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Child Abuse Interventions Within Black African Families

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Published: Tue, 20 Feb 2018

Introduction

Child abuse within Black African families is an important topic which has been given extensive attention in British social work research and literature to date. However, only a limited research on child abuse in African families have really considered the impact of socio-economic factors on social work interventions since the inception of the Children Act 1989 (England and Wales). Now the question is why is the issue of socio-economic status of West African families living in the UK an important factor to consider in social work intervention in child abuse cases? My aim in addressing this topic is that research works and literature show that Black children and their families are more likely than whites to be subjected to unnecessary child abuse interventions by social work agencies and other professionals (Bernard & Gupta, 2006).

Recent research show that in all groups, black children were over-represented on the child protection register under the category of poor parenting behaviour leading to all forms of abuse compared to white children (Bernard & Gupta, 2006). This may also be seen within the context of the pathologization of Black families which, incorporates the view that black people, their socio-economic lifestyles are inherently problematic and need correcting (Singh 2006, p. 19) and therefore social workers may intervene unnecessarily in such families. Social workers on the contrary may hesitate to intervene with Black families due to being unsure whether certain parenting behaviours resulting from low socio-economic status are really an abuse or not.

The potential consequences of such approach for Black families will be either that the children and their families will be unnecessarily investigated under the child protection system and may be subject to court orders, admitted to local authority care, and/or adopted, or that there will not be appropriate intervention by social workers for black children at risk of significant harm, and therefore children may continue to be harmed or even die. This is evident in recent years, where the vulnerability of some black African children in Britain has been highlighted by the tragic deaths of two African children: Victoria Climbié (Laming, 2003) and the young boy known as Adam, whose torso was found floating in the River Thames (Sale, 2005). Also more recently, media reports of possible ‘ritual’ abuse of African children in Britain were fuelled by the criminal prosecution in relation to Child ‘B’, who was physically abused because it was believed she was a ‘kindoki’—a victim of witchcraft possessed by the devil (Tendler and Woolcock, 2005; Thompson, 2005).

In a broader context Socio-economic status is defined as:

‘a composite measure that typically incorporate economic status, which is measured by income; social status, measured by education; and work status, measured by occupation’ (Dulton & Levine, 1989, p.30).

The three indicators are interrelated but not fully overlapping variables. In this context socio-economic status is considered in terms of economic status, defined as low income or poverty. The difficulties for majority of West African Black families who are mainly asylum seekers from poverty-stricken and war-torn countries now living in the UK are not confined only to how they may be viewed by social workers involved in child care but significantly by their

child-rearing differences arising from their socio-economic backgrounds (Beranard & Gupta 2006).

The Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families (Department of Health, 2000) based on the ecological approach places a requirement on social workers to consider families’ histories, cultural and socio-economic status. Therefore the low socio-economic status of many West African families living in the UK is one big challenge for social work professionals working to safeguard and protect these children from abuse from parents responsible for their care. Therefore key information from the literature will be discussed to explore a number of issues that will help social work professionals to deploy the most appropriate and effective method of social work interventions in child abuse cases with West African families in poverty so as to protect these children from all forms of abuse. Moreover, difficulties in social work intervention in child abuse cases may arise, as explained by Korbin (2004), because the process of assessing a child abuse case is complex and parental behaviours and child outcomes may not be the same in different socio-economic settings. Henceforth, child abuse within West African families can risk reproducing stereotypes of this ethnic minority as ‘deficient’, thus fostering pathological viewpoint of African family relationships (Platt, 2005). This raises the question of how can social work practices direct attention to pertinent socio-economic issues framing the experiences of West African children at risk of significant harm, yet not to reproduce ideas of all West African families as deficient.

These complex circumstances make social work intervention a major challenge in recent times and therefore, calls for a new perspective in terms of skills, knowledge and conceptual tools to distinguish between the styles of parenting that differ from those of the majority culture, but at the same time safeguarding and protecting children from significant harm.

The dissertation has built its theoretical framework on social work theory, policy and practice and will use key conceptual framework from the social-contextual approaches to intervention. The methodology for this work was mainly qualitative and the literature search has been obtained from primary and secondary sources. The dissertation will lay out various issues regarding the social work intervention processes used for West African families with low socio-economic status.

