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The area of poverty and child protection with black African families has been the source of controversy in British social work research for many decades. Many researchers find a correlation between economic deprivation such as poverty and social exclusion and parenting behaviour and practice, child-rearing capabilities and skills which are a prerequisite for proper child development anywhere in the world. Moreover, according to Jordan (2001) poverty is strongly correlated with reports of abuse and neglect. For instance, the National Centre for Children in Poverty found in 1990 that ‘the incidence of child abuse and neglect, as well as the severity of the maltreatment reported, is much greater for children from low-income families than for others’ (Jordan, 2001 p.1). As a large number of Africans in the UK live below the poverty line, it may be reckoned that most black African children on the child protection register live below the poverty line.
Brophy et al (2003) argue that many families brought to the attention of the child protection system lives in extreme poverty and may experience social exclusion. Black African children living in the UK may be over-represented in the child protection system for reasons such as physical abuse or neglect; therefore it is understandable to say that there is a correlation between abuse and parenting behaviours and practices. The question is why African families and children living in poverty, who are alleged of child abuse, are over-represented in the child protection system? Sossou &Yogtiba (2008) noted in their study that a child is the most valuable asset of any traditional African family, as children symbolise status, respect and completeness of the nuclear family, if that is the case, then it is ironical to see African families and their children to be over-represented in the child protection system.
Many black African families in the UK still lives below the poverty-line though they undertake different types of unskilled or skilled jobs, they support large families in their countries of origin (Anane-Agyei, 2002). It is reckon that poverty is linked with other social disadvantages such as poor education, limited employment opportunities, and poor health and may have devastating consequences for children’s development and life chances. Research shows that many African families and their children have insecure immigration status and their existing financial predicaments only help to complicate their parenting behaviours and practices. Penrose (2002) study shows that African families seeking asylum in the UK are often forced to live at level of poverty that is just unacceptable, and this causes financial constraint in their duty to provide adequate childcare for their children. Unemployment levels are known to be very high among African families, and they are also subject of stigmatization and prejudice by the larger community that are suppose to accept them.
Some African families living in the UK are without jobs and are also not entitled to social and economic benefit and therefore find it difficult to raise their children as expected by the laws of the land. Children growing up with parents living in absolute poverty are deprived of proper childhood development as these poor parents go through financial, emotional and psychological trauma in their duty to care for these children. African families living in poverty and failing to provide good care for their children may be perceived by social work professionals as failing in their parental responsibilities. For this reason, social workers may intervene in such families and often than not they are drawn into the child protection system.
Amin & Oppenheim (2002) argue that the unfamiliar cultural expectation of black African families living in the UK somehow contribute to the high level of poverty they experience. Research shows that many African families suffer from institutional oppression including housing, employment, education and health which not only means that they are more likely to experience poverty and deprivation, but also more susceptible to social work interventions in child abuse or maltreatment allegations. Corby (1993) noted that it may be expected that black African children are over-represented in child abuse cases because their families are more open to surveillance as they show high levels of poverty that complicate their parenting behaviours. In a broader perspective, Pearce & Bozalek (2004) emphasise that
‘the child protection system that exist in Britain will be unfamiliar to many African families, especially those more recently arrived, as similar state systems do not exist in most African countries, particularly where socio-economic factors, political instability and violence overshadow intra-familial child maltreatment and effective intervention into child abuse and neglect’ (Bernard & Gupta, 2006 p).
Brophy et al (2003) study supports the above assertion that African families experience discrimination and insecurity in child abuse cases, as the tools for assessing abuse are often euro-centric bias and prejudice the families. Chand (1999) study expresses the awareness that black African families are disadvantaged through oppression in all areas of society and this should not reflect in social work practice.
Gibbon et al (2003) findings show that the child protection system was picking up more alleged child abuse cases inappropriately and putting more families and children on the child protection register than children who are subject to social welfare procedures. Therefore the over-representation of African families on the child protection register somehow, undermines the government aim of keeping children with families and reducing the number of children that are drawn onto the child protection register. The Department of Health (1995) document on child protection identified some pertinent shortcomings with the child protection system. The system seems to encourage unnecessary child protection interventions in border-line child abuse cases, which in many instances may have emotional and traumatic effects on families and children. Bernard & Gupta (2008) in their study of black African children and the child protection system suggest that there are a series of interactions between environmental factors such as poverty, immigration status and social exclusion that affect the life chances of many African children and the capacity of their parents to provide adequate care. Dowling (1999) realise that social work practice in the UK focus less on poverty-alleviating strategies but throw more resources behind safeguarding and protecting vulnerable children from abuse or maltreatment. Social workers need to understand the context in which abuse occurs, irrespective of race and culture, to develop an assessment and intervention process that is fairer for black families as they are more likely to suffer racism and oppression. In view of the above argument, it is pertinent that social workers know when to employ preventative measures to support black African families who have financial needs and when to take such families through the child protection system in the quest for safeguarding children.
