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Evidence suggests that contemporary social work practice is faced with the dilemma of how to direct its efforts primarily to the poor and needy in the UK and at the same time to engage in social welfare policy to help promote social change. According to Okitikpi and Aymer’s (2003) social work professionals working with African refugees are often frustrated and poorly resourced to manage families who suffer from difficult lifestyle experiences due to poverty and social exclusions. Also Okitikpi and Aymer (2003) are of the view that problems of poverty and working in partnership with African families alleged of child abuse or maltreatment would be better and easier managed should social workers engage in open direct interventions. Bernard & Gupta (2008) highlights the difficulties social workers face when assessing and making interventions regarding African children and their families whose cultures differ from the majority white population in the UK. Therefore the argument that the mission of social work is to promote social change and alleviate poverty in society by engaging with social welfare policy rather than interventions at family levels is currently the pivot of strong debate. The term social work intervention as defined by IFSW:
‘Usually describes work undertaken with individuals, families, groups and communities. In this context the term is 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 social inclusion and life opportunities of people using the services’ IFSW (2000).
Types of Social Work Intervention
According to Elde-Woodward (2002), there are three fundamental methods or stages of intervention. The first method of intervention, Elde-Woodward describes as ‘macro’ social work intervention which involves directing social work practice to society or communities as a whole. This type of social work practice includes policy forming and advocacy on a national or international scale. The second method of intervention is ‘mezzo’ social work practice, which involves working with agencies, small organizations, and other small groups directly or indirectly related to social work practice to make policies or developing programs for a particular community. The third method of intervention is the ‘Micro’ social work practice which involves offering direct service to individuals and families. Hartnett et al (2005) research on the role perceptions of social workers and social work students shows that only very few actually engage in policy-practice that focus on social policy formulation and advocacy.
There are a wide variety of activities that falls under the category of social work practice and social work professionals works in many different settings of employment. Basically social workers engage in clinical practice, find themselves working with individuals or families. However, social workers who serve in community practice are engage with the mezzo or macro stages of social work. Spratt et al (2004) findings shows that social work intervention with individuals or families is the most popular and effective method of intervention that bring about social change in individual lives. Social work intervention aims to help children or families to identify, and to establish appropriate relationships with social workers that will enhance their livelihood. The purpose of the intervention is diverse and ranges from increasing life skills or changing behaviour to increase life options and to cope with changing life situations and transitions (Smale, Tuson and Statham, 2000).
Identifying and acknowledging child abuse
Many schools of thought argue that social workers could assist families living in poverty to identify issues of child abuse by showing empathy, establishing working relationships and engaging in appropriate interventions. In any of the situations there are a number of factors making African families living in poverty to be alleged of maltreating or abusing their children. Some of these factors are poor parenting practices, lack of knowledge about the laws pertaining in the country of residence and ethno-centric discrimination and racism (Elder-Woodward, 2002). Child abuse cases referred by other agencies for the attention of local authority social services may result in interventions that usually draw children into child protection system. Such interventions do not always consider the financial and social situations such parents find themselves, but used by social work professionals in manner to comply with government legislation and the responsibility of protecting or safeguarding children. For instance, parents living on meagre income hardly could sustain the family financial commitments, or such parents may not consider the legal implications of living children alone in the house for work, as often such children are seen wandering the streets or become school dropouts due to poor parental care and support. Social worker’s distinctive contribution for families living in extreme poverty and experiencing social exclusion is o employ empathy, communication and relationship skills to help identify and to acknowledge issues of child abuse (Spratt et al 2004).
Intervention within the social work process is not a static, snapshot or a holistic process whereby social workers arrives at definitive answer to protect vulnerable children from further harm. However, the fundamental interpersonal skills require of social workers is the key to identifying the possible causes of child abuse or maltreatment in a family setting, through the building of appropriate relationship with the families and collaborating with other interested agencies (Lloyd and Taylor, 1990). Most often than not social workers take ethnocentric and prejudice approach at the initial contact with African families accused of child abuse and consequently arrive at a judgemental decision. With the right relationship with African families involve in child abuse cases social work professionals are positive to understand the needs of such families and what type of intervention is appropriate to help address their problems. Intervention skills used by social workers fits most easily into the traditional frameworks in which social work is usually taught to qualifying students, but less easily recognized as intervention by most social workers once in practice. Arguably, the core skills of intervention have not been grasped in its entity practising social workers and hence are not consciously transferred across situations where is most needed.
