Avoiding cultural and racial traps in child protection

Social workers involved with families from ethnic minorities can be bamboozled by some of their customs. Gordon Carson reports on how to demystify beliefs while engaging positively

Social workers involved with families from ethnic minorities can be bamboozled by some of their customs. Gordon Carson reports on how to demystify beliefs while engaging positively

(picture: Rex, model released)

The trial of Nigerian pastor Lucy Adeniji, who was this month convicted at Isleworth Crown Court for keeping two privately fostered children as slaves, shows the child protection issues raised in the high-profile cases of Victoria Climbié and Khyra Ishaq continue among families from ethnic minorities.

Despite the inquiries and training that have followed such cases, there are still concerns that many social workers are not fully equipped to work with families from ethnic minorities and, in particular, are wary of tackling cultural and religious practices and beliefs they do not fully understand.

“Social workers are afraid of being labelled as racist,” says Mor Dioum, director of the Victoria Climbié Foundation, which was set up by the girl’s parents to campaign for improvements in child protection policies and practices. “People are extremely protective about their culture and religious beliefs. Most of us have a belief system, but where that’s harmful or destructive to children we need to deal with it and expose it.”

Perdeep Gill, an independent child protection consultant, supports Dioum’s views. Gill says it is “easy to become entrapped by cultural and/or religious beliefs that seem mystifying”.

She adds: “As long as you maintain a baseline of what is acceptable parenting and what is harmful to children, you will not be lost in the debate about culture or religion, nor allow these powerful subjects to supersede the safety of children.”

Here, four experts highlight how social workers can strive to achieve positive outcomes when particular issues emerge in work with families from ethnic minorities.

WITCHCRAFT Perdeep Gill, independent child protection consultant

The scenario: Fifi, seven, lives with her parents and two siblings. Her parents arrived in the UK six years ago and she joined them from Angola last year. She tells a teacher that she is hungry because she has been forced to fast as her parents believe she is a witch – she has “kindoki”. Fifi’s parents say they love her and would never physically harm her. But they want her to undergo “deliverance”.

The professional challenge: These beliefs need to be addressed to understand whether they strengthen or weaken the risk of harm within a family.

Techniques for social workers: Social workers should explore the parents’ rationale step by step and analyse the potential consequence of beliefs. Social workers can create cognitive and emotional dissonance (the uncomfortable feeling of holding two conflicting ideas or beliefs simultaneously) by using the parents’ points of reference, ie the scriptures. But do not insist the parents are misinterpreting these because this could strengthen resistance.

Social workers should ask a number of questions of Fifi. What does kindoki mean? What does she feel about kindoki? Does she believe in kindoki? If yes, why?

They should also ask the parents questions including: How are children disciplined in Angola? What methods do people use to get rid of kindoki? How can kindoki be explained in the context of the Bible?

FORCED MARRIAGE Daksha Mistry, executive director, Reconstruct Training

The scenario: A school suspects a female pupil, who is about to take a long holiday, could be forced to marry against her will. They refer the case to children’s services.

The professional challenge: The family say this practice is part of their culture and their religion. They do not speak English and the social workers use an interpreter from the family’s community.

Techniques for social workers: Be wary of using an interpreter from the community. It is unlikely that they will be trained in child protection and the could collude with the family.

Social workers should listen to the young person, and talk to them about their wishes and feelings. If this is difficult, it should raise concerns about risk. They should also point to relevant guidance and legislation, such as Chapter 6 of Working Together to Safeguard Children, which shows that, even if forced marriage is a cultural norm for the family, in this country it is unacceptable.

Social workers should also work with the local community, including women’s groups, to see whether they can engage with the family and explain cultural norms in this country to them, as well as with national groups such as charity Karma Nirvana.

PRIVATE FOSTERING Savita de Sousa, BAAF private fostering special interest group

The scenario: Children’s services are contacted after a private foster carer takes a 14-year-old boy to register for a place at the school. The carer claims to have found him distressed outside a fish and chip shop and gave him shelter. She was reluctant to tell the local authority. The boy claims to be an orphan who travelled to the UK from Bangladesh.

The professional challenge: The private foster carer might be reluctant to engage with social services for several reasons. Her family may have a history of engaging in informal fostering and she is unaware of the requirement to notify the local authority. She may also fear that the boy’s religious and cultural needs will not be met if he is accommodated by the council.

Techniques for social workers: Professionals should challenge discrimination of any kind. The Children Act 1989 encourages due consideration to be given to the family’s and child’s needs arising from their race, culture and religion. Social workers should focus on the strengths of the family and work with professionals from ethnic minority backgrounds in the assessment of the young person’s needs and the delivery of a private fostering service.

FAMILY GROUP CONFERENCE Sean Haresnape, family group conference project manager, North Somerset Council/Family Rights Group

The scenario: The mother of two Ugandan children has died from an Aids-related illness. Both children have a legal right to remain in the UK. Before her death, the mother had identified two relatives as testamentary guardians, which bestows parental responsibility on them. But they are in dispute over who should have care of the children. The local authority social worker refers the case to a family group conference.

The professional challenge: The key is to enable a planning process sensitive to the cultural traditions of the family. It would have been better had planning occurred before the mother’s death, but the stigma of the HIV diagnosis made this difficult.

Techniques for social workers: Social workers have to recognise the influence of cultural tradition and the importance of family elders who are not formally part of the process. Children’s views are normally central to the FGC process, but this would not be given the same emphasis by some cultures.

Most FGC projects will aim to match the co-ordinator to the family and the meeting will be in the language of the family.

A meeting involving 15 family members, including the two girls, takes place after two months of planning, and a decision is reached despite the hostility between family members. It turns out that the key person who influenced this decision is a grandmother in Uganda, who had not been involved in the planning.

Special report on social work and ethnic minorities

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This article is published in the 3 March 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “How to avoid the racial traps”

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