How structural racism faced by Roma families in the child protection system can be tackled

A recent project has examined the discrimination and disadvantages Roma and Gypsy families experience when subject to social work involvement and developed resources to make a difference

A Roma community champion who features in the film "Keeping our children safe' produced by Law for Life and Roma Support Group'
A Roma community champion who features in the film "Keeping our children safe' produced by Law for Life and Roma Support Group'

By Mary Marvel and Dada Felja

We have all become familiar with the discussion about structural racism in the UK, thanks to the excellent work of the Black Lives Matter movement. But it is less recognised that Roma communities are also victims of the same structural racism and discrimination in the UK.

Like other minorities, Roma have a higher risk of unemployment, of being victims of police brutality, of housing deprivation, and of health inequality. When we address concerns about inequality, Roma always seem to come last, or are forgotten altogether due to a lack of available data. But that data absence is itself a failing, connected to the fact that discrimination against Roma people remains acceptable in our society.

The data on the numbers of Roma children “in need” and “looked after” also raises concerns. While the proportion of Gypsy/Roma children in schools in England remained constant from 2017 to 2019, at 0.34% of the population, the proportion of Gypsy/Roma children in need rose from 0.43% to 0.47% and the percentage in local authority care increased from 0.45% to 0.56%*.

Rising social work involvement 

This needs further investigation but suggests that the number of Gypsy/Roma families facing child protection investigations is growing disproportionately for the size of the Gypsy/Roma child population.

The reasons for this increase in social work involvement with Gypsy/Roma families are complex. Data collected from existing research, frontline casework, and a number of NGOs working with Roma in the UK, reveal historical disadvantages, linguistic barriers, and the fact that Roma families have predominantly negative experiences with public services and so are reluctant to engage, all play a significant part.

Working collaboratively with a range of agencies – including three Roma organisations: Roma Support Group (London), Roma Community Care (Derby) and Clifton Learning Partnership (Rotherham), legal experts, academics, and local authority professionals – Law for Life looked for ways to address these problems and improve access to justice for Roma families.

The case studies captured in the course of the project demonstrate the discrimination and disadvantage that Roma families sometimes experienced during child protection investigations. In particular, they found that local authorities often didn’t provide adequate interpreting services leading to misunderstandings, including incorrect assumptions about the intellectual capacities of Roma parents.

Incorrect assumptions

The family did not understand why children’s services became involved with them. They had no knowledge of how the system works in the UK as in Slovakia it is very different.

 The main issue for the family was that the interpreters used by children’s services were speaking in formal Slovak and the family speak mainly Romanes. Children’s services suspected that the mother had learning difficulties as she did not understand the interpreters well….  [Roma advocate] met with the social worker dealing with the case and explained that the mother did not understand the interpreters therefore didn’t fully understand what was required from her.

Law for Life also found that Roma parents often lacked knowledge about what was expected of them, both in terms of parental responsibilities and in engaging with child protection investigations, and that this had an impact on the outcomes of care proceedings. Our consultation with Roma parents showed that children’s services and courts work with Roma families in ways that many Roma parents do not understand.

To find ways forward, Law for Life consulted key agencies involved in supporting Roma families in a safeguarding context.  Four consultation workshops took place: three with Roma families and Roma NGOs and one with social work and legal professionals. Law for Life also organised a key stakeholders group meeting with academics, legal specialists, Roma champions, and Gypsy/Roma/Traveller experts.

Following these discussions, they co-designed a multimedia toolkit which illustrates key elements of the legal framework and the skills needed for parents to fully comply with the child protection requirements.  The toolkit consists of an information guide, a short film narrated by Roma in their own language, Romanes, and community training for Roma champions.

Increasing knowledge and confidence

Law for Life are delighted that the independent evaluation of the project found that the toolkit made a significant contribution to building capacity within Roma communities to engage more knowledgeably and confidently in child protection investigations. The evaluation also noted that there are indications that this helped some Roma families to keep their children in cases where they may otherwise have been removed into local authority care.

“In one case a family, after watching the film, changed the way they dealt with social workers. I think this is possibly because the film is simple, and it came from a point of view that the families were not necessarily to blame. It also helped that throughout the film, certain things were repeated thereby reinforcing important messages. Having a conversation with the family after watching the film opened their eyes to what was going wrong.Case study, Roma NGO

Resources produced by the project are available on Law for Life’s Advicenow website, where they are free to download. Law for Life, and all the organisations involved in the project, would like to encourage children’s services and professionals working with Roma families in a safeguarding context to use them. These resources offer invaluable insight into the unique challenges that Roma families face when going through the child protection process and they can help social workers, lawyers and other professionals working with Roma families to engage better with them.

The project evaluation also makes valuable recommendations for children’s services, including cultural competency training for social workers and consultations with Roma NGOs in cases involving Roma families.

The difference cultural understanding can make 

Gabriela Smolinska-Poffley, deputy CEO of Roma Support Group, one of the organisations involved in this project, said:

“I noticed the difference that an understanding of Roma culture and parents’ background can have on cases’ outcomes. When social workers have the opportunity to work with bilingual Roma champions, they help them to understand the parent’s challenges in understanding UK safeguarding norms and parenting expectations. Roma champions, who use the multimedia toolkit to support Roma parents, can also help social workers to engage Roma parents in open and honest discussions leading to positive changes.”

* Figures taken from Department for Education statistics on children in need 2018-19, children looked after 2018-19 and children in state-funded schools and other local authority provision in England 2019.

Mary Marvel is deputy chief executive and head of communications and Dada Felja head of education at Law for Life, which supports people to access justice, often using training with intermediaries and community leaders to build the legal capability of traditionally hard to reach communities. Law for Life also runs Advicenow, a website providing accessible information to help people deal with the legal problems in their lives.

One Response to How structural racism faced by Roma families in the child protection system can be tackled

  1. Mercy October 30, 2020 at 12:16 pm #

    Once again, the real issues, don’t get mentioned. What about local authorities employing more frontline staff to be able to take the time to fully investigate concerns, around difficult and evasive families who are suspicious of authorities.

    If you have a caseload of 30 -35 families, and that includes a large Roma family, who are avoiding contact, where do you get the time, amongst all the other families, to fully investigate? Social Workers are already working ‘all hours’ and complete reports (for free) on their evenings and weekends, and yet it seems that is not enough anymore – employers want our sleep time too?

    I would say to any Practitioner who cannot ‘perform like a Robot’, it’s better to leave an unsafe work environment where you don’t have the time to fully investigate, as if something goes wrong, it’s ALL ON YOU.