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British Journal of Social Work (2007) 37, 14251434

doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcm145 Advance Access publication December 18, 2007

CRITICAL COMMENTARY Race, Ethnicity and Child Welfare: A Fine Balancing Act
Ravinder Barn
Ravinder Barn is Professor of Social Policy and Social Work at Royal Holloway, University of London. Correspondence to Professor Ravinder Barn, Health and Social Care, Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, Surrey TW20 OEX, UK. E-mail:

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Western multi-racial societies continue to grapple with the best and most desirable way to integrate racial/cultural minorities in mainstream society. The field of child welfare provides a fertile terrain in which to test the prevailing debates and discussions. This paper explores some key issues in ethnicity and child welfare and the implications of these for minority families and children, and the social work profession. Keywords: ethnicity, culture, child welfare, multiculturalism, social cohesion

Since the 1950s, those concerned about the plight of minority ethnic children and young people in public care have focused on difference and diversity within the context of prevailing race relations thinking of the time. Such models of thought ranging from assimilation and integration, to cultural pluralism/ multiculturalism, anti-racism and now to community cohesion have reflected the dilemmas of an increasingly uncertain multiracial, multicultural Britain. Arguably, despite the best efforts of the British social work profession, child welfare policy and practice have tended to operate within a framework that may be described as straitjacketed by culture and difference to the detriment of racial equality.

The Author 2007. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved.

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Historical background: racial ideologies and child welfare

The situation of minority ethnic children has been a longstanding concern of policy makers and practitioners in race-conscious societies such as Britain, North America, Australia and New Zealand. Significantly, policy and practice have invariably reflected the prevalent ideologies of race relations of the time. Arguably, the parallel similarities on racial and cultural thinking of Western countries towards minority ethnic groups signify historical, cultural, political and economic aspects of these societies and their relationship to those from the ex-colonies, and/or so-called discovered lands such as Australia, New Zealand, the USA and Canada. Notions of the best and most desirable way to achieve racial and cultural harmony and integration have been put forward as rational justifications for various practices, such as the forcible removal of aboriginal children from their birth families (Wilson, 1997; Habel, 1999) and other rescue and assimilate practices which could be described as an onslaught on minority families right to family life in North America and Europe (Billingsley and Giovannoni, 1972; ABSWAP, 1983; Ostberg, 2003). This commentary focuses on the British context to explore the shifting terrain of the best and most desirable route to racial harmony, and questions whether the best interests of minority ethnic children and families are being served. In Britain, social work policy and practice in relation to minority ethnic families and children conjure up images of harsh physical discipline, family breakdown, languishment in care, problems of ethnicity and substitute family placements, identity and belonging, poor outcomes for care leavers and social exclusion (Thoburn et al., 2005; Barn, 2006). Such concern, of course, is not a new phenomenon. Some of these issues were first identified over fifty years ago to help address the needs of a growing number of minority children in residential care (NCH, 1954). Subsequently, other studies acknowledged similar concerns around culture and identity, but also focused on factors leading to disproportionality in care, and how best to manage diverse needs and concerns (Hyndman, 1958; Fitzherbert, 1967; Foren and Batta, 1970; Cheetham, 1972; Triseliotis, 1972; Rowe and Lambert, 1973; Bebbington and Miles, 1989; Barn, 1990, 1993). It is probably fair to say that much of the early literature manifested an explicit concern to focus on cultural aspects of the lives of the new immigrants and emphasized the need to assimilate such groups and/or learn about the cultural aspects of these families in a desire to achieve racial harmony (Hyndman, 1958; Fitzherbert, 1967). Such social work texts reflected the political and ideological thinking on race and ethnicity of the 1950s and 1960s, and demonstrated an inherent bias towards the best means necessary to achieve positive outcomes. Some of the early writers emphasized the need for assimilation and actually conceptualized entry into care as a way of achieving such a goal in dysfunctional black families (Fitzherbert, 1967). Other subsequent writers, whose thinking was guided by an integrationist perspective, focused on minority ethnic family structures, household organization, marital arrangements and