The first chapter provides literature on black African children and the child protection system. Chapter two provides a discussion on the increased complexity of social work intervention in child abuse cases involving West African families with low socio-economic status. It also analyse how socio-economic factors cultivate a particular parenting behaviours that impact on social work interventions and thus, bringing West African children living in the UK into the child protection arena. Then chapter three draws on legislations and policies regulating social work practices in the UK. It examines social work practices required to provide competent social work interventions in child abuse cases among West African families and at the same time would not compromise children safety and protection. Chapter four critically analyse the methods of interventions available to social workers to use in effecting positive change in black African community. Finally chapter five discusses the implications of social work intervention made by social work professionals among West African families of low socio-economic status.

Chapter one

Black African Children And Child Protection Systems

The Prevalence Of Black Children On Child Protection Systems

There are a number of recent studies on Black families and the child protection system which suggest that these families are disproportionately represented at different levels in the child protection system. Gibbons et al (2005) study looked at the operation of the child protection system in eight local authorities in Britain. A part of their study looked at the racial background of the referred families and they found that Black families were over-represented compared with White families on referrals involving physical injury (58% vs. 42%). Black families were also more often referred for using an implement to inflict the physical injury. The researchers argue that this finding illustrates parenting differences in child-rearing, and the difficulty of deciding what forms of physical punishments are ‘acceptable’ in Britain. They continued to report that the consequences of the injuries inflicted on the Black children were no more likely to be long-lasting, but what seemed unacceptable for the people who referred these children to social services was the form the punishment took. This research study raises an interesting point about child-rearing and parenting differences. Is it the case that Black families, as part of their culture of child-rearing stemming from their poverty status, use physical punishment more as a means of discipline than White families? A recent study by Ellis (2007) found that some West African parents adopted a harsh disciplinary approach with their children as they believe there is no other alternative way of instilling discipline in their children. But the vast people of the majority ethnic community could use options like keeping playing toys away from the children or not taking the children on a holiday and/or depriving them of visiting their friends as a form of instilling disciplining in the children.

Ellis (2007) also noted that these punishments are likely to be meted out in a fairly public situation and, though they may be painful, they are unlikely to get out of hand and go beyond what is culturally acceptable. This would appear to support Gibbon et al (2005) findings that the consequences of the injuries to the Black children in their study were not likely to be long-lasting.

Another research study by Gibbon & Wilding (2005) looked at three local authorities, two of which had significant populations of Black families. One of their findings indicate that referrals around inadequate supervision of children in the two authorities show that a significant number of children referrals came from Black families with low income status than black families with medium/high income status. It could be argued that families with low income status have to strive hard to make ends means by engaging in two or more menial jobs to financially sustain the family. As a result children are inadequately supervised by the very people who are responsible for their care. Considering this kind of socio-economic circumstances, Gibbon & Wilding (2005) question whether such referrals should be considered within the child protection framework, or whether it would be better to provide welfare interventions and services for such families under the children in need Act (The Children Act 1989, England and Wales, S.17). This finding has a number of possible implications for West African children and their families, it may mean that they will remain in the child protection system for longer whilst the necessary services are identified and implemented; or perhaps that assessments and intervention services are provided but are not socio-economically sensitive, and therefore only serve to disadvantage families further.

Furthermore, as part of their study, they found that proportionately more Black children were subject to child abuse investigations than White children. They found that of all the children in their study sample on the register, 60% were Black. A possible reason for this over-representation was that social work professionals working with the families had no or little understanding of the socio-economic backgrounds of these black African families (Barn et al. 2007). The researchers also found that White social workers and practitioners emphasized their lack of socio-economic awareness as a weakness when working with Black families, whilst Black social workers and practitioners argued that poverty and ethnicity were not adequately taken into account due to euro-centric child protection procedures. One might speculate whether the parents/guardians of these children refuse to cooperate with social service agencies or whether these agencies are taking a heavy-handed approach, perhaps have pathological approach towards such families.

Further data shows that the number of African children in need in the sample week in 2005 is 8,000 (Department for Education and Skills, 2006a). This figure accounts for 3 per cent of the overall total, which is an over-representation inferring from the 2001 census where African children makes up 1.4 per cent of the population. A number of studies indicate that most families of children in need, regardless of ethnicity, struggle to bring up their children in conditions of poverty (Department of Health, 1995, 2001). Many West African children in need will not be drawn into the child protection system, if they are made to receive voluntary welfare support services. Thoburn et al.’s (2005) review of the research into the nature and outcomes of child welfare services for black children concluded that African children are almost twice as likely to be looked after than the white majority children in the population as a whole, which then suggest, that some of these children will be accommodated under section 20 of the 1989 Children Act, by virtue of being raised by families of low socio-economic status.