Intervening child abuse
Social work involves intervening children and family’s situation and problems through appraisal of what information is available and what information is gathered from the family after initially assessing the family’s financial and social status, with collaboration with other organisations and professionals working with the family. Many authors argue that social worker should lead families alleged of child abuse through the intervention process, highlighting and explaining the importance of working together to agree on the most appropriate intervention needed to bring social change. Furthermore, social workers use a range of knowledge, models and frameworks to decide what method of intervention is needed to achieve the desired result. To ensure that collated information from all quarters leads to informed intervention, social workers need to establish working relationships of trust with African families and other professionals. They must be able to understand the socio-economic status and parenting practices of African families, through their own knowledge and skill, or by drawing on that of others. Social workers recognition and understanding of parents behavioural patterns, complicated with poverty, understanding of diverse cultures and building of good working relationships are vital to successful interventions.
There is evidence in the literature to suggest that social workers and other related professionals have difficulty fostering good working relationship with black African families alleged of child abuse cases as such families have no trust in the child protection system. Therefore social workers need to develop the requisite skills and behaviours to understand the problems of African families living under the poverty line, and who may have little or no knowledge of the child protection system in the UK. In recognition of the difficulties inherent in deploying effective interventions the Department of Health introduced the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families ( DH 2000). Macdonald (2002) notes the pitfalls that arise when conducting assessments leading to social work intervention. It is not just simple to follow a framework setting out the areas to be investigated, as social workers need to exercise professional judgement and be alert to unconscious bias which may creep into the work, distorting assessments and the degree of interventions.
Social Work Intervention and environmental influences
Bernard & Gupta (2008) literature review on black African children and child protection system emphasize the adverse effects of poverty and social exclusion on parenting capacity and children’s development, which have been identified as a major factor in most families involved in care proceedings (Brophy et al, 2003). African families are proportionally more likely to live in poverty than majority whites in Britain as many undertake low-income paid jobs (Kyambi, 2005), have their rights to support services withdrawn under section 17 of the 1989 Children Act, (Kholi, 2006) and income, employment opportunities and access to support services are determined by their immigration and asylum status (Bernard & Gupta, 2008).
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, recognises the need to protect children who experience a deprived childhood due to families living in poverty, and requires governments to ensure all children have an adequate standard of living as a basic right. The UN recognizes that deprivation during childhood undermines the fundamental rights which children, as well as adults, should enjoy, including access to key services such as health, education and social services (Monteith & McLaughlin, 2005). Available evidence shows that poverty and social deprivation during childhood has adverse effects on children developments and limits their capacity to reach full potential and will perpetuate social inequalities across generations within populations.
The Labour government pledge to reducing poverty in the country was a step forward to achieve social change among families, but did not explicitly define the target groups that are mainly living in extreme poverty. The Labour government’s anti poverty strategy involves policies to increase the incomes of poor families by improving child-related benefits and tax credits and the introduction of a national minimum wage. The government’s Sure Start initiative and the National Childcare Strategy in the UK provide affordable childcare provision for working parents. Moreover, the publication of the document ‘Every Child Matters’ set outs the government approach to the wellbeing of children and young people (McLaughlin & Monteith 2005). The sure start initiative provides a lot of support to parents struggling to care for their children, but the limited number of branches across the country only seems to assist the majority white families. Bradshaw (2001) and Stewart & Hill (2005) argue that the government’s child poverty reduction strategies may be easier to achieve in short-term basis but not achieving much in long term. The main official working document for many British child protection social workers is the Department of Health (DoH), 1988 document, ‘Protecting Children: A Guide for Social Workers undertaking a Comprehensive Assessment, but has its limitations when working with black African families (Chands, 1999).
It is arguable to say that taking children into public care because their parents are not capable of providing adequate care may be due to the withdrawal of all support services in accordance with section 9 of the 2004 Asylum an Immigration Act (Kelly & Meldgaard, 2005). Evidence shows that basic physical care that families are expected to provide for children becomes limited by inadequate housing, unemployment, poverty, and social exclusion particularly with black African families living in poverty. It is argued that any assessment process that reflects the inadequate provision of care as the failure of black people and as indicator of child abuse rather than the effects of racial inequality is in itself racist. Furthermore, as black African families are disadvantaged in many circumstances, it is arguable that they will face higher levels of risk from the harmful effects of inappropriate social work intervention and misjudgement (Chands, 1999).
