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Child abuse may be common among African families who have voluntarily or forcefully immigrated to the UK due to reasons such as tribal wars, poverty and political turmoil in their country of origin. Available research evidence tends to suggest that black African children in living in the UK are over-represented in the child protection system. It is against this backdrop of over-representation of black African families in the child protection system, which has prompted researchers, authors, policy makers and educationist to undertake a number of studies examining child abuse among African families living in the UK, so as to understand and ascertain the causes of this unacceptable behaviour and its consequences on social work practice. Many recent research work show that culture and religion are the most pertinent factors that influence and shape the parenting skills and behaviours of African families. This culturally-oriented approach of raising children by African families, though widely acceptable within the African community could be one of many reasons why many black African families are alleged to abuse their children, and making social workers to investigate and even take these children into local authority care.
Bernard & Gupta (2006) study found that black African children and families are more likely than white families to be drawn into the child protection system on the basis of inherent differences in beliefs and child-rearing practices. With the rise in multi-cultural influences on the lives of many black African families living in the UK, it is particularly important to shift focus from culturally-centred behaviours onto poverty-centred behaviours. Where literature exist, not many research work on child abuse cases among African families living in the UK have really considered the devastating effect of poverty on parenting behaviours, which is a prerequisite for proper child upbringing.
Many African children viewed under the Children Act 1989, may be classified as children in need as their parents struggle to provide them with adequate child-care needs, and not seen to be deliberately causing harm to these children. Poverty is strongly linked with reports of abuse and neglect and a significant number of black African families and children live far below the poverty line. Arguably if social workers develop a fuller understanding of the effect of poverty on parenting behaviours of African families, it may curtail many unnecessary interventions which draw black African children into the child protection system. African families living in poverty are always suspicious of social workers who lack the understanding of their values and their way of raising children and therefore make negative judgement about their way of parenting children. This negative perception of social work practice by African families and children living in the UK breed grounds for mistrust and apprehension and make working with such families a major challenge for social workers. Therefore the poverty status of African families living in the UK is an important factor to be considered by social workers working on child abuse cases with African families. As explained by Bernard & Gupta (2006), black African children and their families are more likely than white families to be subjected to unnecessary social work interventions and therefore are over-represented on the child protection register under the category of poor parenting behaviours. However, black African families are also under-represented in receiving preventative supports such as housing needs, financial benefits that is required to address any family needs and improve children welfare. For many years social work interventions with black African families and children alleged of child abuse cases have been a controversial topic.
On the contrary Singh (2006) maintains the view that African families and their entrenched cultural and social perceptions of parenting behaviours is difficult to understand in the context of contemporary social work practice and therefore social workers may intervene unnecessarily in such families. The potential consequences of this misunderstanding among social workers working with black African families could lead to unnecessary investigation of these families under the child protection system and eventually the children may be admitted to local authority care. Sometimes social workers may hesitate to make intervention into child abuse cases with black African families due to poor understanding of whether certain parenting behaviours are really an abuse or not (Bernard & Gupta, 2006). This misconception may result into inappropriate or no intervention by social workers working with black children who are at risk of significant harm, and children may continue to be harmed or even die. This 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).
Bernard & Gupta (2006) found in their research work that majority of black African families who are living in the UK as a result of war, poverty, and tribal anarchies in their home countries have difficulty not only how to adapt to the western culture they find themselves but how they may be viewed by social workers involved in child care. Most social work professionals working with black African families tend not to appreciate the poverty background of such families and would feel justified to make negative judgements resulting into mistrust and disengagement from both parties. Although the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families (Department of Health, 2000) places a requirement on social workers to consider families’ backgrounds and cultural perspectives when dealing with cases of child abuse.
The issue of poverty among many black African families living in the UK is a challenging issue for many social work professionals responsible for safeguarding and protecting vulnerable children from abuse, as it affect how parents raise their children. Moreover, as explained by Korbin (2004), difficulties in social work intervention in child abuse cases may arise, because the processes involved in child abuse assessment may be complex and parental behaviours may not be the same in different cultures and socio-economic settings.
In view of this perception, Platt (2005) states that ‘child abuse within ethnic minority, which include Africans, can risk stereotyping this ethnic minority as deficient, thus fostering pathological viewpoint of African family relationships’. This raises the question of what type of social work intervention need to be deployed by social workers working with black African families living in economic poverty so that vulnerable children are fully protected, and not just drawing these children into the child protection system. This professional dilemma among social workers possess a major challenge and therefore, calls for a new perspective in terms of skills, knowledge, training and conceptual tools to help distinguish between the styles of parenting inherent in African families living in poverty which is not necessarily harmful to the children, but at the same time safeguarding and protecting children from parenting behaviours that put children at significant risk.
The dissertation built its theoretical framework on social work theory, policy and practice and uses key conceptual framework from the socio-contextual approaches to intervention. The main emphasis of this dissertation looks at the available literature on black African families involved in the child protection system, focusing on specific poverty-related parenting practices that give rise to issues of child abuse. The methodology for this work was mainly qualitative and the available literature has been obtained from primary and secondary sources.
