In recent years, we have been receiving a steadily increasing number of phone calls from Gypsy and Traveller families who are experiencing Children’s Service intervention… writes FFT.
Anecdotal evidence from our casework suggests that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families are more likely to be subject to care proceedings, that the professionals involved often have little or no understanding of Gypsy and Traveller culture and that Gypsy and Traveller children are more likely to be forcibly adopted than the general population. This is backed up by evidence from the Department of Education which found that the numbers of Irish Traveller children in care have almost doubled between 2012 and 2015 and that the numbers of Gypsy/Roma children have more than doubled.
Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities are not the only groups experiencing a higher rate of social services intervention in recent years. In fact, across the entire population of England, the number of looked after children is at its highest amount since 1985. However, few groups have seen such a dramatic proportional rise in numbers of families experiencing care proceedings as the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. Whilst the numbers are still relatively small, the impact of this unfortunate phenomenon on families and individuals is substantial. There has yet to be an investigation into the cause of this rise, but from experience in our casework, we see a number of trends, which include;
"Lack of trust and open dialogue between professionals and Gypsy , Roma and Traveller families, meaning that care planning is ineffective and children are removed as a result;"
"Discrimination on the part of professionals which goes unchallenged in a professional environment where little knowledge on Gypsy, Roma or Traveller culture and identity is held; and"
"A severe lack of culturally pertinent care placements, meaning that when Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children are taken into care their cultural needs go unnoticed and unmet."
In this article, I will delve deeper into each of these issues and identify potential solutions to address them. Following this, I will outline information on the link between the disclosure of instances of domestic violence and the removal of children from their parents, as this is an increasing concern we have heard over the past year amongst our clients.
Lack of trust between social workers and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families
“I’ve seen the news and read the stories on the internet. They’ve made me worry about my children. .. They think we’re stupid and can’t take care of ourselves… if social services knock at my door, I won’t let them in.”
Jonas, father of four Roma immigrant from the Czech Republic, BBC Radio 4
Historically, the relationship between the state and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities has been far from ideal. Systems and policies created by the state to uphold the rights and freedoms of the general population have often wittingly or unwittingly served to intrude upon and violate the rights and freedoms of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. Professionals from a wide range of disciplines often struggle to engage effectively with families because of a lack of cultural awareness and understanding. Whilst many Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families have learnt how to navigate public systems which were designed with the needs and requirements of the dominant population in society in mind, the child protection system can for many feel like a powerful monster which conspires to take their children away. The secretive nature of social services and feelings of shame which may be associated with social services intervention may prevent families from receiving the help they need to negotiate complex and unfamiliar systems. If parents are unable to engage with professionals from Children’s Services in a positive way throughout the assessment and care planning stages, this can result in their children being taken away.
What can we do to improve relationships between professionals and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families?
"We must demand that professionals working within Children’s Services learn more about Gypsy, Roma and Traveller culture. This falls in line with Public Sector Equality Duty which requires public sector organisations not only to eliminate discrimination but to advance equality of opportunity. In January 2017, we published a guide for professionals working with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families in Children’s Services with this in mind and found that it was well received by many professionals who recognised that there was a significant gap in their knowledge in this area. If you are experiencing social services intervention, you may wish to share this guide with your key workers."
"We must encourage Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families who are experiencing social services intervention to take steps to build positive relationships with Children’s Services professionals. It is particularly important during assessment and care planning stages to open up and be honest about areas in which you need support and to stick to your word when you agree to make a change or step forward, as well as to flag up anything which you do not understand or would like to be made more clear. In a recent analysis of all FFT cases from the past year in which we have supported a client with Children’s Services engagement, we found that the majority of clients had at some point approached us for support on another issue previously. This indicates that parents were willing and proactive in accessing support for their family, but wanted to be sure that this was done in a way which recognised and supported their culture. In some cases, professionals from social services did not recognise this willingness to access support. In these cases, families who were fearful of and hesitant in their interactions with social services were mistakenly considered by Children’s Services professionals as unwilling to comply. If you are able to demonstrate to professionals that you are willing and ready to take adequate steps to safeguard your children from harm, they will be more likely to suggest that your children remain with you and perhaps provide extra support. If you would like to receive support in communicating your cultural needs to professionals, you can contact us and we can help."
