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How Effective Is The Child Protection System?

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Published: Fri, 21 Apr 2017

Literature highlights some of the challenges for social workers assessing and making decisions about African children and families whose cultures differ from the majority of the white population in United Kingdom. The critical evaluation of knowledge and research in child protection and prevention of child abuse in black African children is important to the forming of social work policy, services and appropriate intervention. This is because there is need to provide appropriate intervention services which are culturally sensitive but at the same time preventing child abuse. It is important that black African children perspectives form part of policies and legislation. Several authors have critically analysed the evidence on service provision for black families in general. A pathologising approach to black families may lead to unnecessary coercive intervention and on the other hand a cultural relativist approach may lead to a non-intervention when services are required (Dominelli 1997, Chand 2000).

The purpose of the review is to explore if the child protection system is effective in preventing child abuse in black African children and their families. By child protection, the review will be referring to all the agencies and services involved in protecting and preventing child abuse. By relating to theory and research, there is hope to uncover gaps, themes and debates and also, raise questions which can be useful for future research. The literature review starts by setting the parameters that is, defining the terms that will be used, such as, child protection and child abuse. The literature review goes to set the historical and theoretical context because it is important to know how long literature and research has existed on the topic and what has been happening including research on culture differences, poverty, power issues and child protection. The review goes on to address the theoretical perspectives on the topic to analyse the theories that form the knowledge base in research. The review goes on to look at the major findings in research and literature by exploring the key themes such as factors that impact African children that can result them in being involved in the child protection system for example, child rearing practices, poverty and limited knowledge in cultural practices by social work professionals. Finally the review will look at the anti-discriminatory practice and user-involvement to show how professionals can work sensitively and provide culture appropriate services.

The literature search

Child protection system aims to prevent situations that can result in a child or young person aged sixteen and under experience abuse that puts them in danger of not developing appropriately or losing their life (Save the Children UK, 2008). The abuse can fall under the category of child abuse which could be in form of neglect, emotional, physicals and sexual, (Woolfson et al 2009). The search involved these terms. After establishing the specific area to be reviewed; the focus was on black African children and the child protection system. The area of child protection and black African children is a controversial area that has been neglected in literature and research and there is need to analyse themes and identify gaps in literature. The sources selected were journals, books, government records and articles. Electronic search engines were used because they provided a readily available wide range of literature and research articles which have been accepted for publishing. These sources were used as evidence and source of information because they had been accepted for publishing hence they would not provide with false information.

Review of the literature

Historical Context

In setting the historical context, the most important development in child protection is the formulation of the Children Act 1989 which was influenced by the public inquiries of the 1970s and 1980s child deaths, for example, the Maria Cowell. The Act stressed that the Local Authority’s duty is to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. However, research into how the Children Act was being put into action found that the child protection system was still focusing on single incidents of child abuse rather than planning to meet the wider requirements of children in need (DoH, 1995a). The studies also noted that many children and families received little or no support, the assessment of risk was low (Stevenson, 1998) and ignored the influences of poverty, unemployment and poor housing. This meant that a new way in thinking was needed about working with families. The result was publication of the Framework for Assessment of Children in Need and their Families (DoH et al, 2000) and Working Together to Safeguard Children (DoH et al, 1999).

A Common Assessment framework was also developed to promote more effective earlier identification of children’s additional needs and improve inter-agency working. A review into previous deaths of children indicates failures to listen to children, sharing of information, follow procedures and recognising indicators of abuse. The main response to the deaths of children due to local authorities’ failures has been to seek bureaucratic solutions such as introducing new guidelines, laws and procedures (Ferguson, 2005). However, the Laming 2003 enquiry into the tragic death of Victoria Climbie in 2000 is particularly significant because it pointed out the inter-agency approach established after Maria Cowell’s death in 1973 was not followed and it considered implications for the whole of the child protection system (Batty, 2003). Laming (2003) highlights the misjudgements made on the Climbie’s case based on cultural assumptions that led to a tragedy. However, Garret (2006) argues that the Laming report (2003) appears to detach a child’s race from core assessments and this was echoed in the Every Child Matters which appears to mention very little about the needs of children from other races. After the Victoria Climbie enquiry there has been recent death of children known to social services such as, baby P (2007) and Khyra Ishaq (2008). This begs the question, where is the child protection system going wrong? There are debates on how to provide social work interventions and family support that are culturally sensitive and competent to African children and their families who are at risk of significant harm (Stobart, 2006; Holland 2004, Robinson 2007; Mama 2004). This was highlighted in the Laming Progress Report (2009) which set out challenges faced in safeguarding children such as: “… there is still need to improve knowledge and skills to understand children and their family circumstances. Also the laming report noted that despite the progress in inter-agency working there are still problems of day to day reality of working across organisational boundaries and culture… “, Laming Progress Report (2009). When reviewing literature it is important to note that there is a sparse of research on black African children and the child protection system in the Britain hence it is difficult to set out the historical and theoretical context. Where research and literature exists, the data is still not plausible because it is mixed with other research data from minority ethnic populations and their experience differs widely.

