The prevalence of Black children on child protection systems

Many children are drawn into child protection system for many different reasons. Majority of children goes through distressing and damaging experiences, which may include physical, emotional, sexual abuse and neglect. Some children come under the child protection system as their families are poor and could not look after them properly. Considering the child protection system and black African families, Bernard & Gupta (2006) have critically analysed the evidence on the disproportionate representation of black African families on the child protection register. A research by Gibbon et al (1995) shows that black African families are over represented than white families in the child protection system on the basis of physical abuse of children.

Brophy et al (2003) study expressed a contrary view, that the proportion of minority ethnic families represented on the child protection register shows that many involved several allegations about parental behaviour. A similar research conducted by Gibbons & Wilding (1995) found out that referrals made by social workers of black African children onto the child protection register was due to inadequate supervision of children by their parents who have taken employment to enable them meet any financial obligations and to provide adequate child-care for their children. Therefore, Chand (2000) commented that ‘different child-rearing methods used in different cultures mean that as an outsider, understanding what is the norm and what is deviant is problematic…and trying to distinguish the risks in one family from the another, social workers may fall back on moral judgements'(p.72)

The crucial factor is the challenges social workers encounter when assessing and making decisions about African children and families who lives in chronic poverty compared to the majority of the population living above the poverty line. Social workers need to consider these families’ financial backgrounds and their cultural identity, which determines style of parenting practices that are paramount in proper child upbringing. However, some African families hide under the umbrella of poverty and social exclusion to inflict physical and emotional harm on their children. If social workers understand the causes of parental behavioural patterns of African families, it is obvious that such families would not be unnecessary intervened and where necessary children would be adequately safeguarded and protected from harm.

The challenges social work practitioners experience when developing assessment processes as defined in Climbie Inquiry (Laming, 2003) is crucial to the safety and protection of black children whose families have immigrated into the UK. Sometimes social workers may be stereotype as racist and ethnocentric, as they do not factor poverty-related parental behaviours of African families in the assessment process, and this breed mistrust among the social workers and the families leading to many African families not properly investigated of child abuse (Chand, 2000). It is clear from Alibhai-Brown (2005) study that social workers need not be subconsciously hysteria to follow inaccurate and captivating media coverage of alleged child abuse within African communities. Under the Government’s ‘Every Child Matters’ policy, social workers first priority is to ensure children live with their families if it is best to do so, but what is the usual trend, children are usually removed from their poor parents and given to rich families because they cannot afford to effectively cater for the child needs. However, parents have the ultimate right to bring up their own children unless they fail in their parenting duties to provide adequate care for their children and as a result causing significant harm to them.

Most African parents do not deliberately harm their children but poverty creates all sorts of problems for these families such as parents suffering from depression, stress, and trying to cope with public pressure makes families fall short of what is expected of them as parents. Despite the above assertion, it is the responsibility of the social services or local authorities to create the enabling environment for the provision of welfare needs to families so that these families can provide appropriate care for children.

Following Baby P report children’s services watchdog, Ofsted, reported that a review of 173 serious cases in April 2009, found that social workers and other agencies, failed to act swiftly to put children suffering from physical and neglect abuse onto the child protection register. Ofsted also identified certain poor social work practices such as the failure of social services workers to identify and report signs of abuse, poor recording and communication, and limited knowledge and application of basic policies and procedures. However, recent publication in the The Times (2009) sees Local Government Association criticising ofsted for ‘feeding peoples fears’ and too concerned with protecting its reputation and focusing on procedures and processes rather than the welfare of children’ (p.15).

According to the Department for Education and Skills (2006b) statistical data a significant proportion of black African children are on the child protection register. A number of studies tend to support the view that families of these children lives in poverty and struggle to raise their children to the standard set up by government legislation. However, this available information creates a confusing picture about the representation of black African families in relation to the reasons of poverty-related parental behaviours which in ways tend to suggest a similar pattern of black African over-representation on the child protection register.

Therefore it is difficult to say whether social services are meeting the agenda set up by the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families (Department of Health, 2000) which places on social workers the responsibility to consider families’ backgrounds and cultural perspectives when dealing with cases of child abuse. All these researchers possibly link this over-representation of black African children on the child protection register to little or poor understanding of socio-economic backgrounds of these families living in the UK.

Thoburn et al.’s (2005) review of the nature and outcomes of child welfare services for black children concluded that African children are almost twice as likely to be looked after than the white majority children in the population as a whole, which then suggest, that some of these children will be accommodated under section 20 of the 1989 Children Act, by virtue of being raised by families living in poverty. Arguably, there are a number of contributory factors which could be perceived as important in understanding the involvement of black African families with social work agencies and the resultant over-representation of their children in the child protection system. Broadly speaking poverty and poor parental practices are linked to child abuse and neglect by families who are responsible for looking after these children. Therefore the poverty experienced by many African families and children may be resolved through a more preventative welfare services rather than child protection services.

