The culturally competent child and
family social worker:
What do we know?
What do we need to know?
June Thoburn
[email protected]
My interest in the subject
• Longitudinal study of minority ethnic children
placed for adoption or permanent foster care
• Evaluations of family support and child
protection in multi-cultural London
• Synthesis of literature on services to families
of minority ethnic origin
• Study of administrative data on children in
care in 28 jurisdictions
(special focus on indigenous overrepresentation)
• Work with SOS Kinderdorf International
Overview of presentation
• ‘Cultural competence’ - in the literature
and in policy and practice
• The discourse of ‘difference’
• The clients who are most in need of a
culturally competent social work service
• Family support and child protection
- with recent immigrants
- people who are ‘visibly different’
- people with communication issues
• Implications for child protection and
out-of-home care services
The changing discourse
• From ‘coloured’ to ‘Black’ to ‘minority ethnic’ to
‘BME’; (in USA) ‘people of colour’; in Australia
• Move from ‘anti-discriminatory practice’ (recognise
and combat institutional and individual racism,
(serious attempt to recruit social workers from
minority groups)
• to cultural competence (includes antidiscriminatory- more inclusive – more positive –
recognises stigma and stereotyping
within and between ethnic groups)
Definitions: cultural competences
Awareness, attitude, approach
‘most often refers to practice that is geared
towards knowledge of and skills in working
with cultural groups other than one’s own’
Korbin, (2002)
But even if worker and client share a cultural tradition
‘ differences in education, socioeconomic
status, gender, age, or other life experiences
may create substantial communication and
interpretation barriers that must be
Culture in context
• (Visibly different) ethnic groups
• Different religions
• Different cultures (parenting practices/
methods of discipline)
• Different languages (interpreters)
• Long resident - recent arrivals
• Well-off/vulnerable through poverty
• Urban/rural (Country of origin and present)
• Class/caste gender differences
• Children- parents- elders
• Adults/ children traumatised
Host society approach
assimilationist/ multi-cultural
‘recent elaborations on the culture
concept point out that children are
not passive recipients of socialization
into their culture but shape and
reinterpret it’
Identifying culture by racial type/ skin
colour ‘may not be meaningful
designations of culture or ethnicity
but instead serve as proxies for
economic status’ Korbin, 2002 ‘ Culture and Child
Maltreatment Child Abuse and Neglect 26
Cultural competence in social work context
Underpinning ideas not new to social work:
‘person in environment’ ‘ecological models’
‘psycho-social casework’
• The ‘culture’ of bringing up children in
materially and emotionally impoverished
environments (Garbarino, 1977)
• Link with the social work discourse of
‘empathy’ –‘start where the client is’
The issue of power/ powerlessness in social
work encounters, especially in child protection
services (anti-oppressive practice- partnership
Areas of practice
• Community social work –supporting
vulnerable groups and families
• Working with recent arrivals
• Unaccompanied minors
• Trafficked children
• Responding to allegations of abuse and
• Children in short and long term care
• National and international adoption
Some issues/ debates
• Recruiting ethnic minority social workers
• Issues around matching of social worker
with client
• Matching children in care with substitute
• Social work via interpreter and translation
• Sensitive recording – self identificationmultiple-heritage
• Working with/ challenging immigration
‘Matching’ variables
Can be on the dimension of:
Ethnic group/ skin colour; country of origin;
religion; language; shared experience as
Some clients prefer ‘matched’ worker (but
prioritise different dimensions)
Some prefer worker from ‘host’ country
Some don’t mind- so long as they get a good
So- if possible- allow for client preference
Reasons for matching culture of
social worker and client
• Often avoids need to work through
• Even if interpreter not needed, shared
culture aids communication and ‘accurate
• In child abuse cases, accuracy of
communication about what actually
happened and why is crucial
• Avoids dangers of ‘cultural relativism fear of
allegations of racism
‘talking to her, I felt free to say just how
I felt about it. But if I was dealing with a white
worker, I would probably be wondering ‘Now
how do I put this so it doesn’t seem sd if I’m
trying to make trouble….It’s not essential to
have a black worker’
‘my social worker is very good but I
can’t talk to her myself. It always has to be
through a support worker and I am not sure
what they say or whether the social worker
knows what I am asking for’
Reasons to have a worker of
‘host’ community
For parents:
To maintain client confidentiality
To avoid people with whom they have conflicts
in their country/culture of origin
For child To avoid over-identification by worker
and less focus on risk to the child
For social workers:
Career prospects/ job satisfaction narrowed if
only work with particular groups
Can lead to vulnerability (including own family)
within their cultural group
From researcher field notes:
‘ The father appreciated having a social worker
allocated even though he has sources of practical and
emotional support. He thinks members of his
community in London are ‘mostly interfering’. He
meets people at church, but would always turn to
solicitors, social workers, if he needed help, and not to
the church or people from his country of origin’
‘I don’t like this continual interference.
