Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children three more times likely to be taken into care than children from the wider population and this must be stopped
Since 2009, I have seen a dramatic increase in the involvement of social workers with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children. This is further evidenced by an unprecedented growth in the number of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children living in care in England and Northern Ireland. At the time of writing, I am unable to comment on the number of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children living in care in Wales or Scotland because that information is not easily accessible.
In Northern Ireland, National Statistics show that Traveller children represent the numerically largest ethnic minority group living in foster care. In England, similar statistics show that the number of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children grows year on year at a disproportionate rate.
Since 2009 the ethnicity of Gypsy/Roma and Traveller of Irish Heritage has been included in Government census methodologies. The current statistics published by the Department for Education in England reveal that there has been an 833% increase in the number of Gypsy/Roma children living in foster care, and the 200% increase in the number of Traveller children over the last 7 years. When compared national census data, and the 15% increase for the total ‘in care’ population, it is possible to argue that these statistics suggest but might not prove, that Gypsy and Traveller children are 3 times more likely to be taken into care than any other child.
Understanding why there has been a disproportionate increase in social work intervention with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children, families and communities is complex. Until research that is more rigorous is carried out to examine this situation it may never be possible to say with accuracy why Gypsy and Traveller children might be 3 times more likely to be taken into care than any other child. In my considered professional view, however, three potential explanations could be given to make clearer sense of the concerns that I have highlighted.
Firstly, it could be argued that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children are at more risk of harm than any other child. On this basis, any decision to remove them from their families and communities could be justified against relevant child protection legislation and duty. Second, and perhaps more likely, might be the fact that social workers, and the organisations within which they work, are not always fully equipped or confident to provide accessible and effective to support Gypsy, Roma and Traveller, children, families and communities.
Third, and even more plausible for me, is the possibility that this disproportionate increase could be linked to both risk and to the difficulties that some social workers might encounter when trying to apply rigid statutory frameworks which might not effectively account for the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller perspective. What is more, as social work intervention with Gypsies, Roma and Travellers is often reported to be characterised by the presence of reciprocated fear and anxiety, it is clear to us that these tensions might not always lead to the best possible outcomes for the child. At times, for example, a family may be afraid and feel the need to hide from, or avoid social work involvement. Simultaneously, a social worker, responsible for assessing and safeguarding the needs of a child within strict timescales, might misinterpret a family’s reluctance to cooperate and justify the need for more immediate routes of intervention earlier than they might otherwise do with non-Gypsy, Roma or Traveller families. It is for this reason why many of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people I work to support can become powerless and confused as social work involvement quickly escalates from an initial meeting to full and formal child protection enquiries.
Developing a community-led response
As a qualified social worker who works to support Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children, families and communities, I receive a number of telephone calls and emails from worried families and professionals seeking advice. For families, advice is often needed to help them make sense of and understand social work involvement. For professionals, the advice is often needed to help provide confidence and clarity in direction and action.
Based on the increasing number of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children being taken into foster care, and the increased number of telephone calls and emails that I receive, I have resolved to plan, design and develop this web-based service which can be abbreviated to ‘TRAIN’ which is short for the Traveller and Romani Advice and Information Network.
By providing up-to-date and an ever-evolving range of information for children, family’s communities and social workers, TRAIN aims to stem the disproportionate flow of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children into the care system and address some of the problems that I have discussed. I hope to achieve this by designing TRAIN to empower members of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities to reach their full potential during the crucially important early stages of social work intervention. Most of all I want people to engage social workers during that initial meeting with confident self-determination and a preparedness for proactive participation.
Seeking to mainstream services, rather than create a space for potential assimilation, I hope that TRAIN is able to signpost families to local support services in those areas where they might be needed most. TRAIN will also develop to enable Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families who have worked with social workers in the past the opportunity to share knowledge and advice.
In addition to providing information and networking advice for children, families and communities, TRAIN also supports good practice guidance to social workers. This function is enabled by a steadily growing group of active social work members who are experienced and who have worked effectively with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families in the past. Crucially for me, the information provided to social workers by TRAIN in the future will be overseen by members who are Gypsy, Roma and Traveller social workers and community members themselves.
Although in the early stages of operation, TRAIN has already been able to help a number of families. Most recently TRAIN supported an Irish Traveller mother to issue an appeal against an Adoption Order. Whilst solicitors refused to proceed with the appeal on the basis that they believed the appeal ‘lacked merit’, TRAIN was able to raise help the mother raise an Appellants Notice so that she could fight for justice herself. Despite being unsupported by a solicitor, the mother was able to attend court with her family and friends to fight for equality and her child’s right to family life.
TRAIN is a free to access web-based information service specifically for Gypsies, Roma and Travellers. At the moment it is unable to provide advocacy or more personal support if those services are already available.
As TRAIN grows, I would like to see it branch out to include other aspects of social work, including probation, mental health and community care. We are also currently in the process of recording the information contained on the site to video and audio, and look forward to the opportunity to make all TRAIN information available in English and Romanes in 2017.
Traveller and Romani Advice and Information Network
Dr Dan Allen
Social Work academic, researcher and practitioner