Working with travellers and gypsies

Haringey Council is using a community social work model that engages Gypsy, Roma and traveller families before a crisis occurs.

Haringey Council is using a community social work model that engages Gypsy, Roma and traveller families before a crisis occurs.

Turning suspicion into trust is never easy. For practitioners working with Gypsy, Roma and traveller families, it’s particularly difficult. These communities have faced persecution for hundreds of years, and many are still constantly on the move, making sustained support difficult to offer. Some 80% of adults are illiterate, and those who can fill in forms to ask for help are often too scared to do so.

“Many travellers fear that their children will be taken into care,” says Michael Ridge, community social worker for Haringey travelling peoples team in north London. “The most important thing to do with this community is to win their trust. Relationships are incredibly important. You have to listen to what travellers want and work in partnership with them.”

Haringey is one of the few councils in the UK that has achieved this, setting up a unique specialist two-person team to work with the estimated 2,500 travellers living in the borough. Ridge is the bridge between the council and the community and helps mainstream social workers with cases involving the travellers; Janet Allen works on accommodation issues and liaises with Haringey’s two traveller sites. At any one time, Ridge may be assisting 19 cases.

The team delivers services through a social work model that engages a community before a crisis happens. “It builds on a community’s strengths rather than its weaknesses,” he says. “In practice, this means a big emphasis on outreach work, group work and partnership work.”

A successful example has been Haringey’s driving theory support group for younger travellers. The written component of driving tests is often a difficult hurdle for a community that highly values the freedom to travel, but has serious literacy problems. A football club for younger members has also fostered strong relationships.

With partners that include the voluntary sector, other social workers, Connexions and youth services, the team runs a drop-in centre, offers job training workshops and organises family conferences.

Working with younger travellers is an essential part of Ridge’s work. Less than 4% of the community’s children achieve a basic set of GCSEs and, according to the Children’s Society, some 63% report being physically attacked because of their background. This is something that 10-year-old Jim*, a client of Ridge, has to live with daily. “The boys at school cuss me,” he says, “They call me a ‘pikie’ and a ‘gypsy bastard’ and it makes me feel sad. I let them hit me.”

Ridge meets Jim weekly, using art to help him express his problems. A former art therapist, Ridge has found that this medium has helped him work with many young travellers, and he’s even had some of their illustrations published in the Big Issue. “The community social work model is about trying to work from the positive and build strong relationships,” he says, “It works well with traveller families, because they already have such a strong sense of community.”

* Name has been changed


Case Study: Mary Jane, traveller, Haringey, London

‘Boundaries of traveller children are different’

Mary Jane* is an Irish traveller, and mother of seven. After living in two campsites, she moved to a house in Haringey. She has been there for nine years, receiving consistent support from the council’s travelling peoples team. She tells her story:

“Michael [Ridge] and Janet [Allen] have done so much to help me. I can’t read or write and neither can my kids. They help me fill in forms and make appointments, and then they ring to remind me about them on the day. They talk to my boys about why they should go to school.

“Every Wednesday Michael sees my 11-year-old to do drawing, and he listens to him. It’s hard when traveller boys leave primary school. At that age they’d normally go their own way and the other traveller kids make fun of them in their school uniform. Michael and Janet helped get one of my other boys on a builders’ course, which he really likes.

“I have a lot of trouble with the school. Lots of people think that, because they grew up in a house, they’re not travellers but they’re still different. When you tell English kids to sit, they sit. Traveller kids aren’t like that. The boundaries are different. Michael and Janet know about traveller communities, but most social workers beyond that don’t.

“When other social workers call meetings I sit there like a dummy. They’re talking and talking but I don’t have a clue what they’re talking about and they don’t have a clue about the traveller community. I don’t understand the words they’re using but Michael tells me what it means. They run your kids down like dirt and you’re supposed to sit there and smile. Michael and Janet are the only ones that do help. I’d be lost without them.”

*Name has been changed


Further resources

Haringey offers training in social work with Gypsy, Roma and traveller communities. E-mail

Community Care Inform subscribers can go to Guide to Working with Gypsies and Travellers

This article is published in the 10 June 2010 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Special Team Earns Trust of Travellers


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