For social workers attempting to support Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children living in the community or entering care, engagement is likely to be in an environment characterised by tension. Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families and communities will likely be of the view that social work involvement is a threat to their privacy and right to private life, and will be seen as part of the state oppression that characterises Gypsy, Roma and Traveller experience. This demands a particular approach from the allocated social worker to the family.Health and Care Professions Council: Standards of Proficiency – Social Workers in England (2012)
Reflect on your own attitudes and values, and avoid assumptions
As a social worker, it is important that you understand what you are bringing to the relationship in terms of attitudes and beliefs, and to what extent these simply reflect societal stereotypes and the dominant view. This demands specific efforts to isolate any presuppositions about Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children, families, and communities, and to consider how these may influence professional judgements and undermine the legitimacy of an assessment.
Acknowledge the context of your involvement
From the outset it is important that you acknowledge that your relationship with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children, families and communities is fixed within the historical, social, and political dynamics which have served to construct certain boundary distinctions between Gypsy, Roma and Traveller and majority communities. As a result, relationships between social workers and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families will, at least initially, probably be characterised by suspicion and fear, and this can only be dealt with if it is first acknowledged. In line with good practice examples, this might necessitate comments like:
And later move on to dialogue such as:
Be clear about specific child-related concerns and what needs to change.
It must be made obvious that social work involvement is not being instigated with the Gypsy, Roma or Traveller family on the grounds that they are from a particular ethnic and cultural group, but more accurately because there are real and tangible concerns about their child’s welfare. As a social worker, it is important that you are very clear about this, emphasising that the welfare of the child is paramount. Families will need to understand that where there is criticism of them, this relates to the impact of their parenting on the child, and is not a criticism of their culture or community lifestyle.
Social workers should make clear that any formal child protection processes, including court action, will only be used if the family show, or have shown, that they are unable to protect the child from harm. It is equally important to be clear about what needs to change in order for the local authority to be less concerned and be able to reduce or change the focus of their intervention. Listen, engage and form relationships
To avoid applying presuppositions or preconceived ideas, you will need instead to gain understanding from engaging with and listening to the family’s own reported experience. This dialogue offers an opportunity to communicate a sense of genuine interest and a determination to form an alliance in working together to achieve mutually satisfactory solutions. This might involve asking questions such as:
By asking questions such as these, the family’s own understanding of what it means to be Gypsy, Roma and Traveller can be explored. This process is also likely to establish a picture of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller culture in relation to the specific family in question, what being Gypsy, Roma and Traveller means in their lived experience; what the practical and emotional features of being Gypsy, Roma and Traveller entail. Although you may believe that you know some of the answers, the questions serve to communicate clear messages to the family that no judgements are being made about their unique lives and cultural traditions. This is likely to engender a sense of trust and start to provide more clarity about the present situation. By taking this approach, the most important factor is to allow children, families, groups and communities the time to talk about the challenges that they experience, because information gathered from these responses can be used to develop a deeper, more meaningful and accurate assessment of the family’s situation. In particular, it allows opportunities to talk about experiences of racist harassment, enforced eviction, and any issues in accessing education, health and social care services. It will also assist families to talk openly and candidly about their concerns regarding the impact of social work attention, and how they might be perceived for having brought this scrutiny into their community.
Help families and communities understand social work processes
Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families, like many others who come into contact with statutory services, are unlikely to understand the various social work processes. If any assessment is being undertaken, it is crucial that families understand what this entails, what is being judged, and what changes are necessary to reduce concerns. If there is to be a child protection conference, then the family will need to understand how this works in order to prepare and participate to the best of their ability. Where appropriate, a family group conference could also be used. None of this is different to any other family, but the situation might feel particularly alien to members of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities if they have had very little contact with formal government structures, and in any case feel under threat from them. In this context, it is particularly important that families have information about their rights including sources of independent support and the relevant complaints procedures. However, at the same time as working effectively with families, good practice demands that the child is placed
at the centre of the social work intervention.
Understand cultural aspects of communication
Asking generalised or hypothetical questions such as those proposed earlier in this chapter can create an opportunity to reduce conflict and lessen the likelihood of attempts to undermine social work involvement by transferring the power, or expertise in problem resolution, to the family. As a useful method in the social work assessment, this style of questioning can prove invaluable when applied strategically in carefully considered conversation. However, using generalised or hypothetical questions as a strategy in assessment raises some concerns regarding the need to exercise a degree of sensitivity to cultural and social mores. Some Gypsies, Roma and Travellers may perceive such questions with suspicion as they require a degree of social or emotional imagination that may otherwise be seen as unusual, and some people may respond by protecting against or circumnavigating the topic being discussed. Meaningful attempts should also be made to verify responses through more direct and deliberate forms of inquiry. This approach should always focus on lived experience and engage children, families and communities so as to allow them to discuss their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. In this sense, social workers may be in a stronger position to help families and communities understand social work processes better, and demonstrate that intervention can be more equal, inclusive and based on respect.
As well as being aware of the impact of verbal communication, you should also be critically aware of social presentation. For some families, the formal appearance of some social workers in smart office wear could be perceived as intimidating and threatening. If a social worker were to enter some sites formally dressed, they may raise serious suspicions within the community as to why they are visiting a particular person. Such attire may also serve to emphasise differences in power and culture, so it is suggested that some thought is given to the need to recognise how external impressions are likely to impact on forming relationships.
Traveller and Romani Advice and Information Network