SMS4dads awarded federal grant to take program to rural and remote areas

By Lauren Penny and Kerry Arabena

Last month the Australian Government announced that it is providing $16.6 million for perinatal mental health initiatives, through nine new grants. We were particularly thrilled to hear that $2.59 million was awarded to the University of Newcastle’s SMS4dads – a digital information and support service for new fathers.

SMS4dads is a free service that provides new dads with information and connects them to online services via text messages. This includes tips to ‘help fathers understand and connect with their baby’, as well as how they can best support their partner. The development of this initiative was informed by several studies, with research showing that fathers play a ‘vital role in the development of their babies’.

The new funding grant will mean that SMS4dads can be taken to rural and remote areas in all states and territories in Australia. Over the four-year grant period, the program will be available to fathers-to-be and new dads, as well as specifically targeting:

  • Aboriginal fathers;
  • fathers whose partners are experiencing mental illness; and
  • fathers whose partners have had a miscarriage or stillbirth.

According to SMS4dads, it is vital for fathers to feel included in parenting material, as ‘most parenting information is currently directed at mums’ and there is little information available that speaks directly to fathers. This is an issue that has been increasingly brought to light in recent years.

In Asserting the Modern Matriarchy, a report co-developed by Karabena Consulting, we noted that various State and Territory policy documents have no specific focus on gender, and most are silent on elements of fathering and families. For instance, Queensland’s strategic report Our Future State: Advancing Queensland’s Priorities emphasises that a good start to life begins before conception and is influenced by a mother’s health and wellbeing and good antenatal care, without acknowledging the role of fathering and men’s responsibilities to their children during the early formation of their families. Similarly, a main goal in the Victorian Aboriginal Affairs Framework 2018-2023 is that Aboriginal children are born healthy and thrive. The focus of this goal is on improving maternal and infant health, with no mention of the impact that fathers have on the development of children. Further, the Northern Territory Child and Adolescent Health and Wellbeing Strategic Plan 2018–2028 includes programs to support young mothers but does not mention any support services for fathers.

While most strategic documents still tend to focus on mothers, there is increasing recognition of the role that fathers play in the development of the child. The National Framework for Health Services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children and Families and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan 2013–2023 (National Health Plan) both outline the importance of services acknowledging and including men in ‘the raising of children in a culturally appropriate way’. The National Health Plan also focuses on improving targeted programs for children including the Strong Fathers Strong Families initiative. Further, the New South Wales Government’s Strategic Health Plan for Children, Young People and Families 2014 –24 discusses the need to inform and include fathers/partners in pregnancy, antenatal care and preparation for parenthood.

However, there is still a clear gap in State/Territory and Commonwealth policies when it comes to support for fathers, particularly regarding their mental health. The National Strategic Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ Mental Health and Social and Emotional Wellbeing 2017-2023 focuses on strengthening maternal and child health services, including broadening antenatal care ‘to include support for perinatal depression screening and intervention strategies to reduce maternal stress’. However, there is no mention of mental health supports for new fathers. A key area of focus in the NSW Strategic Framework and Workforce Plan for Mental Health 2018-2022 is on women in the perinatal period and their infants:

‘Intervening early and ensuring partnerships and coordination with maternity, child and family health, mental health and other relevant support services is essential for women in the perinatal period and their infants and families.’

Again, there is no discussion of support for fathers in this document. There are various other examples of this across government strategies and frameworks in Australia. Although there is ‘increasing evidence of perinatal consequences for men’s mental health, fathers continue to report being marginalised by the maternity and early years’ services’. 

2019 research article found that while ‘consideration and concern for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men’s involvement and experiences prior to conception, prenatal and postpartum has slowly gained momentum in recent years’, there has been ‘little improvement in the overall provision of appropriate parenting support services and/or programs for these men’. Although there has been an increase in male parents wanting to be included throughout the parenting journey, researchers found that our First Nations’ men ‘still remain on the margins and largely unheard’.

This is further illustrated in an article in the Journal of Family Studies, which reiterates the ‘scarcity of contemporary documentation of the role and experience of fathers in Aboriginal Australian communities’ and discusses the lack of positive narratives about Aboriginal fathers, with the focus often instead on the failings of First Nations’ men. The article found that services and programs ‘directed to support Aboriginal males’ parenting are rare’. 

Similarly, a recent scoping review of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and parenting found that Indigenous men ‘rarely rate a mention within discussions of parenting unless framed in the negative, or as the cause of dysfunctional family life’. It discusses the importance of considering the contextual factors that have impacted on Indigenous male parenting, such as ‘colonisation, discrimination and bias in government policy’. While First Nations’ male parents have often been portrayed as ‘disinterested in and/or disengaged from their parental roles and responsibilities’, this is in fact ‘far from the truth’. 

The scoping review found that there is a ‘lack of rigorously researched and published literature on parenting programs that focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander male parents’. However, along with several other studies, it found that existing programs reported positive outcomes and ‘demonstrate that given the opportunity, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander male parents are ready and determined to fulfil their roles and responsibilities as parents to the best of their ability for the benefit of their families and communities’. 

First 1000 Days Australia’s men’s Charter – Our Men, Our Shields – was developed in recognition of the frequently inaccurate portrayal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fathers, and as a way of honouring and strengthening the role of Indigenous fathers. The Charter acknowledges that ‘a focus on mothers and babies, to the exclusion of men, undermines and undervalues the important contribution that men make to their families during those first 1000 days’. 

As outlined in the Charter, valuing the powerful capability of both men and women to support our infants is in keeping with our vision for a free, just and equitable society in which our cultures are valued and our parents are supported to ensure all children are set up for a good future. 

We welcome the news of the recent grant allocation to the SMS4dads program, and particularly look forward to the positive impact it will have on Aboriginal fathers and families. Please visit their website and share the program with the wonderful fathers-to-be and new dads in your life.

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