother’s psychologist, who claimed that she was “getting better” and was no danger to the child.

In one instance a single father agreed to shared custody with the mother, even though she had a documented clinical record of mental problems and there was substantial evidence for severe child abuse by her.

At the age of just a few months, the child had to be hospitalised for malnutrition due to neglect by the mother. However, this father did not believe that a Court would give him custody of his child, because of a bias against fathers.

His lawyer, too, advised that shared custody, agreed on out of court, would be the best possible outcome. (Father & Child #7, 1999)

In neither of these cases had the father come under any suspicions of wrongdoing himself or had any previous convictions. In our experience the idea that the Family Court discriminates against fathers is an almost universally held opinion among separated fathers.

It is also the predominant view in New Zealand society overall (Julian, 1999).

These examples demonstrate that, even if the Family Court was not actually biased, the mere perception that it is can do a lot of damage to children’s lives. An inquiry into Family Court proceedings could go some way to restore faith in this part of the legal system.

This had been done in countries with similar problems, such as Canada (Father&Child 1998, 1999).

There is also some evidence that the Domestic Violence Act is not as effective in protecting fathers and their children as it is for mothers.

In two cases applications for Protection Orders have been declined and the case referred to mediation, even though the required affidavit had been filed and the applicants could even produce corroborating evidence in the form of testimonies by third parties.

Such evidence is not required under the Act. This is a surprising contradiction in practice to the intention of the Act as an immediate intervention tool. However our biggest concern is that lawyers appear to consistently fail to advise their male clients of the provisons of the Act even in cases where there is clear evidence for child or spousal abuse by the mother.

Single Fathers with Babies

Unlike single mothers, expecting fathers who live by themselves do not attend ante-natal classes and aren’t part of post-natal networks and education emerging from them.

Like most other parent services, ante-natal classes are seen by fathers as services specifically intended for women; they believe it to be inappropriate to attend by themselves as men (but are often keen to take up the idea when it is suggested).

Most ante-natal classes today cover basic parenting during the first months, especially feeding and safety, in addition to issues to do with pregnancy and labour.

More important, however, may be the fact that these fathers establish a relationship with a midwife, which can be the first support and resource person if the father should actually gain custody. In those hospitals which run a relationship of fatherhood module with a male facilitator there is also an opportunity to make contact with existing male networks.

Single fathers with babies do not usually appear in the records of Plunket nurses – the mother is Plunket’s target of support.

A single father usually gains custody after any visits by the Plunket nurse are completed, once again missing out on important information regarding networking among parents in their community and informal parenting advice.

There are, however, encouraging examples where individual Plunket nurses regular visit single fathers, even though there is no funding for these special visits.

On taking custody a father will usually have to quit his job. As a male not living with the mother at the time of the birth he is not covered by Parental Leave legislation, and his annual leave gives him too little time to sort out his affairs.

In one case, a fathers did not even know that he had a child until he was notified by a CYPFA social worker that they intended to put the child in his custody if a paternity test was positive..

Work and Single Fathers

As indicated above, single fathers are more likely to be in paid work than single mothers. Our experience indicates that these tend to be jobs with highly flexible working hours – very often the father is self-employed or under a contract with an employer as an independent “supplier”.

However, it is very common for such fathers to report that they would prefer to quit their jobs and live on the DPB. Reasons for staying in the job often have to do with fears that they may not be able to re-enter the workforce later, the desire to maintain a reasonable living standard, the wish to be a “proper male role model”, and feelings of guilt to be dependend on other people’s money.

Many single fathers want their children to grow up learning that a living has to be earned.

However the stress of juggling work and young children without having access to support networks or free and easily available childcare in the form of family members shows in many of our clients.

One computer programmer regularly worked between bedtime for his son and about 3 in the morning, only to rise again at 7 to get ready for kindergarten at 9.

This was followed by another three hours at work, and looking after his son for the rest of the day.

Others use the opportunity to do part-time courses to gain further qualifications – professions which are likely to allow flexible working times, such as computer-related professions, are chosen often.

At the lower end of the socio-economic scale the fathers often keep themselves “on call” for former employers – for example as delivery truck drivers, supermarket checkout operators or in warehouses.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The situation of single fathers is symptomatic for the lack of support services for fathers in general. While parents are supported and educated through many avenues – midwives, nurses and other health professionals; Playcentres; community organisations and others – none of these seem to take a family or gender-neutral approach.

