How social workers can overcome cultural barriers to client dialogue

Gordon Carson looks at the ways social workers can overcome language, cultural and religious barriers to dialogue

Gordon Carson looks at the ways social workers can overcome language, cultural and religious barriers to dialogue

The serious case review into the death of Khyra Ishaq, the seven-year-old who died in May 2008 after being found emaciated at her home in Birmingham, highlighted the challenges faced by children’s professionals working in diverse communities.

Notwithstanding the professional failings listed in the review, another factor identified was that many members of the Handsworth community, “particularly those who have arrived recently from other countries, are fearful and mistrusting of engagement with authority figures at any level”.

“It is therefore not surprising that community members would be reluctant to report concerns, even if identified,” the review added.

Therein lies a major obstacle for social workers: as well as trying to work directly with families where problems have been identified, they may face an entrenched resistance to co-operating with the state.

“A knock at the door can mean an enormous range of different things in different parts of the world,” says Andrew Fraser, director of children’s services at Enfield Council and chair of the London Safeguarding Children Board‘s minority ethnic communities and faith groups sub-group.

In the past decade much professional attention has focused on the difficulties of engaging with African communities, and the issues of witchcraft, spirit possession and child trafficking in particular.

Trust for London set up its Safeguarding Children’s Rights initiative in 2007 to address faith-based child abuse linked to beliefs in spirit possession. Through this it has funded organisations including Afruca and the Victoria Climbié Foundation to work with minority communities and statutory services to strengthen community-based preventive work.

“People don’t understand what the functions of social services are,” says Mubin Haq, director of policy and grants at Trust for London, a charity tackling poverty and inequality. But this can be tackled by community organisations acting as a bridge between services and families, he says.

Swamped agencies

Perdeep Gill, a child protection consultant who has worked with minority communities says community and voluntary organisations may be better placed than “swamped” statutory agencies to take on family support services, leaving the arms of the state to focus on core child protection tasks.

“Statutory services aren’t perceived as helpful because parents know they also have statutory powers,” she says. “Hence these services often create more anxiety and stress for families in non-child-protection cases.”

One voluntary sector organisation that has long tried to engage with hard-to-reach families is Norwood, which works primarily with Jewish communities.

“Social work and social care have not got the best reputation among many groups,” says Karen Goodman, the charity’s head of children’s services. “We try to ensure we provide an initial bridge between the community and statutory services. It’s all about building the relationship of trust.”

One of Norwood’s key services is its Somers Children and Family Centre in Hackney, east London, which works with the area’s Orthodox Jewish, or Haredi, community. As well as providing services such as after-school clubs, summer schemes, and family support, it develops its own links with local groups through the umbrella Interlink organisation.

The centre also employs social workers who engage directly with families. Some of its staff come from the Haredi community and some speak Yiddish.

“Where statutory agencies are involved with Orthodox families, very often they want us to facilitate between them,” says Ravi Walters, one of the centre’s family support managers.

“Managers will often ring us to ask advice, for example, about language. Even simple things like dress can be a barrier. So we try to tell them to be aware that there are certain things that will present a barrier.

“For example, we decided that all women who work for us in this area should wear skirts and their sleeves should be down to their elbows.”

Cultural awareness

Goodman says cultural awareness can provide some crucial insights. “You might understand why a family might be stressed and exhausted in the middle of Ramadan, or during Passover mothers might be working extra hard because of the extra preparations they are doing,” she says.

Norwood also provides counselling and support to family members subject to statutory interventions, if the family is willing.

“Often where the risk is not high or local authorities have closed a case, we will stay involved because we don’t feel the family will benefit without the services,” says Walters.

“As part of building trust there’s a lot of communication with religious leaders. It can be important to have their support.”

The issue is being taken seriously at a pan-London level, with the London Safeguarding Children Board leading a project, run in partnership with minority ethnic and faith groups, that will culminate in a conference in November and publication of a report, guidance and toolkits on safeguarding children.

Andrew Fraser says it’s particularly important for young people to have confidence in statutory agencies and to know their rights. “One of these is the right not to be abused,” he says. “There’s never a cultural excuse for child abuse.

“To protect as many children and young people as we can, we need the community to be able to refer to us without being concerned about what the consequences might be. Statutory agencies can only intervene if they are given information about concerns.”

Haq worries, though, that local government funding cuts may threaten the future of community link groups that are deemed so important in raising awareness.

“That’s a problem in the current funding environment,” he says. “But if we’re looking at prevention rather than picking up the pieces, there’s a need for the statutory sector to invest in some of these organisations.”


When Enfield Council identified both mistrust of professionals among hard-to-reach families and a desire for parents to help each other, it commissioned child protection consultant Perdeep Gill (pictured) to deliver a programme to develop parent “champions” who would be able to support others in need of help with parenting.

Parents self-refer to parent engagement panels and can attend Gill’s programme, which started six months ago and has worked with around 50 parents so far. Gill introduces them to theoretical concepts and interviewing skills through experiential learning, meaning they look back at their own child development, attachment relationships, and family roles and histories.

“The foundation of success was the ability to speak and form alliances as an ordinary person through self-sharing of life experiences,” says Gill.

“This interaction allowed parents to expose themselves, their beliefs, their parenting approaches and their attachments, by looking back and daring to name the reality of their pasts.

“From this they began to make sense of why they return to some patterns and to take responsibility and emotionally change.”

The programme has worked with many parents of African-French origin. Iseke Luala, co-ordinator of Central African Youth in Enfield, says that because of their experiences of trauma in war zones, some parents “feel like every statutory service is a threat because back home the authorities seemed like a threat to them”.

“Some of them lack confidence because they have been living with the effects of emotional abuse,” he says. “But the programme empowers them to become model parents and they can support other parents who are hard to reach.”

Luala says the programme has also helped to “open the doors to other services in Enfield”.

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This article is published in the 15 September 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “How to find the way in”




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