The dissertation touches on various issues regarding how social work professionals need to perceive and handle child abuse cases among black African families, who are living in poverty and thus to provide appropriate interventions that would help these families provide adequate child-care to their children.
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 black African families living in poverty. It continues to analyse how poverty could cultivate a particular parenting behaviours that impact on the quality of children upbringing which, could be drawing black 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 also examines contemporary social work practice in child abuse cases among African families. Chapter four critical analyse the various methods of interventions available to social workers when working with black African families. Finally chapter five discusses the implications of social work intervention made by social work professionals among African families living in poverty.
BLACK AFRICAN CHILDREN AND CHILD PROTECTION SYSTEMS
The prevalence of Black children on child protection systems
Many children are drawn into child protection system for many different reasons. Majority of children goes through distressing and damaging experiences, which may include physical, emotional, sexual abuse and neglect. Some children come under the child protection system as their families are poor and could not look after them properly. Considering the child protection system and black African families, Bernard & Gupta (2006) have critically analysed the evidence on the disproportionate representation of black African families on the child protection register. A research by Gibbon et al (1995) shows that black African families are over represented than white families in the child protection system on the basis of physical abuse of children.
Brophy et al (2003) study expressed a contrary view, that the proportion of minority ethnic families represented on the child protection register shows that many involved several allegations about parental behaviour. A similar research conducted by Gibbons & Wilding (1995) found out that referrals made by social workers of black African children onto the child protection register was due to inadequate supervision of children by their parents who have taken employment to enable them meet any financial obligations and to provide adequate child-care for their children. Therefore, Chand (2000) commented that ‘different child-rearing methods used in different cultures mean that as an outsider, understanding what is the norm and what is deviant is problematic…and trying to distinguish the risks in one family from the another, social workers may fall back on moral judgements'(p.72)
The crucial factor is the challenges social workers encounter when assessing and making decisions about African children and families who lives in chronic poverty compared to the majority of the population living above the poverty line. Social workers need to consider these families’ financial backgrounds and their cultural identity, which determines style of parenting practices that are paramount in proper child upbringing. However, some African families hide under the umbrella of poverty and social exclusion to inflict physical and emotional harm on their children. If social workers understand the causes of parental behavioural patterns of African families, it is obvious that such families would not be unnecessary intervened and where necessary children would be adequately safeguarded and protected from harm.
The challenges social work practitioners experience when developing assessment processes as defined in Climbie Inquiry (Laming, 2003) is crucial to the safety and protection of black children whose families have immigrated into the UK. Sometimes social workers may be stereotype as racist and ethnocentric, as they do not factor poverty-related parental behaviours of African families in the assessment process, and this breed mistrust among the social workers and the families leading to many African families not properly investigated of child abuse (Chand, 2000). It is clear from Alibhai-Brown (2005) study that social workers need not be subconsciously hysteria to follow inaccurate and captivating media coverage of alleged child abuse within African communities. Under the Government’s ‘Every Child Matters’ policy, social workers first priority is to ensure children live with their families if it is best to do so, but what is the usual trend, children are usually removed from their poor parents and given to rich families because they cannot afford to effectively cater for the child needs. However, parents have the ultimate right to bring up their own children unless they fail in their parenting duties to provide adequate care for their children and as a result causing significant harm to them.
Most African parents do not deliberately harm their children but poverty creates all sorts of problems for these families such as parents suffering from depression, stress, and trying to cope with public pressure makes families fall short of what is expected of them as parents. Despite the above assertion, it is the responsibility of the social services or local authorities to create the enabling environment for the provision of welfare needs to families so that these families can provide appropriate care for children.
Following Baby P report children’s services watchdog, Ofsted, reported that a review of 173 serious cases in April 2009, found that social workers and other agencies, failed to act swiftly to put children suffering from physical and neglect abuse onto the child protection register. Ofsted also identified certain poor social work practices such as the failure of social services workers to identify and report signs of abuse, poor recording and communication, and limited knowledge and application of basic policies and procedures. However, recent publication in the The Times (2009) sees Local Government Association criticising ofsted for ‘feeding peoples fears’ and too concerned with protecting its reputation and focusing on procedures and processes rather than the welfare of children’ (p.15).
According to the Department for Education and Skills (2006b) statistical data a significant proportion of black African children are on the child protection register. A number of studies tend to support the view that families of these children lives in poverty and struggle to raise their children to the standard set up by government legislation. However, this available information creates a confusing picture about the representation of black African families in relation to the reasons of poverty-related parental behaviours which in ways tend to suggest a similar pattern of black African over-representation on the child protection register.
Therefore it is difficult to say whether social services are meeting the agenda set up by the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families (Department of Health, 2000) which places on social workers the responsibility to consider families’ backgrounds and cultural perspectives when dealing with cases of child abuse. All these researchers possibly link this over-representation of black African children on the child protection register to little or poor understanding of socio-economic backgrounds of these families living in the UK.