"Whilst in an ideal world, we will always be dealing with professionals who are fair, committed to principles of equality and respectful of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller culture, we know that this will not always be the case. We must learn to recognise and challenge discrimination – taking appropriate and immediate action when it happens. If you are experiencing Children’s Services intervention and believe that you are being discriminated against or are fearful that you might be discriminated against, be sure to make a complaint outlining the nature of this to senior members of staff and ask for support from independent organisations as soon as possible. Whilst your legal representative may understand the Child Protection process well, he/she may not recognise discrimination or be familiar with the legislation around it quite as well. We recommend that you contact professionals at Friends, Families and Travellers or at the Traveller and Romani Advice and Information Network, where you will be able to speak to a member of staff who will advise you and your legal representatives on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller specific issues."
Professionals working for Children’s Services and members of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities have a lot in common; for both groups, ensuring the wellbeing of children is one of their main priorities. Going forward, we must find a way of working together which ensures that the goal of looking after Gypsy and Traveller children is realised in the best way possible.
Lack of culturally pertinent care arrangements
In some cases, professionals will decide that it is in a child’s best interest to be removed from their parents and will begin to make alternative arrangements for care. Care placements should seek to provide continuity to the child and this includes cultural continuity. From a legal standpoint, case law in 1988 granted Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers legal status as ethnic groups. In the context of Children’s Services, the Human Rights Act 1998, Equalities Act 2010 and Children’s Act 1989 require that every child is looked after in a way that “respects, recognises, supports and celebrates their identity”. This includes the child’s ethnic origin and cultural background. In practice, this means that professionals and foster carers are required to provide individual support to ensure Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children’s cultural needs are met. From experience, this does not always take place.
Ideally, in order to maximise continuity of care, a child who is being removed from their parents could be placed with another member of the extended family (which is known as a ‘kinship foster arrangement). Through our case work at FFT, we found that this was rarely the case for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children. Startlingly, 73% of all children in England being looked after in a kinship foster arrangement at present have at some point previously been looked after by another family. This suggests that on a national level, efforts are often not made to place children with their family members at the first instance. Understandably this can be a distressing experience for any child, however, this is exacerbated in Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities where children are not only separated from their families but also their communities, culture and all of the comfort and support it offers.
What can we do to ensure the provision of culturally pertinent care arrangements for Gypsy and Traveller children?
"We can call on professionals to give priority to members of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities when deciding on who will be given parental responsibility for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children. If a number of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller carers for a child are suggested and are dismissed without reasonable grounds, then this can be considered discrimination and challenged."
"We can encourage members of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities to become foster carers so that when children are removed from their parents and no family member is able to step in immediately, a culturally pertinent care arrangement will still be available."
"We can demand that if there is absolutely no alternative but to place a Gypsy, Roma or Traveller child with a member of the general population, then the family who the child is placed with must seek to learn about Gypsy, Roma and Traveller culture and ensure the child’s cultural needs are being met."
"We can work to ensure that families know their rights and are confident in stating them to professionals they are working with, reminding them that their child has the right to be looked after in a way that “respects, recognises, supports and celebrates their identity.”
Domestic Violence and Children’s Services Interventions
To paint a picture of the prevalence of Domestic Violence in the United Kingdom, according to the Office for National Statistics, “Domestic abuse-related crimes recorded by the police accounted for approximately 1 in 10 of all crimes” between March 2015 and March 2016. Whilst these are frightening statistics, they uncover only a small part of the picture, as the majority of domestic violence cases are never reported to the police. Domestic Violence is sometimes considered a taboo topic of conversation, but instances remain very common in society and it warrants further discussion.
In a recent Travellers Times article, social work academic Dan Allen highlighted his concern that Traveller women experiencing domestic violence will not report this to police as a result of concerns that their children will be removed from them. This matches the experiences of caseworkers at our organisation who have noted that the numbers of people contacting our national helpline asking for support in fleeing from domestic violence have fallen in the past year. We believe that the actual number of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller women experiencing domestic abuse has not fallen but that women are now less likely to report it and to take steps to flee from it. In our community development and outreach work, we have repeatedly heard that women are afraid to ask for support with domestic violence or to take action to flee from it in case their children are removed from them.