All these factors together create complex needs for many African children living in the UK, and, in many circumstances increase their vulnerabilities which draw them into the child protection arena. It can be argued that social workers have limited training and skills to understand the consequences of poverty on parents’ capabilities to provide adequate care for their children and this usually reflects in social work practice. Bernard & Bernard (2008) argued that only by developing effective relationships with African families can social work professionals begin to understand their parenting behaviours and practices.
2.2 Poverty and Child Welfare Services
Current literature shows that poverty experience by most black African families living in the UK could be alleviated by social work services that offer a pragmatic welfare services rather than drawing these families and children into the child protection system. Brophy et al (2003) study suggests that immigration and asylum issues, combined with poverty, are likely to be the reasons for the increased complexity for social work professionals assessing and intervening child abuse cases involving black African children. The Department of Health challenges social workers with the responsibility to implement Section 17 of the Children Act 1995, to provide adequate financial and social support for children in need via the child welfare services (Platt, 2006). However, social work agencies have not fully achieved the government agenda of alleviating poverty experience by many families and children due to inadequate resources at all levels of social work practice.
The Department of Health have indicated that most families, struggle to bring up their children in conditions of material and emotional adversity (DoH, 2001). For instance black African families experiencing poverty may fail in their responsibility to provide proper care for their children as they spent almost all their time working to make ends meet. Such children hardly experience family treats such as going on a family holiday trip, having birthday parties and they are deprived of having basic playing toys and games that help children to learn and grow into adulthood. The lack of affordable basic needs for children of poor families complicated with other social adversities may contribute to poor children developing aggressive behaviours, low self-esteem, picking up awkward attitudes, and may to suffer from social deprivation. Fontes (2005) realises that many traditional immigrant families, where black Africans are part of, may use an authoritative style of parenting, demanding total obedience and respect from their children.
Although these parental practices may not necessarily constitute child abuse, it clashes with the child-rearing norms of British culture, and seems to bring African children and families to the attention of the child protection system. When social workers start acknowledging borderline child abuse cases and understand the difficulties families living in poverty experience in raising their children, there would be a correct balance between when to employ a child protection intervention and a child welfare intervention (Spratt & Callan, 2004). It is evident that children living in poverty may benefit from the child welfare services as stipulated in section 17 of the 1989 Children Act, as it aims at alleviating poverty in families and children in need (Platt, 2006). According to Thoburn et al (2007) investigations of alleged child abuse cases tend to focus more on risk assessment rather than assessment about developmental and social needs of the child in entity. In particular, social workers carrying out an investigation into alleged child abuse may not pick up parental and child upbringing issues resulting from poverty or social deprivation (Farmer and Owen, 2005). Brophy et al (2003) study concluded
‘that many black African parents, saw state intervention in parenting as a complete anathema and distrust.., especially where they have immigrated from countries in political turmoil and with no child welfare services’ (Bernard & Gupta, 2008 p.481).
Arguably social work intervention in child maltreatment or abuse cases seems to contradict Section 17 of the Children Act, as recent research reveals high levels of satisfaction amongst parents and children receiving social welfare services compare to those families drawn into child protection (Tunstill and Aldgate, 2000). The relationship between social work mission with regard to poverty and the type of social work practice poses a dilemma for social workers.
The refocusing initiative of social work practice, as defined by Platt (2006), in child abuse cases may benefit families living in extreme poverty, only when social work interventions aim at promoting social change in families. Thus, social welfare interventions promote and empower families with financial difficulties and who also suffer social exclusion to develop appropriate parental behaviours and skill that encourage proper child care (Monnickendam and Monnickendam, 2009).