Theoretical and research perspectives that shape knowledge

Different theories and perspectives inform knowledge base in literatures surrounding African children and the child protection system. When researching this area there is need to look at experiences of African people and their involvement with child protection hence researchers can use the black perspective which is based on the notion of common experiences that black people share. The black perspective criticises repressive research and theories that are likely to oppress black people, (Robinson 2007). African families will always refer to their culture as frame of reference to their parenting capacities (Bernard and Gupta, 2008) and understanding and acknowledgement of the black frame of reference will enable social workers to come up with accurate and comprehensive assessments of African black children involved with the child protection system, (Robinson 2007). Other literature is based on the ecological perspective and highlights the importance to analyse the impacts of social exclusion, poverty and immigration on black African children and their families, (Gibbs and Huang 2003). However, Robinson 1998 argues that there is a danger of over-generalising and stereotyping because individual members from the same culture can behave differently from the pattern that is typical of that culture. However, other researchers argue that postmodern theories have gained popularity in social work, (Pease and Fook 1999; Leonard 1997). Researchers have argued against postmodern theories who want a better understanding of identity, combining personal with structural elements of living (Dominelli 2002; Graham 2002), drawing on the idea of what holds people together, (Badiou 2001). The lack of appropriate preventative support services which are culture sensitive often result in social work operating against the interests of black children involved in child protection, (Barn 1993, Graham 2002). Social work has operated within a problem oriented framework which is characterised by deficit and dysfunctional theories of black families (Robinson 2008).

Major finding in literature and research

Research agrees that black African children and their families are disproportionately represented in child protection (Graham, 2006; Barn et al 1997; Bernard and Gupta 2008). When looking at experiences of black African children and their families and how best to offer them appropriate intervention it is important to acknowledge background in terms of religion, culture, language and beliefs (Bernard and Gupta 2008; Gibbs and Huang 2003; Robinson 2007). Research shows that black African families may experience oppression and discrimination within the child protection system (Chand, 2008). A lot of literature appears to draw attention to the parenting in African families and how their culture is neglected in a lot researches and there is little empirical evidence especially about African parenting in Britain (Bernard, 2002; Graham 2006). Parenting by African families is entwined into an already debate of what constitutes child abuse (Francis, 1993; Chand 2000). Barn, 2002 argues that child abuse is a socially constructed phenomenon and most of literature surrounding child abuse is based on western society’s views and middle-class. This can lead to discrimination and stereotypes towards African families’ rearing practices and lead to unwanted intervention and social care involvement. There is well documented literature focused on how culture influence parenting of African families involved with child protection system, (Brophy et al 2003, Bernard, 2002; Graham 2006). However, the empirical research is limited but the little data that exists poses the notion that cultural practices appear to play some part in African children being involved in the child protection system, (Mama, 2004). Literature suggests that African families practice harsh punishment for children, however, Barn et al 2006; Thoburn et al 2005; Nobes and Smith 1997, challenge such stereotypes and in their study, they found no significant differences between ethnic groups with regard to physical punishment. However, these studies cannot be generalised to African families easily because the majority of the participants where white parents.