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Critical Commentary 1427

child-rearing practices (Cheetham, 1972; Trisleiotis, 1972). Such perspectives were invariably from a cultural perspective which placed white European culture at the apex as the unspoken norm to which other cultures could/should aspire to reach. A paradigm shift in the form of anti-racism brought about by the inner-city disturbances of 1981 and the associated Scarman Report provided the impetus for the operationalization of the 1976 Race Relations Act and, in particular, the local authoritys duty to promote racial equality and equality of opportunity. The election of minority ethnic local authority councillors, the employment of minority ethnic social work professionals and recognition of race, culture and religion in social work education and child-care legislation have come about as a result of the paradigm shift which posits that structural as well as individual change provide the way forward. The anti-racist ideology, whilst seeking to effect change and raise understanding of structural racism and its negative impact on minority ethnic life, can be perceived as having taken on a missionary zeal to exorcise racism at an individual level. Thus, through the channel of the race awareness training industry, such an approach perhaps contributed to white social work professionals feeling guilty, deskilled and powerless and may have resulted in the kind of professionals who sought refuge in cultural relativity models of thinking. Alongside policy and structural changes, there has been a steady growth in the British literature on minority ethnic children and families and social work. Studies have advanced knowledge of the situation of minority children looked after, substitute family placements, child protection and leaving care (Channer and Parton, 1990; Dutt, 1990; Gibbons et al., 1995; Dutt and Phillips, 1996; Jackson, 1996; Barn et al., 1997, Humphreys et al., 1999; Chand, 2000, 2005; Parton, 2004; Frazer and Selwyn, 2005; Harris, 2006; Bernard and Gupta, 2006). In spite of such growth in the literature, it would be fair to say that the most notable issues and concerns raised have identified two key debates ethnicity and child protection, and ethnicity, identity and substitute family placements. Parallel to these, there have been predominantly two culturalist perspectivescultural deficit(ism) and cultural relativism (Gill and Jackson, 1983; Gibbons et al., 1995; Dutt and Phillips, 1996; Barn et al., 1997; Frazer and Selwyn, 2005; Barn, 2006; Harris, 2006). These issues, concerns and perspectives are discussed below before moving on to focus on current policy and debates in twenty-first-century Britain.

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Ethnicity and child protection

There have been long-standing concerns about the disproportionate number of minority ethnic families involved with child protection services. The governments latest figures available reveal that in 2005, of the 25,900 children on child protection registers, 81 per cent were of a white background, 7 per cent of a mixed background, 5 per cent black or black British, 4 per cent Asian or

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Asian British and 1 per cent were unborn on 31 March 2005 (DfES, 2006). The remainder were of other ethnic origins. Compared to the general child population, these figures suggest an over-representation of African/Caribbean and mixed-parentage children and an under-representation of Asians. They also confirm previous research studies that have documented ethnic differences (Gibbons et al., 1995; Barn et al., 1997). In addition to such disproportionate representation, it is important to note that some of the most high-profile child abuse inquiries in the UK have involved children of minority ethnic background (Jasmine Beckford Inquiry Report, 1985; Tyra Henry Inquiry Report, 1987; Lord Laming, 2003). Such tragedies cannot fail to enter the social work mindset in a way which views race and culture within the context of prevalent thinking on race relations. Significantly, to counter negative thinking and to uphold the rights and interests of minority ethnic families, much of the writing on race, ethnicity and child protection has identified some key factors in the process of assessment and interventionnamely cultural relativity, the role of the social worker as advocate in multidisciplinary working, an understanding of overt and covert racism, and culture and language issues when engaging with families (Barn et al., 1997; Humphreys et al., 1999; Chand, 2000; Dutt and Phillips, 2000).