Beranard and Gupta (2006) found that in relation to the reasons for African children being involved in the child protection system, no official national data are collected on ethnicity and reasons for referral or registration on the child protection register (Department for Education and Skills, 2006b). Research data paint a complex and often contradictory picture and once again the information is often aggregated with data on other minority ethnic children. Brophy et al.’s (2003) study, which separated data on different minority ethnic families, highlights an increase complexity in the cases involving African children and found that many involved ‘multiple’ concerns and allegations about parental behaviour.

Arguably, there are a number of contributory factors which could be perceived as important in understanding the involvement of West African families with social work agencies and the resultant over-representation of their children in public care and in the child protection system. Broadly speaking, these range from poverty and social exclusion, to child abuse and neglect, poor social work assessments and intervention, and overt and covert racism.

The Government Policies And Initiatives

The Commission for Racial Equality’s submission to the DFES/HM Treasury Joint Policy Review on children and young people identifies a number of shortcomings of some government policy initiatives such as Sure Start (CRE, 2006). As is the case with many other government policy initiatives, it is expected that Sure Start Centres will be responsive to black minority ethnic needs and concerns. The commitment of such policies is questioned when there is ‘no race equality impact assessment of the Childcare Act 2006 and only a brief mention of black ethnic minority families in the ten-year childcare strategy’ (CRE, 2006, p. 10).

Whilst black ethnic monitoring of children in care, in need and on the child protection register now takes place at regional and national levels, there is little evidence that such information is utilized for policy and planning purposes to effect positive change.

It is evident that race and welfare policy has been constrained by parochial perspectives which have tended to focus on how to deal with those in the system. For example, the policy and practice debate on ethnicity and substitute family placements diverts attention from preventive services which could help to obviate the admission of minority children into care in the first place. Similarly, preventive methods of intervention with West African families, such as Family Group Conferences, and systemic practice, as well as particular approaches such as kinship care, are less well developed (Broad and Skinner, 2005; Farmer and Moyers, 2005).

Chapter Two

Poverty, West African Families And Child Proctection Poverty And Child Protection

All families and children for whom social work intervention is likely to be needed are also more than most subject to a range of social and economic problems and barriers. One major factor is chronic poverty which is often associated with unemployment or immigration, ethnic minority, or a single parent family. Poverty often goes hand in hand with other disadvantages and obstacles such as poor educational and employment opportunities, poor parenting, and allegations of child abuse cases. Many West African families and children problems are exacerbated by the interaction between socio-economic factors and their individual impairments and family situations. Unemployment levels are very high among West African families, who are also subject to stigma and prejudice on the part of the community. West African families living in the UK without jobs and no access to benefit and/or dependent on benefits find it hard to access credit. Poor children growing up in single-parent families suffer serious parental disadvantage, which in turn result into social work interventions.

Poverty as we all know is not even-handed. The chances of experiencing poverty are far higher with people from West Africa than with white people’ (Amin & Oppenheim 2002). Institutional oppression is suffered by many West African people in many areas including housing ( Amin & Oppenheim 2002), employment ( Chakrabarti et al. 2000), welfare state ( Sadiq-Sangster 2001), education and health which not only means that they are more likely to experience poverty and deprivation, but may also make them more susceptible to social work interventions in terms of child protection. Indeed one may expect Black children to be over-represented in child abuse statistics because their families are more open to surveillance as a result of figuring highly among indices of deprivation (Corby 1993, p.69). The relationship between poverty and child abuse has been broadly established (Thobum et al. 1993; Gibbons et al. 2005).

Arguments favour the impact of poverty on child abuse shows an increasing number of child protection allegations referred into the system, and second was the proportion of cases leading to social work interventions and/or other forms of services. Numbers entering the system were hard to quantify. Whilst they showed an increase in registrations up to 1991 (Gibbons et al., 1995), no national records had been kept about referrals, and differences in recording practices and interpretation were widespread. Regarding proportional figures, the discussion was on slightly safer ground. A key finding from the 2005 research studies show that a large number of children were entered into the child protection system compared with those who were subject to social welfare procedures. Of a total number of child protection referrals, around 75 per cent were investigated and intervened, 25 per cent were subject to a child protection conference and only 15 per cent had their names placed on the child protection register as a result (Gibbons et al., 2005). Consequently, it was argued that the child protection ‘net’ was picking up too many cases inappropriately. This finding undermines the government aim of keeping children with families and reducing the number of children that enter the child protection register. On the contrast, it is important to consider the effectiveness of the child protection system. Broadly, it seemed to be achieving as much as could be expected in terms of the limited aim of preventing further abuse to identifiable children. There are, however, identifiable shortcomings of the child protection system.