There is gap in research on the parenting by black African families and a recurrent theme in literature is the need to acknowledge cultural and social contexts of parenting and experience of African black families to make sense of child abuse and provide appropriate intervention for children and families involved in the child protection system, (Holland 2004, Robinson 2007, Stobart 2006). A focus on ethnicity or identity, preclude issues of power and oppression operating in the everyday experiences of children’s lives to be appreciated, (Graham, 2007). Research found that most black African families live in poverty and social exclusion and how this impacts on parenting, (Bernard and Gupta 2008; Gibbs and Huang 2003; Robinson 2007; Platt, 2007). A study of more than 7,000 children looked after by 13 Local Authorities found that children who were not of the white origin where more likely to be put into care due to poverty (Sinclair et al, 2007). Sinclair et al’s study is very important because it is a comprehensive qualitative study which focuses on the needs of children in care systems involving their perspectives and investigates the outcomes for children. The study also suggests how the care system should function and managed which is important to social work professionals and policy makers. However, data produced cannot be easily generalised to the entire population of African children because their experiences varies.

There has been research critically examining the treatment of asylum seeking children and the child protection system and there is argument between the Children Act 1989 and immigration legislation and policy and Jones (2001) argues that ‘social work profession singularly failed to provide critical scrutiny on the status and relationship of immigration and child care law and the erosion of children’s rights’. Other researchers agree with Jones, that vulnerability of asylum seeking children has emotional and legal aspects, (Woodcock, 2003; Chase, 2009). Kohli 2006, argues that legislation obstruct the provision of preventative services to vulnerable children and their families. Research has highlighted the fragility of African children who claim asylum such as having suffering trauma due to their circumstances that led them to claim asylum such as war and torture, (Hodes, 2000, 2002; Ehntholt and Yule, 2006; Dyregrov and Yule, 2006). Research shows that there is a gap in research on asylum seeking children and social work to inform practice, (Kohli and Mather 2003; Okitikpi and Aymer 2003). Rustin 2005, states that there is a complicated interaction between social workers’ knowledge in asylum seeking children and the existing stereotypes regarding these groups of service-users, (Bernard and Gupta 2008; Robinson 2007; Barn 1993; Owen and Statham 2009).

Bernard and Gupta (2008) go on to cite other factors that affect African children such as asylum seeking, AIDS, loss and separation and this is important because when providing intervention to African children there is need to comprehend their background to offer appropriate services which do not discriminate them any further. Young (1990) states that black children often experience multiple-oppression for example, they suffer from stereotypes from society and also they are invisible to the child protection system. Graham (1999) goes on to argue that intervention with African families is at the centre of wider debates and conflict; and evidence from research continues to show over-representation of African children and their families in child protection. The debates seem to focus on power imbalances and how to involve African families to gain control over their lives, (Graham, 1999; Young, 1990). Other researchers highlight the issues of language in child protection and the provision of appropriate intervention services, (Chand 2000, Ahmed et al, 1982). The use of children as translators in sensitive child protection issues is unethical and inappropriate, and also the use of an interpreter can distort the assessment process, (Chand, 2000). Bernard and Gupta (2008) go further to look at other factors that affect black African children that other literature seems to neglect such as how gender norms place women in an inferior position within African cultures and this can limit mothers to protect their children in the environment of domestic violence, however Owen and Statham (2009) argues that the is limited evidence to maintain or challenge this notion. Nevertheless, in Masson et al (2008) study, domestic violence was evidenced as a cause of concern in the court files of half the children of Black African mothers implicated in their study of care proceedings.

Research and evidence from Climbie enquiry propose that social work professionals involved with black and minority ethnic families might not act in child abuse cases because of fear of being regarded as a racist (Scorer, 2005; Bernard and Gupta, 2006). Nevertheless, literature and research fail to provide a large amount of evidence to support this notion for example, Gordon and Gibbons (1998) in their study found no differences between ethnicity in terms of children being placed on the child protection register and factors such as parents’ mental health problems, criminal activities or the child not fitting in a reconstituted family were the reasons for involvement than ethnicity (Williams and Soydan, 2005). However, Selwyn et al 2008 found that social work professionals were more uncertain and occasionally puzzled regarding how best to promote the needs of ethnic children and they felt further self-doubting in their assessment. Recurring themes in literature is the significance of social work professionals to build up on culturally sensitive work with black and ethnic families (Gray et al., 2008; Sue, 2006; Laird, 2008; Stirling et al., 2009; Hodge, 2001).