Thoburn et al.’s (2005) review of 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 living in poverty. Arguably, there are a number of contributory factors which could be perceived as important in understanding the involvement of black African families with social work agencies and the resultant over-representation of their children in the child protection system. Broadly speaking poverty and poor parental practices are linked to child abuse and neglect by families who are responsible for looking after these children. Therefore the poverty experienced by many African families and children may be resolved through a more preventative welfare services rather than child protection services.
The government legislations and policies
The most relevant legislation in the UK that aims to protect children from abuse and harm is the Children Act (1989), of which Section 47 expects local authorities to make enquiries into cases where they have reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm and Section 17 makes provision for a child to be assessed with a view to the provision of services to children in need. Therefore there are two definitive objectives of the Children Act (1989), the child protection focus and the child welfare focus. This legislation is subject to how local authorities interpret child abuse, so that in the course of their duties decisions taken are open and consistent without any failures. However, many black African children referred to social services under the child protection system may not necessarily be suffering from any harm or neglect in view of their poverty circumstances (Chand, 2000). According to Platt (2005), the Audit Commission proposal to shift from the popular investigational work use by social workers to a family support services, was due to numerous failings identified by many other government bodies. This wind of change for social work practice was accepted by the Department of Health, after examining a research finding which was summarised in the publication, Child Protection: Messages from Research (Department of Health, 1995). On the contrary view, Parton (1996) criticized the recommendations of Messages from Research because they ignored the basic socio-economic reality for many families.
From Platt (2005) view point it is arguable that the child protection system was drawing too many cases inappropriately on the child protection register. It is obvious from available data, the child protection system seemed to achieve as much as could be expected in terms of preventing continuous abuse of vulnerable children. However, the objectives set out by Section 47 of Children Act 1989, have rather a devastating and disunion effect on families and in many instances create uncertainty for black African children and families. It’s therefore expected of social work professionals to develop the respective skills and knowledge to differentiate between proper child-rearing practices and improper behaviours that flaunt acceptable norms and values in the black African community.
The Department of Health (1995) emphasises that social work professionals need to rely on various measures since child abuse is not an absolute concept and most family behaviours have to be seen in context before decisions of abuse are made (Chand 2000, p. 70). Although child protection social workers in the UK are trained to follow the official guidance as set out in the DOH (1988) Protecting Children: A guide for Social Workers undertaking a Comprehensive Assessment, this guide has some limitations when used on black African families. Against this background, the quality of social work assessment and, hence intervention process used by social workers seem to stereotype black African families as the indicators of child abuse. The fundamental dilemma facing social work today is the manner and extent to which they should engage in social welfare policy rather than in intervention procedures and processes, and more so to redirect its efforts primarily to the poor and needy in society (Karger and Hernandez, 2004).
From the 1990s there have been proactive and sustained effort on behalf of the UK government to develop and promote legislation and policies, which challenge the influence of a child protection culture on management and social work practice, which notably are perceived as distorting the balance of service provision to children and families (Spratt & Callan, ). On the contrary, Pringle (1998) commented that family support strategies may focus on the generalization of responses compared with child protection procedures that target actual nature of the alleged abuse. Cleaver and Walker (2004) realised in their research, that the implementation of this switch from child protection to child welfare services by social work agencies can have negative and difficult impact on the government Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families. In recent past the government has seen a remarkable reduction in the number of children drawn into the child protection system which commends local authorities’ effort to achieve performance targets.
Spratt and Callan (2004) criticized the reductions in number of children on the child protection register, as been achieved largely due to modern governance and measures to promote compliance with performance targets. Although these achievements are laudable, it only serves to obscure underlying tensions in the relationship between the state and the family (Platt, 2005).
According to Spratt & Callan (2004), the UK government in recent times have re-emphasised the primary duties of local authorities within the terms of the 1989 Children Act to focus more on safeguarding children by provision of children needs. The Department of Health estimates four million children living in England are vulnerable to harm or neglect, due to their families living far below the poverty line, yet only 300-400,000 of these children are known to social services at any given time (DoH 2001, p. 23-24). In their study of families whose children were at risk of suffering emotional abuse and neglect, Thoburn et al. (2000) found that in 98 per cent of such cases the families were characterized by living in situations of extreme poverty. Given the strong correlation between poverty and the need for provision of public services (Department of Health, 2000) it is obvious that social services in the UK only help a small proportion of vulnerable children who become members of that subsection, children in need as a consequence of their contact with social workers. This would suggest that a more effective way of helping vulnerable children, particularly black African children would be through the government increasing resources to local authorities, increasing the number of social workers and reshaping the social security system rather than highly selective and meagre provision of services through local authority social work departments (Parton 1997, P.).
Social workers can be been seen as a force for conformity and are frequently criticized for acting more in the interests of the Government so as to meet targets than in the interests of clients who need help from them. Therefore the model or approach social workers may adopt in view of all the government legislations and policies, when working with black African children and families living in extreme poverty will determine whether a family receives a child protection service or child welfare service.
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