Social Work Intervention and parental behaviours
The history of over-representation of black children in the child protection system, according to Chand (1999) dates back to the 1960s. Research shows that black children are quick to enter into the child protection system than their white counterparts, for reasons such as parenting behaviours, culture and social and economic problems. Many research work relating to the differences in child-rearing and poverty in the UK show that black African families are often at risk of being stereotyped as not capable of parenting children in the most appropriate way. Therefore, social workers have a responsibility to understand issues framing the experiences of African children at risk of significant harm, ad not to create the general impression that all African families are not capable. According to Chand (1999)
‘despite the very obviousness of the diversity of childhoods, we live and work in a society which tends to assume that there is just one kind of childhood that is normal and ordinary (Rogers, 1989, p. 97).
The issues of punishment, parental behaviour and discipline, complicated with poverty are controversial concepts among black African families living in the UK, which often draw them into the arena of child protection system. According to Bernard & Gupta (2008), the literature that exists focuses on the African families where their parenting is deemed to be below the threshold of what is considered proper. This dysfunction within African families can risk reproducing stereotypes of this group as ‘deficient’, thus fostering a pathological viewpoint of African family relationship. It is widely accepted that black African family relationships with white social workers working with them, is always strained with mistrust and non-acceptance. Available research shows that (Chands, 1999), different child-rearing practices, as a result of socio-economic status permeates different cultures and social workers working with families of different cultural values and beliefs may experience difficulty in understanding what parental behaviours are acceptable and not acceptable. Thus, to distinguish whether a particular child-rearing practice is deviant to societal norm, social workers will always have to dwell on the knowledge acquired from both formal and informal training, experiences and their moral judgements, to employ the most appropriate intervention process applicable to the family. Bernard & Gupta (2008) claims that African family relationships, like those of many minority ethnic groups, are often constructed differently from the conventional nuclear family model that exist in the majority culture in contemporary Britain. Cultural values and more importantly poverty influence the lives of many black African children and their families involved in the child protection system (Thorburn et al, 2005). In order for social workers to establish a good working relationship when working with black African families and children living in poverty, Chands (1999) argues that it is paramount for social workers to have a sound knowledge and understanding of what is acceptable and unacceptable parental behaviours within the cultural background of the families. If not, social workers may intervene in alleged child abuse cases inappropriately.
There are a few data on the impact of poverty and cultural values in influencing expectations, motivations, roles and approaches to parenting and perceiving what constitutes harmful behaviours (Barn et al., 2006). It is debatable to define in specific terms how children should be discipline from the view points of parents and professionals and what type and degree of punishments are deem appropriate for a misbehaving child. Barn et al (2006) findings show that African families do not punish their children any different from the majority white families and that there is no evidence of using more severe physical punishment (Thorburn et al., 2005). However, research shows that working-class white families presumably employ more smacking, which is a form of physical punishment, in an attempt to manage children behaviours and corporal punishment is still practise in schools outside the state sector, which are mainly occupied by middle-class children. Yet in general, as the vast majority of African parents use physical punishment as a form of discipline to manage their children behaviours, they are inevitably alleged of abusing their children (Chands, 1999). These are related to their cultural background, their socio-economic status, and their own personalities’ (Phillips & Dutt 2000). For example, Ellis (2006) maintained that in African culture there is little fondling and kissing of infants and any kind of caressing stops when the child is toddling. Black Africans express their affection and love in a different way, through good physical attention, such as bathing, skin-care and hair-care (Chands, 1999). This illustrates the necessity to understand different cultures in order to guard against misinterpretations of parenting behaviour, and to ask why a black African parent may not be showing any obvious signs of affection towards their child. Moreover, the unrealistic expectation by white social workers should be understandably measured in the light of the parents’ anxiety about their children’s future considering the poverty levels of many black African children living the United Kingdom (Beranard & Gupta 2006).