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Ethnicity, identity and substitute family placements

The difficulties of finding substitute family placements for minority ethnic children were raised almost four decades ago by researchers (Raynor, 1970; Rowe and Lambert, 1973). A glance at the shifting debates demonstrates how political and ideological thinking on race relations has governed local authority policy and practice in this area. Initially, colour blindness resulted in the edict love will conquer all, which has dominated within the context of assimilationist and integrationist thinking. Influenced by the black power and civil rights movement in the USA, and growing awareness of trans-racially placed aboriginal and black children in Australia, New Zealand and North America, we have observed shifting debates in the UK. The organization and influence of black social work professionals, young people in and formerly in care, and campaigns to raise awareness about the plight of the high numbers of minority children in care have all contributed to the changing ideologies, culminating in the introduction of a consideration of race, culture, language and religion in child welfare legislation (Soul Kids Campaign, 1977; ABSWAP, 1983; Black and in Care, 1984; Department of Health, 1989). Studies into the effectiveness of such legislation reveal that practice is variable across and within local authorities with regards to the placement needs of minority ethnic children and that crude matching based on essentialist notion of race must give way to a more nuanced approach which takes into consideration the short and long-term needs of children (Barn et al., 1997; Frazer and Selwyn, 2005).

Critical Commentary 1429

Cultural deficit(ism)
Cultural deficit(ism) can be understood to have its roots in wider socio-political ideologies of slavery, colonialism and contemporary imperialism which placed white European cultures at the apex. Any deviations from this supposed norm were perceived as not only different, but defective. Thus began the rationalization and justification of systems of domination within the rubric of Christianity to civilise the heathens. The savagery inflicted by the white European settlers towards indigenous cultures in Australia and North America are a cruel and highly explicit example of such ideology. In the field of social work in multiracial Western societies, a common view that prevails is that immigrant groups that have arrived and settled in these countries adhere to cultural patterns and beliefs which are inherently different and pathological. When this becomes the prism to view such groups, culture is reified in terms that are essentialist. In other words, family forms, beliefs and practices come to be seen as ethnic group characteristics that are fixed and unchanging. There is little account of the social and political context which may militate against minority groups, and how such a context may actually shape cultural belongings. Thus, a cultural deficit perspective makes it a mission to alter and correct pathological cultural leanings to ensure their alignment with the supposed but elusive norm, leading to what may be described as speedy and unnecessary over-interventions in the lives of minority families and children (Barn, 1990, 1993; Creighton, 1992).

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Cultural relativism
This perspective is newer than cultural deficit(ism) and could arguably be located within a multiculturalist and anti-racist framework of the 1980s, and onwards. This paradigm begins from the premise that all cultures are equally valid and that it is erroneous to operate within a cultural hierarchy which positions some cultures as superior to others. A key fundamental belief of this paradigm is also that, given that all cultures are equal, no one culture has the right to derogate or pronounce a judgement about the practices of another. Thus, ethnocentric judgements, whereby assessments of other cultures are made by treating own culture as the norm and the yardstick, and conceptualizing others as deviant from that norm are perceived as inappropriate. It has been argued that such thinking leads to social work practitioners operating within a framework of the rule of optimism (Channer and Parton, 1990; Corby, 1993; Dingwall et al., 1995)in other words, the belief that parental/family love can override different and/or punitive manifestations of child discipline. Arguably, it is the inability or unwillingness of practitioners to distinguish abuse from cultural practice which is at the core of this approach (Chand, 2000). Williams and Soydon (2005) warn that such an approach amounts to laissez-faire practice, and it is important to note that

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such non-intervention on the part of one or more agencies can have disastrous consequences, as witnessed in the Victoria Climbi tragedy (Lord Laming, 2003).