2.3 Poverty and Parenting Practices
Poverty among many black African families affects the physical and emotional developments of African children living anywhere in the world. Poverty may influence parents’ behaviours and capabilities to provide for their families the basic needs of life. Bernard & Gupta (2008) study highlights the limited attention given to child-rearing practices of African families in child welfare research in the UK. Different child-rearing practices exist in different cultures, but there is just one kind of child-rearing practice that is considered ‘normal’. Many research findings point out to the fact that poverty- related parenting practices influence the lives of many African children involved in the child protection system. Thus, Child (1999) comments that when differences in child-rearing and ethnicity are explored the black family is often pathologized and their strengths ignored. For instance black African families are too strict and beat their children or tend to punish their children in a more punitive way. Therefore according to Chand (1999) discipline is one area where African families are found to be over-represented in the child protection system. It is important, that social workers redirect attention from child protection interventions to the provision of preventative to support families in need. Shor (2000) argue that the relationship between values and child upbringing patterns illuminates the relationship between poverty and parenting behaviours, as parents from low social class differ in terms of the values they uphold for their children. Shor (2000) also argue that there is correlation between black African mothers with low income status using a more authoritarian approach of caring for their children than mothers with high income status. Thus, according to Fontes (2005), many traditional immigrant families may use an authoritative style of parenting, demanding total obedience and respect from their children, although this parental behaviour may not necessarily constitute child abuse, but may contravene the norms of the land, and bring such parents to the attention of the child protection system. It is therefore paramount for social work professionals working with black African families living in the UK to develop the requisite knowledge and skills, not only across diverse cultures but understanding the affect of poverty and social exclusion on parental behaviours and capabilities. Poverty tends to breed a kind of parenting practices that make children experience unpleasant devastating lifestyle because their parents hardly can afford to care for them. Even where it is evident that a child has suffered significant harm and the child need to be removed from the family, the style of intervention process deploy by the social work team should be such that it empowers the affected families to develop new coping skills and behaviours for future parenting. It is therefore paramount for social workers to have some knowledge and understand the diversity of parenting practices that exist in contemporary social work practice so as to discern unacceptable behaviours from unacceptable behaviours. The consequences of misconstruing what behaviour is unacceptable may either draw more black African children and their families into the child protection system or undermine the commitment by social workers to safeguard vulnerable children from the risk of significant harm.
2.4 The Government Regulatory Policies
In the early 1990s there was an enormous government effort to develop and promote policies which challenge the influence of a child protection culture on management and social work practice, which has been perceived as distorting the balance of service provision to children and families (Spratt and Callan, 2004). The refocusing initiative necessitated the shift in social work practice from what appeared to be an overly child protection perspective towards a child welfare orientation in the United Kingdom (Platt, 2006). According to Platt (2006) the advocacy for a shift in social work practice from an overly focus child protection work perspective towards a child welfare practice shows a gradual move towards poverty alleviation among poor families living in the UK. Both Parton(1995) and Pelton (1998) research supports the need to overcome pertinent obstacles in the manner social work is practice to achieve social change at family or community levels, and emphasised the failure of the child-care systems attempt to manage child protection risks and meet the needs of children and their families. However, the government’s policy as stated in the 1989 Children Act aims to integrate child protection and child welfare services. According to Platt (2006) many children who are subjects of section 47 investigations are also eligible for services as ‘children in need’. To reinstate public trust, the government have redefined the primary duties of local authorities within the context of the 1989 Children Act so as to safeguard and provide services needed by poor children by conducting initial assessments, rather than child protection investigations in borderline cases. This policy implementation has become possible by procedural adjustments to other legislative guidance such as Working Together to Safeguard Children and the subsequent implementation of the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families (Platt, 2006).
The mid-1990s saw a growing consensus that many children who are subjects of Section 47 investigations due to alleged abuse or neglect are also eligible for services as children in need as in Section 17 of the 1989 Children Act (Platt, 2006). Often, Platt (2006) reckoned such children do not receive welfare services because local authority social work overly focuses on child protection rather than family support oriented services. In view of the refocusing initiative social workers have the legislative backing to approach families alleged of border-line child abuse to use the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families as guidance with a view to finding appropriate social work intervention practice that may address the needs of these children. In the UK the legislation on children welfare recommends all referrals of child abuse cases must initially be offered a comprehensive child in need assessment except in emergency cases or where it is suspected that a child is suffering from significant harm (Platt, 2006).