Social work interventions appeared to have quite traumatic effects on families (Department of Health, 1995), often generating anxiety and uncertainty for either children or parents, or both (Farmer and Owen, 2005).

Poverty And Child Welfare Services

Research shows that the poverty experienced by many West African families may be better met through preventative measures rather than child protection ones. Yet despite section 17 of the Children Act 1989, which places a duty on the local authority social workers to provide support for children in need, many social services children and family teams, barely have sufficient resources to meet their duties under child welfare and children ‘looked after’. However, unless these issues are tackled, West African families who need support for their children will receive it only when there is an issue of child protection. Furthermore, using socio-economic variables such as poverty as a predictor of high-risk families (Greenland 1997) fails to acknowledge the part prejudice plays for Black people. Consequently, these indicators of child abuse are seen as failings of the individual rather than the product of social inequality (Jones 2004).

A number of studies have indicated that most West African families, struggle to bring up their children in conditions of material and emotional adversity (Department of Health, 1995, 2001). For instance West African families cannot take their children on a holiday trip or meet their wishes and wants. Brophy et al.’s (2003) study suggests that immigration and asylum issues, combined with financial problems, are likely to be reasons for the increased complexity for social work professionals assessing and intervening child abuse cases involving West African children. The child protection system that exists in Britain will be unfamiliar to many West African families, especially those who recently arrived, as similar state systems do not exist in most West African countries, particularly where socio-economic factors overshadow intra-familial child maltreatment and intervention into child abuse and neglect (Lachman et al., 2002; Pierce and Bozalek, 2004). Brophy et al.’s (2003) study concludes that many black West African parents saw social work assessment and intervention in child welfare cases as a complete anathema and distrust, especially where parents migrate from countries in political turmoil and where there is no existence of child welfare services. There is also concern about the quality of social workers’ interventions in child abuse cases. For example, it is shown that investigations of alleged child abuse tended to focus on risk assessment rather than assessment leading to social work interventions of the needs of the whole child (Thoburn et al., 2007). In particular, social workers carrying out an investigation might not pick up problems emanating from poverty or social deprivation (Farmer and Owen, 2005). However, at least superficially, social work interventions appear to contrast with section 17 responses, where research reveals high levels of satisfaction amongst parents and children receiving social work services (Colton et al., 1995; Tunstill and Aldgate, 2000). Thus, if allegations were minor, it was suggested that the costs to families were unacceptably high, and it was by no means clear that interventions, as a social work response, was better or worse than other options.

Engaging in social welfare policy addresses low socio-economic status through intervention aimed at promoting social change, while intervention aimed at the poor family or individual addresses poverty at the micro level by helping those in need to develop better coping strategies. The argument that the social work mission of pursuing social change and dealing with poverty cannot be attained by micro practice has been the source of strong and recurrent criticism against the dominance of micro practice in social work although Hugman (2008) questions the truism of this argument (Asquith et al 2005). The relationship between the mission of social work with regard to poverty and the type of social work practised poses a dilemma for social workers. A particular challenge for social work services is how to work to the required standards regarding thresholds for assessment and intervention with West African families with low socio-economic background and to safeguard and promote children’s welfare (Platt, 2005).

Poverty And Parenting Practices

The literature suggest that poverty among black West African families affect the life chances of many African children and the capacity of their parents to provide adequate care and this should be considered in social work assessment and interventions involving child abuse cases. The relationship between values and child up bringing patterns illuminates the relationship between socio-economic factors and parenting behaviours (Shor, 2000). Shor (2000) suggests that parents from low social class differ in terms of the values they uphold for their children and this impact on child upbringing. It is also found that there is correlation between black African mothers with low income status using a more authoritarian approach of caring for children than mothers with high income status. Shor’s (2000) underpin the relationship between values and child-bearing patterns which illuminate the relationship between socio-economic factors and parenting behaviours. He suggests that parents from diverse social class differ in terms of what characteristics they value most for their children and that these differences in value contribute to differences in parenting behaviour. This variation in child-rearing attitudes based on socio-economic variables was underpinned by Shaefer and Edgerton (1995). In order to develop a sensitive knowledge of child abuse, not only across culture but also across socio-economic contexts, it is possible to draw upon knowledge from studies that look at the parenting patterns of black parents with low income.