Changing policy/practice
The colonial relationship between Britain and the Commonwealth, along with other historical factors, has meant that, unlike most European migrants, the British New Commonwealth settlers had voting rights and residential rights of access to welfare provision. Despite these rights, systemic resistance, discrimination and exclusions have interacted with cultural and social disadvantages to produce differential outcomes for different ethnic minority communities. Arguably, there are a number of contributory factors which could be perceived as important in understanding the involvement of minority ethnic families with social work agencies and the resultant over-representation of children in public care and in the child protection system. Broadly speaking, these range from poverty and social exclusion, to child abuse and neglect, family breakdown, parental ill-health, poor social work assessments, and overt and covert racism. It is posited that, generally speaking, social work policy has tended to be culturalist and racism blind. The Commission for Racial Equalitys submission to the DfES/HM Treasury Joint Policy Review on children and young people identifies a number of shortcomings of some government policy initiatives such as Sure Start (CRE, 2006). As is the case with many other government policy initiatives, it is expected that Sure Start Centres will be responsive to minority ethnic needs and concerns. The commitment of such policies is questioned when there is no race equality impact assessment of the Childcare Act 2006 and only a brief mention of ethnic minority families in the ten-year childcare strategy (CRE, 2006, p. 10). Whilst ethnic monitoring of children in care, in need and on the child protection register now takes place at regional and national levels, there is little evidence that such information is utilized for policy and planning purposes to effect positive change. Robust data are required on the use of and barriers to service provision. It is evident that race and welfare policy has been constrained by parochial perspectives which have tended to focus on how to deal with those in the system. For example, the policy and practice debate on ethnicity and substitute family placements diverts attention from preventive services which could help to obviate the admission of minority children into care in the first place. Similarly, preventive methods of intervention with minority families, such as Family Group Conferences, and systemic practice, as well as particular approaches such as kinship care, are less well developed (Broad and Skinner, 2005; Farmer and Moyers, 2005).

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Critical Commentary 1431

Segregation, social policy and social cohesion

It has been argued that since the events of the civil disturbances in northern England in 2001 and the attack on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, social policy direction addressing the integration of migrant communities has shifted back to the 1950s assimilationist era (Back et al., 2002; Chahal and Ullah, 2004). Moreover, such assimilationist thinking can be said to have been further strengthened by more recent events in Britain, such as the July 2005 bombings of the London transport system, the foiled terrorist plot of August 2006 and the failed bombings in England and Scotland in June 2007. How do such events impact on social policy thinking? In Britain, we have witnessed various examples which amount to an increasing tendency towards Britishness, nationality and citizenship ceremonies, an emphasis on English language and attempts to dissolve difference and diversity by targeting groups and organizations which are deemed to promote such muliculturalism. In the wake of David Blunketts pronouncements on Asian peoples tendency to not learn English and work towards integration, the most recent example of an attack on diversity and difference is from the governments Commission on Integration and Cohesion, which states that funders should think twice before supporting ethnic, religious or cultural community organizations (Salman, 2007). In spite of their work with some of the most marginalized groups in society, the view of the Commission is that minority ethnic voluntary organizations promote segregation by supporting particular ethnic groups and should only be funded if they agree to broaden their remit (Commission on Integration and Cohesion, 2007). In addition, the Commissions report cautions against the translation of leaflets about services into minority languages, as the availability of such material in the English language only is perceived as an important pre-requisite to achieve community cohesion. Research evidence in the field of health and social care suggests that language is an important barrier to positive outcomes but signals the negative impact of systematic and individual discrimination on the part of organizations and professionals on service users (Humphreys et al., 1999; Creese and Kambere, 2003; Johnson et al., 2004; Chand, 2005; Divi et al., 2007).