The Children Act (1989) is the main government legislation aiming to revolutionise social work practice and proceedings concerning the welfare of children in the UK. The Act considers the primary responsibility of child-rearing to rests with families and therefore, children interests will be served best by supporting them to grow up with their own family. Also the Children Act (1989) help harmonise family autonomy and to enable families to exercise their parental responsibilities without unnecessary state interference and for the state to support and protect children only where parents are failing to meet their children needs (www.dvon.gov.uk/child-protection-procedures accessed 09/01/2010). Under the Children Act 1989, local authorities have a general duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need within their area. The legislation requires local authorities to assess a child’s developmental needs so as to promote their welfare, and by doing so children are supported to live with their families (www.dvon.gov.uk/child-protection-procedures accessed 09/01/2010).
In the contrary Section 47 requires local authority to investigate when there is reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer significant harm. The investigation will include an objective of the needs of the child, including the risk of abuse and need for protection, as well as the family’s ability to meet those needs (www.devon.gov.uk/child-protection-procedures accessed 09/01/2010). Thus, social workers need to make judgements in child abuse cases on how to intervene so that children do not continue to leave in dangerous and risky situations or of removing children unnecessarily from their family. The dilemma of striking the right balance between child protection and child welfare services in child abuse cases is for social workers to base their judgement on pragmatic assessment of the needs of the children and the parental capability to cater for their children needs
According to Spratt and Callan (2004) the Department of Health guidance documents Working Together to Safeguard Children and The Assessment Framework have been paralleled by initiatives to provide a steer on the direction of contemporary social work practice.
SOCIAL WORK PRACTICES
In social work practice, it is important for social workers to base their work on theoretical assumptions, whether they are aware of them or not (Munro, 1998). This theoretical framework guides social workers in deciding who or what should be the primary focus of assessment or intervention and, as well as the objectives and the processes of social work practice (Healy, 2005). Many other writers like Fook et al (2000), who are of the view that social workers need to use theories in their work practice, also emphasized why social workers should develop the capacity to identify, use and develop social work theory in their practice (Healy, 2005). Social work has its roots in the struggle of society to deal with poverty and its consequential problems. Many researchers link social work practice to the ideology of charity work, but in a broader perspective social work embraces both the preventative and protective aspect of vulnerable people within society (www.globalvision.org Accessed on 14/12/2009). The term social work practice usually describes work undertaken with individuals, families, groups and communities.
In the history of British social work practice, the term encompasses the use of social work knowledge and skills within the framework of social care organisation so as to enhance the provision of services and practice which is consistent with the BASW Codes of Practice. This concept of social work practice promotes protection, safeguarding and social inclusion and provides life opportunities for people using social work services. In the code of ethics, it is emphasise that for social work practice to be successful, social work agencies must work effectively with other affiliated organisations such as the police service, health service, and education service so as to promote children welfare (www.basw.co.uk/ accessed 01/02/2010). In the vast majority of instances social work practice is a collaborative activity not an individual activity whether as social worker employee or an independent social worker. Social work practice aims at changing people’s behaviours in the manner that will provide life options for people and to facilitate easy transitions of life situations (Smale et al, 2000). Social work is a demanding profession which is based on a body of values, knowledge, skills and personal attributes, and requires the commitment of social workers to continually upgrade their knowledge and skills in their field of practice. The International Federation of Social Workers states that:
‘Social work bases its methodology on a systematic body of evidence-based knowledge derived from research and practice evaluation, including local and indigenous knowledge specific to its context. It recognizes the complexity of interactions between human beings and their environment, and the capacity of people both to be affected by and to alter the multiple influences upon them including bio-psychosocial factors. The social work profession draws on theories of human development and behaviour and social systems to analyse complex situations and to facilitate individual, organizational, social and cultural changes (www.ifsw.org accessed 14/01/2010 p.1).
According Graham (1999) the history of African heritage in the development of social welfare and social work is found in the recesses of British history but it remains largely unacknowledged and sparsely documented as social work continues to be steeped in the professional milieu of an existing ethnocentric knowledge base and value system (p.263). Research evidence (Graham, 1999) shows that social work practice within the black African community in the UK has emerged out of concerns about the well-being of children and families whose experience of enslavement and servitude necessitated efforts to improve their life conditions. The Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work (CCETSW) recognises that the effects of racism on black African people are incompatible with the values of social work and therefore seeks to combat racist practices in all areas of its responsibilities (CCETSW, 1996). Dominelli (2002) advocates for anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory social work practice to delineate oppression and racism which breed some of the social problems that affect traditional social work target populations. Earlier research by Platt (1999) shows an increasing awareness among social workers that the traditional social work models are not effective in addressing the needs of African people in the UK. However, the current social work theory and practice which is founded on ethnocentric value systems, lack the necessary resources to address the needs of African families and their children. It is therefore pertinent for social work practice to be designed to reflect other diverse views and cultural values, particularly African families and their children who are more open to surveillance, as they also show high level of poverty.