“I don’t think it’s fair that women are the victims and that they have to suffer. If you tell the police that he beat you, he gets arrested but it’s you that has to sort out housing and deal with social workers. He should be the one that is kept away, not me that has to leave.”
Anonymous, FFT client
Why do Children’s Services get involved in Domestic Violence cases?
"According to research conducted by CAADA, 62% of children exposed to domestic violence are also directly harmed."
"The increased risk of harm to children who witness domestic abuse is supported by two research projects conducted by the NSPCC which found that a third of children witnessing domestic violence also experienced another form of abuse."
"In addition to this, research conducted in 2006 found that children who witness domestic violence are more likely to have behavioural and emotional problems."
"Being a victim of Domestic Violence may affect an individual’s capacity to perform parenting duties."
As a result of the threat domestic violence poses to the safety of children in the home, if you disclose domestic violence to a public sector organisation, they have the duty to share this with Children’s Services. In fact, there are specific questions related to children on the DASH form which is the risk assessment form public bodies will fill out with you if you disclose that you have experienced domestic violence. However, many people who disclose that they are victims of domestic violence have children and the outcome of their disclosure will depend largely on how they then decide to act to safeguard their children from violence. Sharing that you have experienced domestic violence does not mean that your children will be taken away. However, it does mean that a referral may be made to Children’s Services and professionals will then advise you on steps you can take to ensure your children are removed from potential future harm and will monitor whether you have followed these steps. In instances where children are removed, it is usually because the victim is not considered to have taken appropriate steps to safeguard their children from violence. If you are a victim of domestic violence and would like to receive support in fleeing from an abusive partner or family member, you can call the FFT helpline for advice and support.
In January of this year, we released a guide for professionals working with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families in Children’s Services as a response to gaps in knowledge on Gypsy and Traveller culture amongst Children’s Services professionals. Soon after, Kate Green, Labour MP for Stretford and Urmston, raised a question in parliament regarding the “appalling outcomes” for Gypsy and Traveller children in care. In the question, she acknowledged that because it was such a small number of children in proportion to the number of children in care overall; it was perhaps an issue that was easy to ignore. We know that this is true for any number of issues when campaigning for the rights and recognition of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, but it cannot put us off. It is important that members of the Gypsy and Traveller communities continue to shout loud to ensure their voices are heard and that organisations work together to ensure they challenge injustice and unfair treatment in every area in which it is encountered, including in interactions with Children’s Services. We hope to work together with other Gypsy, Roma and Traveller organisations and members of the Gypsy and Traveller communities to foster improved relations between Children’s Services professionals and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.
What can you do?
If you are Gypsy, Roma or Traveller and have had experiences, good or bad, with Children’s Services, we would like to hear your story. We may then use this in our policy work. To share your story, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone on 01273 234 777. All information shared will be treated confidentiality.
We are currently collating a list of solicitors in the area of Family Law, with the contact details of solicitors who have a proven track record in working with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families. If you have had a positive experience with a solicitor, please let us know their details by emailing email@example.com. We will then share these details with our clients and with other Gypsy, Roma and Traveller organisations so that any family experiencing social services intervention can receive good legal representation.
Further Resources and Useful Contacts:
If you are a professional working with Gypsies and Travellers in Children’s Services or know someone who is, have a look at our January 2017 publication ‘A guide for professionals working with Gypsies, Roma and Travellers in Children’s Services’.
If you are or know of a Gypsy or Traveller family experiencing social work involvement and who would like support or advice, visit the TRAIN website or call the Friends, Families and Travellers national helpline on 01273 234 777.
We have recently launched an online learning course which provides information and interactive learning on Gypsy and Traveller history, culture, challenges and advice on positive strategy. Share with your contacts in Children’s Services.
We have recently produced a blog for Children’s Services professionals which is on the Research in Practice website. Read and share ‘Improving social work practice with Gypsy and Traveller communities’.
By Friends, Families and Travellers
Read part one of the Travellers’ Times investigation into Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children in care here.