Paralysed around culture

Anabel Unity Sale reports on the issues and inhibitions that confront practitioners when dealing with child protection in faith communities

Social care practitioners working with faith communities have to navigate a minefield of cultural and faith beliefs when dealing with child protection issues. The challenge of reaching people from different cultures whose beliefs vary widely is best illustrated by what happens when professionals fail to rise to the challenge, as happened in the case of Victoria Climbié.

Despite being involved with several statutory agencies, Victoria died in appalling circumstances at the hands of her great aunt, Marie-Thérèse Kouao, and her partner. Although many of the agencies involved in the case committed errors, a misjudgement on cultural grounds occurred when social worker Lisa Arthurworrey put the “master-servant” relationship between Victoria and Kouao down to their cultural background, and not to any abuse Victoria was suffering.

Significant improvements have occurred since, spearheaded by the Every Child Matters agenda. And children’s minister Beverley Hughes recently told a Community Care conference that, although the government did not yet have the full picture on the extent of child abuse in faith communities, “momentum is gathering” in tackling it (Hughes acting on faith-related abuse, 2 March).

But there is still progress to be made. Some social care practitioners are still uncertain about how best to raise the subject of child protection with faith communities.

Child protection specialist Perdeep Gill has first-hand experience of their unease. Before launching Aditi Consultancy Services five years ago she was a child protection social worker and had also worked at Great Ormond Street Hospital’s child sexual abuse unit. She says: “I was conscious of professionals being unsure of what to do and where to go about child protection and cultural issues.”

This situation is just as problematic nowadays although there are examples of good practice. “Some practitioners still feel paralysed around culture,” says Gill. “There is a lot of language bandied around about ‘respect’ and ‘respecting others’ but social care has not worked out how to respect a culture while acknowledging its limits.”

Practitioners are worried about being labelled as racist when intervening with families from faith communities, particularly where their employer has not established clear guidelines on how to challenge families correctly when a child protection issue arises, she adds.

Daryl Dugdale, a senior training and development officer at the Bristol Safeguarding Children Board, reports a similar experience. He writes, co-ordinates and delivers child protection training courses for local multi-agency practitioners, including a course on race, diversity and child protection.

Participants often tell him they are unsure how they can work effectively with different ethnic communities: Dugdale says: “Practitioners either over-intervene or under-intervene because they don’t fully understand cultural differences. When they go into families and do assessments they are at risk of allowing stereotypes to get in the way of decision-making.”

The disproportionate number of Bristol’s non-white children on its child protection register might be interpreted as proof of this. As of September 2005 it was 24.2 per cent, even though the 2001 census showed that only 13.3 per cent of under-17s in Bristol were from non-white families.

Dugdale asks course participants to discuss whether they believe children from non-white communities are at greater risk from harm than white children. “Our individual value base will inform our practice and we have to filter out the stereotypes we all get from our conversations in the pub, the press and the people around us,” he says.

Working well with ethnic minority families on child protection issues is something that Shirley Maginley is trying to crack. Her unique role as a community link officer for the NSPCC was established two years ago to inform faith and cultural groups about minimising harm to their children. Based in London, Maginley visits community organisations and groups around England to discuss child protection.

The main issue they raise is their experiences of professionals being unaware of their culture or beliefs. Maginley says, although staff cannot be expected to know about the hundreds of faith and ethnic backgrounds in Britain in minute detail, it is important they stay informed. “Practitioners need to understand cultural practice as it relates to protecting children,” she says.

Maginley has received a positive response to her work and the groups welcome the chance to discuss the topic with someone from an ethnic minority background. They also have more trust in dealing with a charity about preventive support than social services.

This wariness has been exacerbated by the high-profile killings of Damilola Taylor, Stephen Lawrence and Anthony Walker, according to Dayo Israel, chief executive of the Africa Diaspora Youth Forum, a campaigning umbrella organisation uniting African youth groups around the world.

It has led to some families losing faith in the system “so when professionals approach them they think ‘how important is my opinion and will it be held against me?’”, Israel says.

It has also resulted in many young Africans feeling unsafe in the UK. To address this, Israel wants young people from ethnic minorities to be involved in the debate on safeguarding children.

He adds that practitioners should be transparent in their dealings with different communities so they pass on their positive experiences to others.

So, if practitioners are to protect children from faith communities, what should they do? Obviously, cultural training is a must for all staff. Dugdale has anecdotal evidence of mainly white teams viewing a black colleague as “the expert” on ethnic minority issues instead of being informed themselves.

The biggest challenge for workers is to separate a firmly-held, but harmless, view based on their faith from abusive behaviour. “Practitioners need to concentrate on challenging the behaviour and not the person’s faith or belief,” says Maginley. Once a relationship is built up with a particular community professionals can help them think through their beliefs in the context of child protection, although she warns against imposing “Western or British beliefs” on them.

Professionals who have their own strong faith or cultural beliefs should investigate how these influence their social work practice and decision-making, says Gill. “I know of cases where a family has physically injured a child, saying they were possessed by a demon, and the social worker involved talked to the family about how the child could be ‘delivered’ from the possession.

“Why go so far down the route of accommodating people’s faith? If this had been a white child that had been hurt then everyone would be jumping up and down saying it’s wrong.”

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