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Although social work is conceptualized as a liberal profession, largely unconcerned with structural power relations due to its individualistic casework approach, it is evident that policy and practice move very much in tandem with the interests of the state. Thus, in the area of minority families and children, immigration and associated thinking about the management of diversity and difference have played an influential role in child welfare policy and practice. To understand child welfare policy and practice with regards to minority ethnic children in Western industrialized societies, it is crucial to examine the socio-political context and the salience of race as a factor in nation building. It

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is equally important to identify key commonalities between Western societies to appreciate the dominant perspectives at play. Western dominance in the form of slavery, colonialism and contemporary imperialism has shaped race relations over the last few hundred years. There are a variety of paradigms in the study of race relations which have arguably been perceived as located in particular socio-historical and political contexts. These include assimilation and integration, cultural pluralism/multiculturalism, anti-racism and, more recently, diversity and social cohesion. The focus on culture, racial mixing and harmony, whilst heavily politicized, is presented as apolitical and is de-contextualized by its failure to address the power struggles of history. Thus, key issues of power and conceptualization of racial superiority and inferiority are seriously absent from much of the analytical thinking around such paradigmatic models. It is argued here that, in the same way, the social work practice base is anchored in a liberal cultural pluralist perspective that precludes a power analysis and a critical discussion of race and racism. Given that the political, cultural and professional perspectives on race and ethnicity have important consequences for minority ethnic children and families, the social work profession needs to be at the vanguard of incorporating a critical culturalist perspective as a key tool for subverting racism. A more sophisticated and nuanced approach is necessary, which will involve a paradigm shift from essentialist notions of race which view culture in rigid and inflexible ways to one in which cultural sensitivity is understood within the context of power relations. Accepted: November 2007

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Critical Commentary 1433 Billingsley, A. and Giovannoni, J. (1972) Children of the Storm: Black Children and American Child Welfare, New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Black and in Care (1984) Black and in Care: Conference Report, London, Blackrose Press. Broad, B. and Skinner, A. (2005) Relative Benefits: Placing Children in Kinship Care, London, British Association for Adoption and Fostering. Chahal, K. and Ullah, A. I. (2004) Experiencing Ethnicity: Discrimination and Service Provision, York, JRF. Chand, A. (2000) The over-representation of black children in the child protection system: Possible causes, consequences and solutions, Child and Family Social Work, 5(1), pp. 6777. Chand, A. (2005) Do you speak English? Language barriers in child protection social work with minority ethnic families, British Journal of Social Work, 35(6), pp. 80721. Channer, Y. and Parton, N. (1990) Racism, cultural relativism and child protection, in Violence Against Children Study Group, Taking Child Abuse Seriously, London, Routledge, pp. 10420. Cheetham, J. (1972) Social Work with Immigrants, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul. Commission for Racial Equality (2006) DfES/HM Treasury Joint Policy Review on Children and Young People, CRE Submission, 29 September, London, CRE. Commission on Integration and Cohesion (2007) Our Shared Future, London, Commission on Integration and Cohesion. Corby, B. (1993) Child Abuse, Towards a Knowledge Base, Buckingham, Open University Publications. Creese, G. and and Kambere, E. (2003) What colour is your English, The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, 40(5), pp. 56573. Creighton, S. J. (1992) Child Abuse Trends in England and Wales 19881990, London, NSPCC. Department for Education and Skills (2006) Referrals, Assessments and Children and Young People on Child Protection Registers: Year Ending 31 March 2005, Norwich, Her Majestys Stationery Office, available online at VOL/v000632/VOL01-2006textv1.pdf. Department of Health (1989) The Children Act 1989 Guidance and Regulations, London, HMSO. Dingwall, R., Eekelaar, J. and Murray, T. (1995) The Protection of Children: State Intervention and Family Life, Oxford, Basil Blackwell. Divi, C., Koss, R., Schmaltz, S. and Loeb, J. (2007) Language proficiency and adverse events in US hospitals: A pilot study, International Journal for Quality in Health Care, 19(2), pp. 607. Dutt, R. (ed.) (1990) Towards a Black Perspective in Child Protection, London, Race Equality Unit. Dutt, R. and Phillips, M. (1996) Race, culture and the prevention of child abuse, Childhood Matters Report of the National Commission of Inquiry into the Prevention of Child Abuse, Volume 2: Background Papers, London, The Stationary Office. Dutt, R. and Phillips, M. (2000) Assessing black children in need and their families, in Department of Health, Assessing Children in Need and Their Families: Practice Guidance, London, The Stationery Office. Farmer, E. and Moyers, S. (2005) Children Placed with Relatives and Friends: Placement Patterns and Outcome, Report to the Department for Education and Skills, University of Bristol. Fitzherbert, K. (1967) West Indian Children in London, London, Bell and Sons. Foren, R. and Batta, I. (1970) Colour as a variable in the use made of a Local Authority Child Care Department, Social Work, 27(3), pp. 1015.

