However effectively social workers engage in anti-discriminatory casework with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children and their families, there will always be some cases where this is not enough to keep children safe, and they will need to come into state care.
For these Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children, it is essential that social workers, foster carers and others are able to promote culturally competent practice. Vonk (2001) offers a helpful framework for considering the importance of promoting cultural competence:
"It is not enough to be aware of how race and culture affect self functioning; individuals also must be open to learning about the effect of race and culture on others, to learning about racism and mechanisms of oppression, and to acquiring the cross-cultural skills that enable
For social work with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller, Vonk's work suggests that there are three specific aspects that make up cultural competence:
Social workers report that they can feel anxious about their ability to work effectively with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. Confronted with their own “culture shock”, they can perceive caravans, trailers, outhouses, and the often run-down utility blocks, high fences, and cramped layout in a way that reinforces racist perceptions and fear. If social workers can feel out of place while visiting a campsite, their subjective value judgements can influence their assessment of risk, and be used to justify the need for formal social work involvement.
By contrast, good anti-discriminatory practice will depend on an informed understanding of the unique challenges faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children and families in society. Racial self-awareness is crucial in relation to working with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children living in state care, and applies equally to foster carers, residential workers and others as it does to social workers. Working effectively with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children is not a question of treating them in exactly the same way as might be appropriate where the carer shares the same ethnic background, but rather is about recognising that a child who has a different background and culture to that of the carer will require specific measures to be taken in order to meet all of the child’s needs, including their cultural needs.
The first step in being able to offer this is for the social worker and the foster carer or residential worker to be able to reflect on their own understanding of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller cultures, and evaluate how their personal views about Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people could influence the care that they provide. The realisation of culturally competent care for children from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities remains problematic for a number of reasons. Most obviously, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children often look similar to children from the majority community and so it is easy to ignore real difference. Also, because many important aspects of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller culture are passed on orally from generation to generation and not written down, social workers and carers might find it difficult to recognise and understand significant and important cultural practices.
Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children who are placed with carers from the majority community are living in a cultural environmentthat is different from their own. Many Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children have the experience of having to make sense of different social traditions and conventions, and learn to come to terms with the fact that their carers generally view the world differently to their Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families and communities. This can be extremely stressful, and if there is no opportunity to reflect on this with people they trust and who are also reflecting on these. matters, this amounts to culturally incompetent care. The experience of culturally incompetent care can add to a sense of alienation, marginalisation and oppression.
To overcome these challenges, professionals and carers from the majority community must recognise that they might not know all of the answers to questions about Gypsy, Roma and Traveller cultures. However, they need to be able to place themselves in the role of a
“student”, ready to show a genuine interest in the child and the need to talk to and listen to them in order to learn about their culture and identity, and to be proactive in trying to find out more. Showing a genuine interest in them, not just as a child, but as a Gypsy, Roma and Traveller child, can help to develop pride in the richness and diversity of their cultural background and identity, and ultimately help the child to feel more comfortable in the placement. Such an approach will also offer a sense of safety so that the child can develop a feeling of trust in the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller/majority community relationship.
Being culturally competent is not a one-off event, but a state of mind that recognises the importance of difference and demonstrates a commitment to learning, reflecting and sharing on an ongoing basis. It is about being sensitive to feelings of cultural displacement and trying to understand what this might feel like.
In the same way that social workers need to acknowledge the history of state oppression of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, it is important that those providing direct care also understand this. Professionals and carers from the majority community are unlikely to be able to provide culturally competent care unless they are able to work within a human rights framework that recognises the historical, social and political oppression of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. To ignore these matters is likely to be perceived as colluding with the ideas and ideology that underpin such oppression, and contribute to feelings of alienation, which in turn will have a negative impact on the development of a positive Gypsy, Roma and Traveller identity for the child.
The second aspect of Vonk’s (2001) culturally competent approach is a requirement for multicultural planning, which refers to ‘the creation of avenues for the...child to learn about and participate in his or her culture of birth’ and ideally involves ‘direct involvement in the milieu of the birth culture’. In some ways, this can be seen as the practical application of the understanding and awareness already noted, and hopefully allows for further development and refinement of that understanding, including opportunities for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children to find positive role models from within their own communities.
In part, multicultural planning for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children will be about aiming to maximise continuity for the children entering care. This means that, wherever possible, schools and friendships should be maintained, as should contact with family members and the child’s wider community. Not only is this essential in terms of reducing emotional distress, but it also reflects the need to ensure that children understand that, although they cannot live with their birth family, this does not imply a criticism of the wider Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community of which they are a part.
As with all children, it is also important to ensure that the child can minimise their own sense of disruption by being encouraged to take as many of their personal belongings as they want with them; this might include family photos, CDs, DVDs, posters, clothes, toys, bedding, trophies, and even pets. For Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children, the items that they take will likely reflect their Gypsy, Roma and Traveller heritage, and offer an opportunity for social workers and carers to communicate by their approach that they are interested in helping to maintain and learn about the child’s Gypsy, Roma and Traveller culture. It is important that multicultural planning is embedded in culturally competent care and not carried out in a way which could be construed as tokenistic. The activities themselves will be of most value where they take place in an environment where adults help the child make their own meanings about their heritage, and are sensitive about not “imposing” a culture onto a child. A culturally competent carer will be able to reflect with the child about the main differences between a Gypsy, Roma and Traveller and majority community culture, and about what this means to the child in their placement. Carers should never underestimate the power of talking to the child about their culture, identity and lived experiences.
There are several techniques which can be employed to promote a positive Gypsy, Roma and Traveller identity.
Promoting cultural competence
Traveller and Romani Advice and Information Network