In families it is the children to whom social workers owe the greater duty of care. Children can be clear about what they need. There may be tensions between children’s needs and wishes, parents’ needs and wishes, the views and wishes of the wider family, of the community, other professionals, and with the requirements of the law, regulation and procedure. Even where the decision is to remove a child from a family the way social workers conduct their business can make a difference. Thus social work has to respond to parental needs- financial and social, for the sake of the children, but may need to abandon them to maintain the primacy of the child’s welfare.

The consequences of getting the balance wrong in either direction expose both black African children and parents to suffering and pain. Sometimes the nature of the socio-economic issue will demand decisions that appear to undermine that commitment of not putting children at risk of significant harm. Social workers have to take the decision and maintain the commitment.

The Government Regulatory Policies And Poverty

By the 21st century, there was a growing view that many West African children who were subjects of section 47 investigations were also eligible for services as children in need (section 17 of the 1989 Children Act). Often, such children did not receive these welfare services because of the apparent incident driven focus of child protection services. One way forward in these circumstances was to encourage local authority social work teams to conduct initial assessments, rather than child protection investigations, in borderline cases, with a view to finding less intrusive forms of social work intervention practice that address the wider developmental needs of the child. Procedures supporting such changes were first introduced by local authorities independently, and were subsequently incorporated into government guidance in England, with the expectation that all referrals of children would first be offered an initial assessment except in emergency cases or where it is suspected that a crime has been committed (Department of Health, 1999).

Concurrently, a detailed framework was issued regarding the assessment of all children in need (Department of Health, 2000). The now familiar Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families was based on an ecological model of assessment, and included supporting pro formas covering the initial assessment period. Platt, (2000) in his study on refocusing initiative attracted a degree of criticism. For many health and social work professionals, there was concern that serious child protection issues might not receive an adequate response if handled outside child protection procedures (Calder and Hackett, 2003). A key factor here would be whether cases can be switched successfully from family support back into child protection—an issue that has given cause for concern over a number of years (Laming, 2003). Parton (1996) criticized the recommendations of Messages from Research because they ignored the basic socio-economic reality for many families. Furthermore, current social expectations may support a formal response to allegations of child abuse and neglect. It is thus unreasonable to expect social workers to act alone since to do so runs counter to the dominant view of wider society. The idea that fewer investigations would mean that resources could simply be transferred to family support services is somewhat naive. The resource problems include the provision of social work time, the provision of adequate family support services, and the need to support a period of change and transition. Few would argue that resourcing levels in any of these respects have been adequate (Calder and Hackett, 2003), and the question of resources was sidestepped almost completely by Messages from Research.

The difficulties of implementing such changes were highlighted more recently by Cleaver and Walker (2004) in their research on the impact of the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families. The role of the state in these processes was also examined critically by Spratt and Callan (2004).

They argued that reductions in numbers of children on the child protection register have been achieved largely as a result of modern governance and measures to promote compliance with performance targets. Whilst these achievements are laudable, they suggest, they may serve to obscure ‘underlying tensions in the relationship between the state and the family’. The idea of refocusing has been affected by complex, often competing pressures since the introduction of the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families. Arguably, the death of Victoria Climbié reinforced a ‘child protection’ orientation, and may have led, in some areas, to a lowering of the child protection threshold (Laming, 2003). The Laming report, furthermore, draws attention to the professional confusions that arise from the distinctions in practice between sections 17 and 47. In circumstances such as this, the role of the social worker in any changing pattern of provision takes on particular importance.

Chapter Three

Social Work Practices

History Of Social Work Practice

Social work has its roots in the struggle of society to deal with poverty and the resultant problems. Therefore, social work is intricately linked with the idea of charity work; but must be understood in broader terms. The concept of charity goes back to ancient times, and the practice of providing for the poor has roots in all major world religions (www.globalvision.org. Retrieved on 14/04/2009).

The term ‘social work intervention’ usually describes work undertaken with individuals, families, groups and communities. In this context the term to cover the use of social work knowledge and skills when using it within a social care organisation to facilitate the provision of services and practice consistent with the Codes of Practice and with standards of service and practice, and to promote the social inclusion and life opportunities of people using services. Successful social work includes the capacity to work effectively within organisations and across organisational boundaries. In the vast majority of instances social work intervention is a collective activity not an individual activity whether as social worker employee or an independent social worker. The most common form of methods of social work intervention is Individual or family casework. Here social work is the intervention. It supports the individual or family to identify, and use, their own and their social network’s experience and expertise as a resource for problems or difficulties may have resulte


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