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According to Butler and Roberts (2004), there is a vast contrast in the shape and size of families in Britain today, with a significant increase in the number of people living alone; in same sex relationships; the number of divorces; single parent families; and Black and Ethnic Minority families (Boylan and Allan, 2008). This paper will seek to explain the impact that social work practice can have on marginalized families and moreover, Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) children and families.
Families who are in receipt of social work services may feel stigmatized by the visits of a social worker, far less than that of a health visitor and parents whose children have disabilities for example, may be offended by their inclusion on a register looked after by social services; and may also feel they are in receipt of ‘charity’ if such services are provided on a voluntary basis (Butler and Roberts, 2004). Aldgate and Statham (2001:73) found that parents value recognition of the circumstances surrounding their difficulties and the importance of respect for their different approaches to parenting and furthermore, that “parents respond well to being treated with dignity.” Butler and Roberts (2004:137) maintain that these values are “…what is needed to do the job, assuming that the job is one of helping families resolve their difficulties.” Banks (2006) emphasizes that every social worker needs to understand that personal and professional values can impact significantly upon children and families, with a need for an ongoing ability to scrutinise their own values (Banks, 2001).
It is unlikely that anyone would argue that parenting is not an occupation which is highly skilled and demanding; but considering the best practice to support families who are faced with difficulties is based around ‘partnership approaches’, which have the potential of developing particular relationships best suited to helping families solve their difficulties (Butler and Roberts, 2004). The strength of this method of social work lies at the heart of addressing the power imbalance between social worker and service user (Butler and Roberts, 2004) and as Coit (1978, in Butler and Roberts, 2004: 132) states: “partnership at a local level tends to mask structural inequalities and class antagonisms.” However, as Butler and Roberts point out, to achieve this requires a willingness of the social worker to think differently about their role with families, as they did in the past.
Social work practice before the introduction of the Children Act (1989) perceived families as needy and inadequate; it also adopted the concept of ‘dangerously dysfunctional’ families, which researchers in the 1980s became uncertain of the efficacy of that approach (Adams, Dominelli and Payne, 2009). The Children Act (1989) was by far a highly significant development in English law but contains “no magic cure for family problems,” as stated by (Allen, 2008: 1).
However, the 1989 Act’s legal framework, according to Adams, et al. (2009) set out clear expectations and principles that underpinned social work practice with children and families that included; the need for children to remain within their family network if possible, in the emergence of difficulties, families are to be supported in doing this; if intervention is to occur, evidence must be produced to support such action is preferable to no formal court order being made.
Allen (2008) explains that the object of the 1989 Act is to provide people who care for children the necessary legal tools to further the best interests of those children in their care. The harrowing death of Victoria Climbe and Lord Laming’s (2003) subsequent inquiry prompted the government to introduce the Children Act 2004 and the Every Child Matters (ECM) Green paper, which central features were early intervention and joined up working (Kirton, 2009). However, some writers have argued the effectiveness of (ECM) and described it as a lifeless vision of childhood based on a work ethic of academic achievement and social conformity (Williams, 2004 cited in Kirton, 2009).
Despite social work’s best intentions to meet the needs of children and families (Butler and Roberts, 2004), the Department of Health reported that it was continuing to fail comprehensively with BME families. In a study carried out by the Social Services Inspectorate of eight local authorities’ services to BME children and their families found that:
most councils did not have strategies in place to deliver appropriate services to ethnic minorities and that families were often offered services that were not appropriate or sensitive to their needs (Department of Health 2000: 1)
There are many generations of BME families in Britain who historically have lived with racism and the failure of social work to address the tendency to pathologize them based on “crude racial stereotypes” (Butler and Roberts, 2004: 71). According to the Bernardo’s website (2010), BME families are at a greater risk of experiencing poverty, higher rates of ill health, poor housing and racism. Dominelli (1997: 6) affirms that “racism is fundamental to the process of social exclusion and subordination among ethnic minorities… and flowing from this, their exploitation and oppression.” Dominelli (1997: 22) is clear in her close examination of racism and found that “no aspect of social work is free from it” stemming from White cultural domination in everyday routines. Butler and Roberts (2004) add that BME service users are treated the same as White service users and that a major failure of social work practitioners and planners is their adoption of a ‘colour blind’ approach. Furthermore, it may be the case that some people need to be treated differently in order to take account of experiences of racism and the value of cultural differences and strengths (Butler and Roberts, 2004).
Richards and Ince’s (2000) survey of 157 local authorities found some examples of good practice which offer a positive development to build on. Richards and Ince found that some local authorities’ anti-racist practice and culturally sensitive services were kept consistently up to date with further training and team meetings to stay on top of any issues, however, Butler and Roberts (2004) argue that this is rare and see social work as part of the problem and as the first step in making it part of the solution.
This paper set about to explain how social work practice might impact on children and families, with a closer focus on Black and Minority Ethnic families. It found evidence of a continued failure within social work to address the needs of BME families who are ethnically and culturally diverse through social work’s colour blind approach. Despite some rare examples of good practice, it could be that indeed social work itself is part of the problem faced by BME families.
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