by Graham Brotherton, Newman University
A family you’re working with is thought to be at risk of leaving the UK to travel to Syria. They don’t trust you so refuse to engage. It’s a difficult situation that requires careful handling – do you have the experience, skills and confidence to deal with it?
This scenario is one example of how children, young people and families’ social work has a growing international context. The trouble is education and training does not necessarily reflect this. Providers of social work education, and the profession as a whole, needs to do more to help our social workers develop the skills and understanding to handle such situations.
Social work in the area of children, young people and families is already a complex vocation. The international context makes it more so. As well as understanding the intricacies of the UK system, social care professionals need to know about other countries’ systems. The job also demands they understand the cultural sensitivities when they’re working with immigrant communities and refugees.
Then there is the contentious issue of radicalisation. Specific challenges for practitioners in this area include the statutory duty to report young people who are considered to be at risk of radicalisation, which has been introduced under the government’s Prevent agenda.
Together with the earlier example of a potential move to Syria, practitioners are required to manage new and complex cases with limited practice experience to draw upon, which can lead to a sense of professional vulnerability.
As providers of professionals’ training, it is crucial that universities acknowledge these challenges and address them through revised course design and structure.
Firstly, we have a responsibility to ensure that students are given an opportunity to learn about the wider contexts and debates that may affect the individuals and families with whom they will work. They also need to know how attitudes among the wider population affect the support that is made available.
For example, the European migrant debate is scarcely out of the headlines at the moment. The media show a full spectrum of attitudes, from unequivocal support to outright hostility. Increasingly, it is being tied to the European Union referendum, which politicises the issue. This influences public attitudes and the willingness to provide support services.
Social care professionals inevitably find themselves on the frontline of such issues so it’s crucial they understand the context. They must also be able to identify need and support clients to access services or, if necessary, advocate on their behalf.
One of the difficulties, though, is trust. Many migrants are stigmatised and marginalised, both in their home countries and when they arrive in the UK. The politicisation of international events adds to this. These people may have encountered traumatic experiences before or on their journeys to Britain.
The net result is that there is often distrust within the migrant communities as well as the wider communities in which they now live. This makes it very difficult for a social worker to assess their needs and deliver appropriate services.
Social care professionals working with these groups need to understand the issues that can affect the quality of their interactions. This could be the traumas experienced by a family or individual or their encounters with authorities in different countries.
Religious and cultural needs also play a part as does their understanding of the UK’s culture. Even their expectations of life in the UK can have an impact on how individuals interact with support workers.
‘Play it safe’
An added problem is that a social worker needs to assimilate a lot of different – often conflicting – information.
For example, we have a policy context that encourages professionals to ‘play it safe’. Add to this the fact that many in the wider population believe these groups have no legitimate claim for resources. A social worker needs to cut through all this and have the confidence to make informed judgments.
Employers and training providers have a responsibility to help social workers develop these skills. They need to provide space, time and networks to help social care professionals learn more about these issues. This will equip them with the knowledge, interpersonal and decision-making skills needed to navigate such politically and culturally-charged cases.
In short, we have to give our social care professionals the skills they need to engage beyond the superficial so they can identify – and source – the real support required on a case-by-case basis.
A fine line
Neither the challenges nor the solutions are restricted to national level. One need only look at the international nature of those involved in the Paris shootings or the diversity of the migrant crisis to see that existing national policies are not equipped to deal with many of these issues.
Social workers tread a very fine line between the needs of the community and the requirements – and sometimes the barriers – posed by national policy.
We need international dialogue at practitioner level as well as in policy to develop a wider understanding of the issues. This might include an exploration of how systems work in different countries as well as ways to adapt them to provide a more joined-up approach that will better serve vulnerable families.
One approach is to internationalise our training curriculums from the off. After all, if current and future generations of social workers are to work in a global environment, we need to place traditional training in this context from the start. That way, we allow them to compare and contrast different approaches, share challenges and good practice across borders.
Joint research programmes would be beneficial. So too would the creation of links between practitioners across Europe. We need to provide objective tracking of trends and issues on a continuous basis to inform the profession.
At Newman University, we have recently partnered with Ludwigsburg University of Applied Social Sciences in Germany to begin addressing some of these issues. We have developed an undergraduate dual award in working with children, young people and families and international social work. We believe it is the first degree of its kind.
But this is only the first step. The whole sector needs to work together and share experiences across discipline, political and geographical boundaries if we’re to succeed in providing high quality support for families who face global challenges that we could only have dreamed of just a few short decades ago.
Graham Brotherton is head of working with children, young people and families at Newman University, Birmingham