Protecting children across international borders: what social workers need to know

A 'new normal' for social workers: the UK's international social work service looks at what child protection cases across international borders involve

Photo: motortion/Adobe Stock

By Carolyn Housman

There is a ‘new normal’ emerging for childhood to which social work practice must adapt. More children are on the move today than at any time since the Second World War. More children in the UK are born into multinational families than ever. In line with this, growing numbers of children are separated from their families across international borders.

As CEO of Children and Families Across Borders (CFAB), the UK’s international social work service, I see our specialist social workers safeguarding increasing numbers of vulnerable children moving across borders for a variety of reasons – from trafficked and refugee children to the many multinational families that simply cannot cope with parenting.

International social work

Child protection cases across international borders involve unique elements of law, state bureaucracy, culture and language. Protecting children and families in the global arena means anticipating those fine details that create drift and delay. It also means sharing the right information at the right time.

We carried out research in 2018 which found that it took an average of 45 days for an international child protection alert to be issued when a child at risk had travelled abroad. We also found a lack of understanding among many professionals about how to effectively safeguard in international child protection cases.

Our CFAB social workers train professionals up and down the country to keep up with changing practice in international social work – over 600 trained in the last 18 months.  We are finding that police, social workers, solicitors, Cafcass guardians and family court judges all benefit from guidance and support on the steps they can take in their own roles to mitigate new risks.

If one professional in the multi-agency team around a child’s case shares their knowledge, this can lead to better preparation and quicker protective action. This international approach will be ever more crucial as the UK prepares to exit the European Union, and we must ensure that the voices and interests of EU, and non-EU, children in care are not overlooked when the time comes.

Family placement overseas

Every social worker knows the principle of ‘family first’ when children cannot live with their parents. Local authorities place many of the children who end up in their care with their extended family overseas. Whether reunited with family in safe countries abroad, or placed with grandparents internationally after a family breakdown – a lifeline is thrown to children when their overseas placement is a success.

Successfully placing a child abroad can seem an insurmountable challenge, especially with kinship carers in this country raising concerns about the support they receive. What then, are the chances for our vulnerable children overseas?

Our research (2018) into CFAB’s facilitated kinship placements overseas showed high rates of success in placement stability, demonstrating the importance of considering overseas arrangements as real permanence options when proceedings begin to loom.

At CFAB, we already know what makes a cross-border placement work well. In short, multi-country casework requires different professional networks, adapted assessment approaches and, yes, potentially higher initial spending outlays. International placements take more time to arrange than in the UK. With agreement, court timetabling can be flexibly applied in such extenuating circumstances and smooth transitions are more likely to be collaboratively managed when early communication is established in the multi-agency network.

The primary reason for placement breakdown told stories of overseas family carers unable to cope with the psychological and behavioural issues which the children were presenting.  It is therefore a real concern that we found that almost all local authorities are unclear on what their actual legal obligation is to a child once placed in another country. Our recent awareness campaign, ‘Out Of Sight On Our Mind,’ highlights that post-placement duties are still just that, even to children we must place far away overseas.

With the right assessment and support, the right practitioner knowledge and the right professional guidance accessed, overseas placements can and do provide a stable bridge to a child’s future. They deserve equal regard, through a detailed understanding of a child’s family networks.

Working together

We all have a duty to work together in promoting vulnerable children’s right to family life, whether that be in the UK or overseas. We must make sure that children coming to the UK or going abroad – and the families that care for them – are given nothing less than the right care and protection.

Carolyn Housman is CEO of Children and Families Across Borders

Children and Families Across Borders

  • To find out more about the work we do or to refer queries to our international social work team, contact our free Advice Line on 0207 735 8941.
  • CFAB offers free fact sheets available in PFD format for download
  • CFAB offers training on international social work practice, child trafficking, conducting ‘best interests’ UASC assessments and private fostering in the international context.
  • Read more about CFAB’s ‘Out of Sight Out of Mind’ awareness campaign
  • Research by CFAB supported by The Esme Fairbairn Foundation is available online
  • CFAB is hosting our annual International Child Protection Lecture in London on Tuesday 3rd December 2019. Join us for an evening of expert panellist discussion, cutting edge insights into best practice in international social work – and networking.

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4 Responses to Protecting children across international borders: what social workers need to know

  1. Samuel Culpar November 19, 2019 at 10:28 am #

    This is ironic… internationally focused organisation [Which I agree does excellent work] thinks the world resonates around London. Many Social Workers I know would love to take part in a number of training courses and seminars but when the ridiculous costs attributed to travel and staying over a simple seminar or training course can become really expensive and not financially viable. If you live anywhere above bloomin Watford..You are looking at a minimum of £200 obviously depending where you travel form.




    Thanks from Mr Grumpy….. I need a coffee!!!!

    • Daniella November 19, 2019 at 6:35 pm #

      I am a social worker in the north west on the MASH team. I am originally from Africa and am interested in international social work. I am looking to re-locate back home and thinking of opening my own non-profit organisation (NGO) to safeguard children and families.The understanding of safeguard there is total different and not well established as the western world.

      Any ideas or available role for experience will be great, please advice

  2. Hope Esther Aywa November 20, 2019 at 1:27 pm #

    I know its expensive to go for seminars. if possible sociol worker group can open a saving account where they just save in case of a seminar can select few and represent the rest and later bring feedback.

  3. Meral Liggins November 20, 2019 at 2:06 pm #

    Im unsure how many children do really need geniunely be seperated from their birth parents as its becoming more and more clear that manier time authorities act in haste which catastrophic effects on children and their birth parents. It should be the last resort seperating a child from their loving caring safe mom wether within uk or tobabroad nationally or internationally. Children and families should be observed and supported not immediately seperated in first false flag (apart from real bad cases which need immediate action ie child life and safety in grave danger from own parents )
    Its children and birth parents human rights to remain together in form even if the parents seperated or divorced for various reasons children still need both parents in their life to have a happy and balanced life. Making a child lose their family and both parents should only be practised via away placement wether nationally or internationally under great caution in very extreme necesity.