With regard to responsibility and independence, many research shows that most white social workers seem to adopt euro-centric approach when working with black African children and their families (Chands, 1999). In effect black African children are either not protected because they are seen to be able to cope with situations not deemed appropriate for white children, or where black African children are not taking on similar responsibilities to their white counterparts they are deemed to be at risk of abuse or deprivation (Chands, 1999). For instance, the issue of older siblings caring for younger ones in the case with many black African families may be decisive in the workers’ assessment of risk of significant harm to the child. According to Chands (1999) there is the need to question why this should be when a high level of both responsibility and independence by the older sibling can be clearly demonstrated. It must be emphasized therefore that although child abuse occurs in all races and cultures, workers must guard against viewing suspected abuse through the norms and values of their own background.
A further point is that black African families’ unwillingness or resistance to the assessment and intervention process employ by social workers working on alleged child abuse cases should not be seen as evidence of guilt, as the system may be new to them or a good working relationship is not there. Finally, Chands (1999) explains that in order to make the intervention process fairer for all black African families, it is necessary for majority white workers and institutions to understand that most black African parents may be less aware of child protection procedures, may be living in poverty, and their experience in the UK make them more susceptible to the child protection system. Some researchers have identified the importance of understanding how poverty complicate different cultural values, which in many cases explains the motivation behind parental actions when managing unacceptable behaviours of their children (Barn et al, 2006) and in their research on normative parenting there is no significant differences between ethnic groups with regard to physical punishment of children (Bernard & Gupta, 2008).
IMPLICATIONS FOR SOCIAL WORK PRACTICE
There is some evidence in the literature to suggest that social workers and other professionals struggle to manage the complex needs and social circumstances of many African families (Bernard & Gupta, 2008). According to Hayes & Spratt (2008), social workers are more engage with child protection work, but not in way that is readily understood by those who legislate, set policy and measure performance. Social workers may lack the necessary tools to adequately differentiate borderline cases from high-risk cases, couple with poor collaboration with other professionals, classifying certain parenting practices as politically and ethically unacceptable and their own personal cultural values, they turn to route all borderline child abuse cases through the child protection processes. It might seem paradoxical that in recent years social workers, who are seen as the force for conformity, are frequently criticized for acting more in the interests of society than in the interests of service users. However, when social workers relate more with families than just aiming to achieve government’s target, they build good working relationships with those they serve and help liberate them from oppression, poverty and social deprivation. Thus, social workers engaging more with methods of intervention which liberate children and their families from poverty, deprivation and social exclusion are really working to the principles and ethics of social work practice as defined by IFSW in contemporary Britain.
Social work professionals almost always draw exclusively on sociology and political science knowledge base, believing that individuals can be wholly human only within the context of a benign environment and a just social order. Evidence shows that changing the social system of African families who suffer oppression through poverty and social exclusion by empowering them, not only means liberating them from social injustice, but also promoting family dignity and happiness. According to Bernard & Gupta (2008) the poverty and social circumstances experience by many African families pose challenges for parents and children, as well as social work professionals working to safeguard and promote children welfare. Therefore, it is the requirement of the social workers to consider African families’ poverty and social circumstances before deciding on what intervention process will most help change their life. Recent government’s efforts to change the objective social work from perhaps overemphasizes on child protection agenda to a more preventative approach in alleged child abuse cases, have not entirely favoured African families living in poverty who are accuse of being ‘deficient’ in their child-rearing behaviours. Social workers invariably experience the dilemma of choosing between directing efforts to child welfare process or child protection process and not see children suffer further abuse under the context of poverty.
The broader development of the new theoretical perspectives based on systems theory will assist social work professionals working with children and African families to consider a more specific view of their roles and to help develop effective relationships with African families with the view of understanding their individual, emotional as well as social needs. A lack of good relationship with African families will adversely impact on social workers ability to understand their parenting behaviours so as to employ the appropriate method of intervention (Bernard & Gupta, 2008). There are four main reasons for the need for a new perspective.