Anti-discriminatory perspectives and the incorporation of knowledge from service users

Thompson, (2008) states that anti-discriminatory practice has been used in Britain to account for good practice in social work to counter structural disadvantages however, Graham 1999, argues that anti-discriminatory practice fails to provide a knowledge base for social work that is ‘engaged in the collective development of the black community’. Professionals can indirectly oppress African children and their families through practice for example, by imposing their personal values or power, (Dominelli 2007). Research and literature talks about the child protection providing cultural sensitive services and training social work professionals have the knowledge and skills in working with different cultures. However this can actually create further oppression and social divisions. The majority of the workers will have dominant Eurocentric views which encourage further social divisions for example, excepting the view that African families live in poverty and not fight and challenge this view by providing services that help families to counter these structural inequalities in society. Dominelli (2007) argues that there is need to address the systems that reaffirm racist dynamics rather than challenging them. Dominelli (1992) argues that black children and families are over-represented in the controlling aspects of social work and under-represented in the welfare aspects of social work.

Problems with communication and working in partnership have been highlighted in literature. Chase’s (2009) study found that young people described complex relationships with social workers and other social care professionals and were also more mistrustful of the interplay between social care and immigration services. There is limited research that incorporates service user involvement (Buchanan 2007; Bernard 2002) taking in their lived experiences however, an important study by Chase 2009 found that young people often described complex relationships with social workers and other social care professionals and were also more mistrustful of the interplay between social care and immigration services. Recent policy has tried to enforce advocacy as a way of promoting social justice and incorporate disadvantaged groups’ views on the services that are appropriate for them. In Bowes and Sims (2006) empirical study, they found that black and minority ethnic communities gave support to advocacy services, however, they were still marginalised by the services they were already using. There appears to be a need of qualitative research and literature that includes an extensive study of black African children’s perspectives and experiences, (Graham 2007) which forms a value base to inform practice in social work.

Relevance to policy and practice

Using the ecological approach the Framework For Assessment of Children in Need and their Families (DoH, 2000), places a requirement on social work professionals to take account of cultural background and socio-economic positions of families paying attention to power imbalances in relationships, (Dalrymple and Burke, 1995). Dalrymple and Burke (1995) argue that an understanding is needed of the association between personal experience and structural realism of inequality. Therefore service users perspectives should form part of policies and legislation respecting and literature highlights that children’s rights may still lack from policy and legislation, therefore, these notions challenge professionals to take children’s views seriously and appreciate their contribution to research, (Aubrey and Dahl 2006). Lots of research appears to focus on empowerment through cultural knowledge inviting new thinking about the challenges faced by black communities, (Aubrey and Dahl 2006). The complex social circumstances experienced by many African families pose challenges for social work professionals working to safeguard and promote children’s welfare.

In order to safeguard and promote welfare of African children acknowledgement of sources of discrimination and oppression, a commitment to human rights and social justice must be met.

Several authors have critically analysed the evidence on service provision for black families in general. A pathologising approach to black families may lead to unnecessary coercive intervention and on the other hand a cultural relativist approach may lead to a non-intervention when services are required (Dominelli 1997, Chand 2000). Either way appropriate intervention is not provided for black and ethnic minority children. The quality of services in black communities is a focus for debate and raises important issues about the lack of policy initiatives based upon needs and aspirations of local communities (Graham, 2002). By drawing on strengths perspective professionals can illuminate how parents draw on cultures as a resource to parents in circumstance of adversity whilst not excusing behaviour that is harmful to children.

Conclusions

There is gaps in research on child protection and black African families and a recurrent theme in literature is the need to acknowledge cultural and social contexts of parenting and experience of African black families to make sense of child abuse and provide appropriate intervention for children and families involved in the child protection system, (Holland 2004, Robinson 2007, Stobart 2006). Research shows that there is a gap in research on asylum seeking children and social work to inform practice, (Kohli and Mather 2003; Okitikpi and Aymer 2003). There is need for research centred on black African children and there is also need to involve them in forming of policies, challenging the notion that only ethnicity causes the experiences faced by African children. This is because by having cultural sensitive intervention, there can be reinforcement of stereotypical services and discrimination ignoring other things such as gender, age and class.


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