Sometimes they come when I have visitors. They start
questioning me in front of visitors, which is an insult in
our community and culture…. My husband was angry
about this incident, so when the worker went into our
shop he told her off, which she didn’t like.
Young care leaver considering quality of service
more important than ethnicity
‘Being a social worker is a treacherous
job. There’s no tips I can give. Social
workers need to read between the
lines and observe young people,
because they may not tell them
everything. You can’t teach that sort
of thing. Social workers either have it
or they don’t. My [ethnically
matched] social worker didn’t. Or if
she did, she couldn’t care a damn’.
Essential elements of cultural
competence and sensitivity
• Willingness to listen and learn(could use cultural ‘champions’)
• Know and work with your community
• Ability to brief and work through
interpreters (never use children as
interpreters importance of having interpreters who
understand child abuse issues/language)
• Understanding and sensitivity to power
• Willingness to ‘go the extra mile’
Training and casework supervision
Some research findings
Family support and child protection
• With a small number of exceptions,
families in all ethnic groups, including most
of those referred for child protection
concerns or whose children need out-ofhome care, want what is best for their
• Poverty, racial abuse, living in depressing
and unsafe environments, and poor
physical and in some cases mental health
and disability are the main reasons why
minority families may need extra/ different
• Complexity may lead to
inappropriate/ hasty (risk-averse)
conclusions (eg around child
protection needs) and entry to outof-home care
eg in Denmark, children from
immigrant families are reunified from
care at a higher rate than higher rate
than Danish children and are less likely
to return to care after return home.
• Different stresses within and between ethnic
groups may lead to the need for additional help
– e.g. higher rate of genetic disabilities among
South Asian children (long settled);
• anxiety about immigration status.
• High level of prejudice/ racism eg Roma;
indigenous children
• In England, South and East Asians are less likely
to refer themselves and may be more likely to
be drawn unnecessarily into the formal child
protection and court systems because of
delayed referrals.
• Particular issues around religious cults/
demonstrably significantly harmful child rearing
• Teenage/ adult gang membership
• A majority of UK parents across ethnic
groups disapprove of the use of
physical punishments but may still use
them (not illegal in UK)
• but there are issues around different
approaches to
- physical chastisement
- child supervision and responsibility
that draw some minority ethnic
families into the formal child
protection systems.
Physical abuse and physical discipline
• Is physical chastisement always ‘child abuse’
‘Differences in parental behaviours of disciplining, such
as physical punishment, are as individualistic as parents
themselves and cannot be considered abusive or
benign without close examination of the entire family
system, the child’s functioning, and other parental
behaviours, such as use of reasoning and nurturing
behaviours which may serve to buffer the possible
harmful effects of physical punishment’ (Ferrari 2002)
• When to use a legalistic approach and when a child
welfare approach.
‘It is against the law and if you continue to do it you
will be prosecuted’ rather than ‘you need
a social worker’
Outcomes of community social work
• Very little on child and family outcomes for
different methods and ethnic groups
(high drop out rates from some (especially
manualised) services.
• Some limited evidence that outcomes for
minority ethnic families are BOTH less
positive AND less negative than for white
families - age of child makes a difference.
• Satisfaction rates are lower for all minority
ethnic groups, largely because more remain
‘unsatisfied’ (as opposed to ‘dissatisfied)
after asking for or being referred
for help.
Children in care –
placement patterns
• African, Caribbean, mixed heritage and
especially Indigenous children overrepresented in care. Asians underrepresented
• Minority ethnic children more likely to return
to parents than white children
• More likely to be in kin placements - but
evidence not entirely clear.