Policy changes resulting in a change in method of intervention
The policy environment to which social work practice relates continues to change to bring about the necessary social change. According to Platt (2006) persistent demands on social workers from the government and including inadequate staff, the bureaucracy and central government targets, and policies on refugees and asylum seekers, creates difficulty for social work to offer a wide range of family support services. Research shows that many African families may benefit more when they are routed away from child protection system towards child welfare services (Hayes & Spratt, 2008). However, the government’s response to Lord Laming’s Report in Every Child Matters following the death of Victoria Climbie, has strengthen child protection and increase the number of cases routed through child welfare processes. Therefore it is important for social workers to subject parenting practices influenced by poverty to thorough scrutiny during assessment process to help achieve better outcomes for African children. Poverty can create forms of disempowerment for children when it is used to justify parental behaviours and practices that violate their right (Bernard & Gupta, 2008). Further to this point, social workers sometimes face resistance when assessing parenting problems, and more importantly their judgements about what should be consider as significant harm, when parents use poverty as a yardstick for their behaviours. Chand (1999) argue that due to the large number of cases of child abuse and child protection issues among black African children and families, social workers should take the initiative and be proactive by liaising with the families they serve, informing them about where they draw their boundaries.
Changes in the knowledge and skill base
As with any profession there are both new approaches and new understandings about the effectiveness of specific interventions. Investment in research and the dissemination of knowledge and skills in health remains vast greater than in social care. But the strengthening of these resources in social work and social care should result in more knowledge based practice and management in the medium and long term. The case for recognising different sources of knowledge has been made and the multiplicity of information collected in various departments need to include that produced through the experience and expertise of people using the services and front line workers as well as from research. According to Chand (1999) training either formally or informally, is important for social workers working with black African families with child-rearing issues since it can raise the issue of how black African families meet their children needs differently. The training should be integrated into the social work training syllabus in higher education and this would broaden the understanding of students which may dispel some of the myths around black African families and their child-rearing practices and alleviate the potential of pathologizing them in child care practices (Chand, 1999).
Technological and structural changes
Recent technological changes, identification of gaps in knowledge and skills new areas of working are emerging which is resulting in the provision of services falling behind service demands. For instance global movements have necessitated the need for social workers to work with African children and families migrating to the UK with existing poor backgrounds, to work with asylum seekers or refugees escaping from own countries in political turmoil or at war (Newburn, 1993). New technologies and the growing familiarity of the public in using social welfare services opens up new forms of interventions particularly to assist African families living poverty in the UK. In areas where there is rapid development or new issues with social work practice there is the necessity in advance of theory. Strategies in these circumstances may include transferring existing knowledge and skills to the new area, drawing on any international experience and expertise, networking to share and learn from experience and research on needs and effective responses. Initially these may need to be done separately to structure a different perspective before it is possible to bring experience and learning together in new ways.
Multi organisational or Partnership Intervention
For intervention to meet the required target, it all depends on proper initial assessment, but many of the assessment tools that are employ such as DoH (2000) Framework for the Assessment of children in need and their families may disadvantage black African families due to the eurocentric approach of social workers. Research shows that partnership is needed to embrace both good working relationships and appropriate intervention process (Chand, 1999). Against this background, children in need may be given preventative supports and will prevent vulnerable children from abuse or maltreatment. Therefore greater attention should be given to support professional social work practice, and safeguarding the value base, the relationship and the process of good practice, expertise of social workers and related professions.
Implications and issues for considerations
Recent studies on African families and the child protection system show that these families are disproportionately represented at different levels in the child care system. The existing intervention tools for social work practice are grounded within ethnocentric epistemologies and, as the foundation for social work theory and practice, are not well equipped for the task of nurturing and developing African families and their children. This is evident, for example, in the sustained over-representation of black children in the care system and in the lack of supportive social work services designed to meet their needs. It is therefore important for the development of new theoretical perspectives based on systems theory to help social workers who work with African children and families. This will enable social workers to take a broader view of their role and to develop a vivid perception of parenting behaviours and practices of these families which are complicated with poverty so that a more appropriate method of intervention are employed in their judgement.
The extreme poverty experience by many African families pose challenges for social workers working to safeguard and promote children’s welfare (Bernard and Gupta, 2008). 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 also consider the low income status of parents when intervening cases of child abuse. These approaches provide an essential framework for work with African children and families, both in terms of the context of their lives and the process of the work being undertaken. In order to safeguard and promote the welfare of West African children, a starting point must be an acknowledgement of sources of maltreatment of children in the context of poverty (Bernard and Gupta, 2006).
The dissertation highlights the importance of social workers considering the poverty situations of many African families who have immigrated to the United Kingdom, particularly those who have recently arrived into the country. Most of the African families may be asylum seekers or refugees with insecure social status and may have very limited understanding of the child protection or welfare state system in the UK (Bernard & Gupta, 2008). Therefore only throug
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