3.1 Contemporary Social Work Practices
It was not until the mid twentieth century when the International Federation of Social Workers, defined the core aim of social work to be alleviation poverty, liberating vulnerable and oppressed people with the ultimate aim to promote social inclusion (Horner, 2003). The Modernisation agenda introduced by the Labour government in 1997 set the foundation for the concept of collaboration and partnership to be established between professions and services. Following up to this, the concept of partnership and collaboration have become a working document for social work practice and underpin long term planning (Whittington, 2003). Crisp et al (2003) also found that when social workers engage with other inter-professional and multi-agency practice, it promotes prospect for common grounds with other professions, and the potential for professional differences to be recognised and negotiated.
In contemporary social work practice, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) code of ethics emphasizes the importance for social workers to understand the centrality of relationships as an important vehicle for social change. Social workers are encouraged to engage service users as partners in helping them to attain the needed change. Most research shows that social work assessment and intervention are inherent features of contemporary practice in social work services. Social work assessment represents the entry of a systematic approach to establish a mutual relationship between a social worker and service users. Social work practice is characterised by the new balance in the relationship between the state and the family as social workers remain responsible for managing child protection risks and providing child welfare services within an integrated system. In Spratt and Callan (2004) study it is realised that the balance between safeguarding and promoting welfare services for children in need who are living with their families in the UK has not yet been achieved as set out in the government policy developments. Lord Laming’s Report on the death of Victoria Climbie lead to the publication of the document, Every Child Matters, which set the priority for children not only to be protected from significant harm but to be safeguarded and their welfare promoted (Parton, 2006).
A study paper published by the Department of Health (2001) indicates that many families regardless of their ethnicity and religion, struggle to bring up their children in conditions of poverty and social exclusions. Social exclusions and poverty make it extremely difficult for many African families to develop the appropriate parenting skills needed for proper child-rearing, and sometimes may overshadow child maltreatment. Pierce & Bozalek (2004) suggest that many African families seeking asylum or migrated to the UK are unfamiliar with the British child protection system, as similar state systems do not exist in Africa, and therefore find the systems intimidating and unfriendly. Brophy et al (2003) argued that poverty among black African families may affect the development of many African children and their parent’s capacity to provide for them. It is therefore paramount that poverty is considered fully understand by social work professionals during the initial assessment of families involved in alleged child abuse cases. Platt (1999) argued that the refocusing of social work intervention is a result of increasing number of child protection allegations referred into the system, and the proportion of cases leading to social work interventions. This type of intervention draws a large number of children into the child protection system compared to children who are subject to further welfare procedures.
In the context of social work practices, it is important to consider the effectiveness of the child protection system, as it seems to achieve as much as could be expected in terms of the limited aim of preventing further abuse to identifiable vulnerable children. Social workers’ role may be considered as facilitating or empowering service users but, specialised skills and knowledge are needed to identify problems with families and their children involve in child protection and also to find sound interventions that would bring about the necessary social change. Crisp et al (2003) states that social work assessment ‘involves collecting and analysing information about people with the aim of understanding their situation and determining recommendations for any further professional intervention’ (p.3). Monnickendam & Monnikendam (2009) argue that the fundamental dilemma facing contemporary social work practice is the extent and manner to commit to social welfare policy or the extent to direct its efforts primarily to the poor and needy. Arguably social work practice that engage in social welfare policy tends to address poverty through macro-level intervention which aims at promoting social change, but social work practices aiming at individual families living in poverty result in poverty alleviation by assisting those in need to develop better lifestyle strategies. Thus, Monnickendam & Monnikendam (2009) research shows that the aim of social work practice in attaining social change and dealing with poverty is hardly attainable only by micro practice. Henceforth the relationship between the mission of social work with regard to poverty and the type of social work intervention needed to protect and safeguard children from further abuse becomes a difficult challenge for social workers.
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