• African-Caribbean children and disabled
South Asian children more likely to use care
as short term family support/ respite care
Ethnicity and over-representation
% of indigenous
children in
aged 0-17
% of
children in
out-ofhome care
New Zealand
(England AfricanCaribbean)
Matching child to carers
• Most children (in England) are now placed
in broadly matched placements (except
• Those not in matched placements are likely
to have two parents from different minority
ethnic groups.
• No apparent difference in rate of positive
outcomes for different ethnic groups.
• No difference ON AVERAGE in placement
stability between matched and trans-racial
• BUT some evidence that some are
significantly harmed by trans-racial
• Big differences between countries
• Black new parents more likely to encourage
birth parental contact and take siblings
Recruiting and supporting ethnic
minority foster and adoptive parents
• Policy-makers and social workers being
clear that it is something they really
want to do and why, and for which
ethnic, cultural and faith groups
• Understand what it means to the different ethnic
groups to care for ‘someone else’s child’
• Enlist the help of community members and
especially your ethnic minority carers, and young
adults who have been in ‘matched’ and ‘nonmatched’ placements
Placement matching
‘I wouldn’t change anything about my
family. But, at the end of the day, I
wouldn’t advise any black person to go
to a white family. Because you miss out
on all the culture and everything. But I
do appreciate what they did for me.
There is nothing I would change about
what they did for me ‘
Some challenges for service providers
• To understand and confront the complexity of
discrimination and racism (within and between
ethnic groups as well as ‘white to black’).
• To understand more about diversity within and
between ethnic groups, nationally and in each
• To find more sensitive ways of collecting
ethnicity data
• To provide services that are seen as helpful to
different cultures and to publicise them in such
a way that parents and children know about
them and that barriers to using them are
To ensure that all social workers are culturally
aware and culturally competent
The challenge for researchers
• To consult with parents, children, carers
and practitioners to make sure that their
research is providing answers to the
questions that need to be answered.
• To come up with research samples and
research methods that have a good
chance of answering the questions.
• To work in partnership with service users
and providers and with researchers from
other academic disciplines- eg
ethnographers, demographers,
When to ‘aggregate’ and when to
NOT either/or. It depends on the
research question.
If it is about racism or harassment
resulting from skin colour or other
‘obvious’ differences such as language,
religion, dress, a ‘different’ life-style - it
may be appropriate to combine ethnic
groups in research samples.
Unattributed quotes / table from
Thoburn, J., Chand, A. &Procter, J. (2005)
Child Welfare Services for Minority Ethnic
Families: The Research Reviewed. JKP
Thoburn, J., Norford, L. and Rashid, S (2000)
Permanent Family Placement for Children of
Minority Ethnic Origin JKP
Brandon, M., Thoburn, J., Lewis, A., Way, A.
(1999) Safeguarding Children with the Children
Act 1989. TSO
Thoburn, J. (2010) ‘Achieving safety, stability and
belonging for children in out-of-home care. The
search for ‘what works’ across national
boundaries’ International Journal of Child and
Family Welfare Vol 12, Number 1-2 pp 34-
Other references drawn on
Armstrong, S. and Slaytor, P. (2001) The colour of difference: Journeys in
transracial adoption. The Federation Press
Connolly, M., Crichton-Hill, Y. & Ward, T. (2006) Culture and Child
Protection. Jessica Kingsley
Ferrari, A.M. (2002) ‘The impact of culture upon child rearing practices
and definitions of maltreatment. Child Abuse & Neglect. 26, 793-813
Kohli, R. (2007) Social work with unaccompanied asylum seeking children.
Korbin, J.E. (2002) ‘Culture and child maltreatment: cultural competence
and beyond’ Child Abuse and Neglect 26, 637-644
Kriz, K. & Skivenes, M. (2010) ‘Knowing our Society’ and ‘Fighting Against
Prejudices’ Brit. J. of Social Work 40: 2634-2651
O’Hagan, K (2001) Cultural competence in the caring professions. Jessica
Okitikpi, T. (ed) (2005)Working with children of mixed parentage. Russell
Wade, J., Sirriyeh, A, Kohli, R. Simmonds,J. (2011) Foster
care for unaccompanied asylum seeking children. BAFF

Child Abuse & Neglect.