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Why language matters: 'hidden' in plain sight

Last updated: 26 Sept 2022 Topics: Blog
Why language matters: improving safeguarding and child protection practice with words | Image: close-up of male parent and young child engaging in a colouring activity

From the NSPCC's Library and Information Service specialists

'Hidden men' and 'invisible fathers' are terms often used in response to the idea that male caregivers in a child’s life can sometimes be excluded from services or overlooked by professionals working with children and their families. With words like 'hidden' and 'invisible', you might imagine that these men hide behind the sofa when the health visitor calls round, or camouflage themselves into the wall during a GP appointment. In reality, literature tells us that these men are often not 'hidden' at all, but rather 'unseen'.

Why do male caregivers need to be 'seen'?

At every stage in a child’s life, male caregivers such as fathers, stepfathers, or mother’s partners, play an important role in a child’s cognitive, emotional, and physical development1 . They may be primary caregivers or provide support by sharing caring responsibilities. Yet in some cases, fathers and male carers are not able to access service or appropriate parenting support and education to allow them to be the best parent they can be2. Without including men, professionals may also fail to identify positive caring factors or detect potential safeguarding concerns in a child’s life. 

Thinking about who is 'unseen' or 'unknown' can help professionals to focus on how to identify and engage with the men in a child's life and consider any support or protection needs.

Why do male caregivers go 'unseen'?

Over-focus on maternal care giving

Male caregivers may be overlooked for inclusion in services because some professionals may wrongly assume that women are the sole or main caregivers and that men do not want to participate.

Working hours, lack of outreach from universal services involved in parenting, and an absence of tailored support reduces opportunities for fathers and male caregivers to learn how to care for their child or get support for any problems that they are facing.

Analysis of case reviews found that services relied on the mother to provide information on their child’s life, when there were male caregivers with knowledge or concerns to share.

Lack of information sharing

Some case reviews highlight how a lack of information sharing between agencies caused men to go 'unseen'. For example, practitioners in adult services (such as substance misuse or mental health) may be unaware that a man they are supporting is in contact with children, and therefore don’t share potential safeguarding concerns with professionals working directly with children and families.

Fathers and male caregivers may also not be kept up to date with health or safeguarding concerns involving their child, due to services communicating solely with mothers, and so are not able to participate fully in caring for and protecting them.

Professional anxiety or sensitivity

Some case reviews found that in instances where a child’s male caregiver was abusive or intimidating, practitioners avoided engaging with them due to fear or anxiety.

Practitioners also sometimes failed to spot an unsafe man in a child’s life because they felt uncomfortable assessing the mother’s personal or sexual relationships.

(Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, 20213; Vincent, Su, Dudley Safeguarding People Partnership, 20214).

How can we ensure that male caregivers are 'seen'?

Learning from case reviews has shown how agencies can identify and involve men in a child’s life.


  • Ask questions and work with a child’s primary caregivers to identify any men in the child’s life.
  • ‘See the adult behind the child’ and work with other agencies to find out the members of a child’s household and any new adults the child has significant contact with.
  • Record the different names or aliases fathers and male carers go by, (such as nicknames), which could reduce the risk of them being missed out or mislabelled.


  • Expand universal service appointment times to allow fathers and male caregivers to accompany their child to services.
  • Teach parents about the important role that fathers and male caregivers play in child wellbeing.
  • Start a dialogue with fathers and male carers about any concerns or harmful behaviours in their own lives. This may reduce the stigma around asking for help and allow them to access appropriate services.


Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) (2021) The best start for life: a vision for the 1,001 critical days. Department of Health and Social Care.
Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel (2021) The myth of invisible men: safeguarding children under 1 from non-accidental injury caused by male carers (PDF). London: Department for Education
Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel (2021) The myth of invisible men: safeguarding children under 1 from non-accidental injury caused by male carers (PDF). London: Department for Education
Dudley Safeguarding People Partnership (2021) Local child safeguarding practice review report: Children: Q and R (PDF). Dudley: Dudley Safeguarding People Partnership.

Key points to take away…

Shifting to using 'unseen' instead of 'hidden' may:

  • build a fuller picture of the network of relationships around a child
  • identify potential child protection concerns or protective factors in a child’s life
  • recognise men in need of support for themselves or help with parenting
  • help fathers and male carers access support and education to best care for their child.