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1434 Ravinder Barn Frazer, L. and Selwyn, J. (2005) Why are we waiting? The demography of adoption for children of black, Asian and black mixed parentage in England, Child and Family Social Work, 10, pp. 13547. Gibbons, J., Conroy, S. and Bell, C. (1995) Operating the Child Protection System, London, HMSO. Gill, O. and Jackson, B. (1983) Adoption and Race, London, Batsford. Habel, N. C. (1999) Reconciliation: Searching for Australias Soul, Sydney, Harper CollinsPublishers. Harris, P. (ed.) (2006) In Search of Belonging: Reflections by Transracially Adopted People, London, BAAF. Humphreys, C., Atkar, S. and Baldwin, N. (1999) Discrimination in child protection work: Recurring themes in work with Asian families, Child and Family Social Work, 4, pp. 28391. Hyndman, A. (1958) The welfare of coloured people in London, Social Work, 15. Jackson, V. (1996) Racism and Child Protection, London, Cassell. Jasmine Beckford Inquiry Report (1985) A Child in Trust, Brent Borough Council. Johnson, R., Saha, S., Arbelaez, J., Beach, M. and Cooper, L. (2004) Racial and ethnic differences in patient perceptions of bias and cultural competence in health care, Journal of General Internal Medicine, 19(2), pp. 10110. Lord Laming (2003) The Victoria Climbi Inquiry: Report of an Inquiry by Lord Laming, CM 5730. London, The Stationery Office. National Childrens Homes (1954) The problem of the coloured child: The experience of the National Childrens Homes, Child Care Quarterly, 8(2). Ostberg, S. (2003) Pakistani Children in Norway: Islamic Nurture in a Secular Context, University of Leeds, Community Relations Project. Parton, N. (2004) From Maria Colwell to Victoria Climbi: Reflections on public inquiries into child abuse a generation apart, Child Abuse Review, 13(2), pp. 33742. Raynor, L. (1970) Adoption of Non-White Children in Britain, London, Allen and Unwin. Rowe, J. and Lambert, L. (1973) Children Who Wait, London, Association of British Adoption and Fostering Agencies. Salman, S. (2007) The new race logic wont help integration, The Guardian, 8 August, available online at 0,,2143326,00.html. Soul Kids Campaign (1977) Report of the Steering Group of the Soul Kids Campaign, Association of British Adoption and Fostering Agencies, London. Thoburn, T., Chand, A. and Procter, J. (2005) Child Welfare Services for Minority Ethnic Families: The Research Reviewed, London, Jessica Kingsley. Triseliotis, J. P. (ed.) (1972) Social Work with Immigrant Clients, Oxford, Oxford University Press. Tyra Henry Inquiry Report (1987) Whose Child? The Report of the Panel Appointed to Inquire into the Death of Tyra Henry, London, London Borough of Lambeth. Williams, C. and Soydon, H. (2005) When and how does ethnicity matter? A crossnational study of social work responses to ethnicity in child protection cases, British Journal of Social Work, 35, pp. 90120. Wilson, R. (1997) Bringing Them Home, National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, Sydney, Commonwealth of Australia.

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