The government legislations and policies

The most relevant legislation in the UK that aims to protect children from abuse and harm is the Children Act (1989), of which Section 47 expects local authorities to make enquiries into cases where they have reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm and Section 17 makes provision for a child to be assessed with a view to the provision of services to children in need. Therefore there are two definitive objectives of the Children Act (1989), the child protection focus and the child welfare focus. This legislation is subject to how local authorities interpret child abuse, so that in the course of their duties decisions taken are open and consistent without any failures. However, many black African children referred to social services under the child protection system may not necessarily be suffering from any harm or neglect in view of their poverty circumstances (Chand, 2000). According to Platt (2005), the Audit Commission proposal to shift from the popular investigational work use by social workers to a family support services, was due to numerous failings identified by many other government bodies. This wind of change for social work practice was accepted by the Department of Health, after examining a research finding which was summarised in the publication, Child Protection: Messages from Research (Department of Health, 1995). On the contrary view, Parton (1996) criticized the recommendations of Messages from Research because they ignored the basic socio-economic reality for many families.

From Platt (2005) view point it is arguable that the child protection system was drawing too many cases inappropriately on the child protection register. It is obvious from available data, the child protection system seemed to achieve as much as could be expected in terms of preventing continuous abuse of vulnerable children. However, the objectives set out by Section 47 of Children Act 1989, have rather a devastating and disunion effect on families and in many instances create uncertainty for black African children and families. It’s therefore expected of social work professionals to develop the respective skills and knowledge to differentiate between proper child-rearing practices and improper behaviours that flaunt acceptable norms and values in the black African community.

The Department of Health (1995) emphasises that social work professionals need to rely on various measures since child abuse is not an absolute concept and most family behaviours have to be seen in context before decisions of abuse are made (Chand 2000, p. 70). Although child protection social workers in the UK are trained to follow the official guidance as set out in the DOH (1988) Protecting Children: A guide for Social Workers undertaking a Comprehensive Assessment, this guide has some limitations when used on black African families. Against this background, the quality of social work assessment and, hence intervention process used by social workers seem to stereotype black African families as the indicators of child abuse. The fundamental dilemma facing social work today is the manner and extent to which they should engage in social welfare policy rather than in intervention procedures and processes, and more so to redirect its efforts primarily to the poor and needy in society (Karger and Hernandez, 2004).

From the 1990s there have been proactive and sustained effort on behalf of the UK government to develop and promote legislation and policies, which challenge the influence of a child protection culture on management and social work practice, which notably are perceived as distorting the balance of service provision to children and families (Spratt & Callan, ). On the contrary, Pringle (1998) commented that family support strategies may focus on the generalization of responses compared with child protection procedures that target actual nature of the alleged abuse. Cleaver and Walker (2004) realised in their research, that the implementation of this switch from child protection to child welfare services by social work agencies can have negative and difficult impact on the government Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families. In recent past the government has seen a remarkable reduction in the number of children drawn into the child protection system which commends local authorities’ effort to achieve performance targets.

Spratt and Callan (2004) criticized the reductions in number of children on the child protection register, as been achieved largely due to modern governance and measures to promote compliance with performance targets. Although these achievements are laudable, it only serves to obscure underlying tensions in the relationship between the state and the family (Platt, 2005).

According to Spratt & Callan (2004), the UK government in recent times have re-emphasised the primary duties of local authorities within the terms of the 1989 Children Act to focus more on safeguarding children by provision of children needs. The Department of Health estimates four million children living in England are vulnerable to harm or neglect, due to their families living far below the poverty line, yet only 300-400,000 of these children are known to social services at any given time (DoH 2001, p. 23-24). In their study of families whose children were at risk of suffering emotional abuse and neglect, Thoburn et al. (2000) found that in 98 per cent of such cases the families were characterized by living in situations of extreme poverty. Given the strong correlation between poverty and the need for provision of public services (Department of Health, 2000) it is obvious that social services in the UK only help a small proportion of vulnerable children who become members of that subsection, children in need as a consequence of their contact with social workers. This would suggest that a more effective way of helping vulnerable children, particularly black African children would be through the government increasing resources to local authorities, increasing the number of social workers and reshaping the social security system rather than highly selective and meagre provision of services through local authority social work departments (Parton 1997, P.).

Social workers can be been seen as a force for conformity and are frequently criticized for acting more in the interests of the Government so as to meet targets than in the interests of clients who need help from them. Therefore the model or approach social workers may adopt in view of all the government legislations and policies, when working with black African children and families living in extreme poverty will determine whether a family receives a child protection service or child welfare service.