Practice: Liverpool project Building Bridges supports people from ethnic minorities who face social exclusion

A project in Liverpool is helping people from ethnic minorities who are experiencing social exclusion and are not gaining access to mainstream services. Samantha Thorp reports

Adones* has had to struggle more than most. An asylum seeker from sub-Saharan Africa, she is still awaiting a decision on her immigration status, several years aft er coming to Liverpool.

The uncertainty over her future makes life difficult – she is unable to work, nor can she make plans for her future, she says. A single parent, her teenage son has learning difficulties and she also has a five-year-old daughter to look after.

Last year, Adones became increasingly depressed and contemplated suicide. It took a referral to local organisation Building Bridges for her to realise the pressure she was under. She was allocated a psychologist to talk through her problems and gain a more positive perspective on her life.

Managed by the Royal Liverpool Children’s NHS Trust, Building Bridges aims to reach out to families like Adones’s – those from ethnic minorities who are experiencing social exclusion and emotional or psychological problems and are not accessing mainstream services.

As well as counselling and therapy, the service offers advocacy, family group conferences for children at risk of being excluded from school or taken into care, and support for families with disabled children. Its focus on preventive work has been commended by the National Institute of Mental Health in England.

The multi-disciplinary staff include clinical psychologists and social workers, most of whom come from different ethnic backgrounds.  Service lead Iyabo Fatimilehin says: “Having practitioners who not only speak the same language as service users but also have the cultural awareness that may be lacking in mainstream services has been key to the success of our service.”

Adones agrees. Her counsellor was also from Africa and this, she believes, helped her to empathise with the problems. Adones says: “It’s really useful to speak with somebody who has a good idea of what your background and your culture is. A British person may not always understand.”

Before setting up Building Bridges, Fatimilehin worked in the local child and adolescent mental health team, where she realised that, despite high levels of need, families from ethnic minorities were becoming known to services only after problems had escalated – when there was a risk of children being taken into care, for example.

Building Bridges was set up in 2001 to tackle this problem, not just by providing culturally-specific services to families that need it but by working with statutory and voluntary sector providers to ensure that, in the long-term, mainstream services can be made accessible and relevant for all families.

Funding was originally provided through the local health action zone, but the service now relies on a combination of short-term local and national grants and the financial outlook remains uncertain. 

Extensive and ongoing consultation with the communities it is targeting has helped drive the direction of services. “This has been critical,” says Fatimilehin, “enabling staff to gain an understanding of the issues affecting families locally and develop interventions jointly with the communities concerned.”

A recent event organised for fathers and sons from the Somali community highlights this approach. Consultation with local families identified relationships within Somali families as a key challenge facing the community.

Building Bridges, along with local community organisations, helped devise and implement a well-attended fathers and sons day.

“The fathers and sons got the chance to talk about their experiences and to gain an understanding of each other’s perspectives,” says Fatimilehin.

The organisation also works in close partnership with other services. As well as offering training and consultation to help agencies improve their delivery of services to ethnic minority families, in cases where children are at risk of becoming  looked-after or are disabled, staff work jointly with other practitioners.

Fatimilehin says: “We act as a complement to rather than a replacement for existing services. It would be dangerous if all ethnic minority families were dealt with by us and us alone – it would marginalise them further.”

Lessons learned

● Recruit staff who are from the same ethnic backgrounds as your service users. It will help you to make stronger connections with your target community.
● Work in partnership with other services; mainstream service providers should not disengage from the service user after you have accepted a referral.
● Encourage self-referrals – families are less likely to engage with you if the idea has been imposed upon them.
● Community engagement is crucial – you need to understand what challenges different ethnic communities are facing.
● Act as a complement to other services not a replacement. Ethnic minority families could be marginalised if they do not have access to mainstream services.

This article appeared in the 22 February issue under the headline “Spanning contininents”


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