Management and staff are virtually exclusively female, and publications and resources available to parents tend to reflect this fact.

This not only has a significant negative impact on men getting more involved in childcare, but it leaves those who are very involved or who are in primary caregiver positions, such as single fathers, with a range of unneccessary problems, most of all the problem of isolation (Breiding-Buss, 1999).

Isolation is not a good prerequisite for parenting.

Parents who don’t mix with other parents, don’t attend playgroups or access other services, miss out on information. This informal transfer of parent information is probably more important than formal parent education courses, which reach only a small fraction of parents.

Normally formal parent education is a one-off event in those parents lives, and with no lasting back-up support any positive results may not withstand the test of time.

The demand for such courses has dropped significantly in the last few years, and they are rarely age-related. Many specific parenting courses for fathers have been devised and set up, none has been really successful.

A parent without good networks is disadvantaged in their parenting, because there is no standard to measure their parenting performance against, no pool of knowledge to access for specific problems.

Isolation is also a cause for depression or child abuse. We do not know how big an issue mental health or parenting problems are for single dads, but we do know that single fathers are almost absent from public life and from places where parents meet.

This should be a cause for concern.

Russell (1987) has investigated “role-reversed” families in Australia and found a high rate of reverting back to traditional roles after relatively short times and believed this is partly due to social attitudes and the lack of support systems for fathers.

This conclusion would be supported by O’Brien’s (1987) findings that fathers with strong family support are the most likely to fight for custody in the first place. For those, however, who find themselves in this situation involuntarily, the option to “reverse roles” obviously does not exist.

We cannot afford to ignore the children of parents who live in non-traditional set-ups. If we do, we believe that a child living with its father is second class to a child living with its mother.

We have made our compassion for children conditional on which parent they live with.

In the short term there is a need for more research on just about every aspect of single father families and an urgent need for extra funding and structural support to provide support services specifically for single fathers.

I believe the government has a responsibility to those children and has to act on their behalf – it cannot wait until those support services form spontaneously while funding remains prioritised on services accessible only to mothers.

The same structural barriers and concerns that prevent single fathers from more involvement in their communities also prevent them from setting up self-help services.

In the long term, however, there needs to be a review of policies for all state services affecting parents and children and these services need to be made ready for a new era that has long begun.

The problems single fathers face may be seen as symptomatic for problems of support for the father’s caregiving role in New Zealand in general. Parents approaching support services need to see male and female faces; they need to be given resources that depict men and women in caregiving roles, and that use gender-neutral and inclusive language.

State agencies must be better educated about modern families and direct measures need to be taken to accommodate the increasing variety of living arrangements.

There are good reasons that some services are targeted specifically to mothers, and there are also good reasons that some services should be specifically targeted to fathers.

But our mainstream system dealing with the majority of all parents should not make those distinctions, unless the government wants to lock in the status quo of a mainly caregiving mother and a mainly breadwinning father, regardless of the parents’ own preferences or economic potential.

The high fluctuation of cargiving arrangements among New Zealand parents today, whether living together or apart, makes a better inlcudion of men in social services an important issue for the welfare of our children.


Breiding-Buss, H. (1999): “Developing Support Services for Fathers” in: Birks/Callister: Perspectives on Fathering II, CPPE Massey University, pp 30.

Breiding-Buss, H. (1999): “Non-stereotypical Fathers” in: Birks/Callister: Perspectives on Fathering, CPPE Massey University

Burgess, A. (1997) Fatherhood Reclaimed, Random House (UK)

Callister, P. (1995) Men and childcare – an issue for social policy? Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, 5: 53-66

“Canadian Public Wants More Rights for Separated Fathers” in: Father&Child #5 (1998) p.4 and “Shared Parenting in Canada” in: Father & Child #7 (1999) p. 11

Cohen, O.: “Divorced Fathers Raise Their Children by Themselves”. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage 23 (1-1), 1995. Pp 55

Davey, J.A. (1999): Children Living in Sole Father Homes in NZ. In Birks/Callister: “Perspectives on Fathering II”, CPPE Massey University, pp105.

Downey, D B; Ainsworth-Darnell, J W; Dufur, M J: “Sex of Parent and Children’s Wellbeing in Single-Parent Households”. Journal of

Father & Child News

The Last Post

As the history of Father & Child is at an end, it is time to reduce the hosting costs and... Read more →