Improving social work practice with children in Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities

Sarah Sweeney discusses increases in Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children in care and the ways professionals can engage with these communities

19/03/21

Improving social work practice with children in Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities are known to face some of the most severe health inequalities and poor life outcomes amongst the UK population, even when compared with other ethnic minority groups. Within social care, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children are over-represented at every stage of the child protection process and statistics indicate that this issue is only worsening.

In fact, since the inclusion of ‘Gypsy/Roma’ and ‘Traveller of Irish Heritage’ categories in Department for Education data monitoring sets in 2009, there has been a 400% increase of Irish Traveller children in care and a 933% increase of ‘Gypsy/Roma’ children in care (Allen and Riding, in press). Anecdotal evidence gathered by Friends, Families and Travellers through casework and consultation with community members suggests that lack of cultural awareness amongst social services professionals, wider social issues and discrimination have a part to play.

In this article, I will outline some of the issues faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families, advice on how you can improve your engagement with these communities and details of organisations that can provide you with further information and support.

There are a number of different groups who fall under the title of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, each with their own distinct history and culture. Whilst the word ‘Gypsy’ might conjure up images of caravans and travelling, many ethnic Gypsies and Travellers are in fact sedentary. The Roma are one of the largest ethnic minorities in Europe and when this term is used in a UK context, it is often in reference to Roma migrants from Eastern Europe.

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities are known to experience high levels of homelessness (Richardson, 2007; Johnson and Willers, 2007, as in Cemlyn et al, 2009), high levels of discrimination (YouGov, 2017) and high levels of poverty (Lane, Spencer and Jones, 2014). Gypsy and Traveller young people experience high exclusion levels from education (Cabinet Office, 2017; Roma Support Group, 2017), are over-represented in the criminal justice system (HM Inspectorate of Prisons, 2016) and instances of both suicide and mental illness are disproportionately high at all ages (National Suicide Research Foundation, 2015).

In the current climate, wider social issues create a two-fold squeeze for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. On one side, issues with accommodation, homelessness and poverty are exacerbated by chronic site shortages, benefit caps, benefit cuts and the two-child cap for vulnerable families within the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.

On the other side, the services which exist to support vulnerable families are subjected to a huge amount of pressure which makes it difficult social workerpractitioners to deliver a culturally appropriate and tailored service to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families. Competent and capable social workers can struggle to operate and achieve positive outcomes in a culture and setting which they have not been trained or educated in and lack fair and unbiased information on.

As a result of a lack of embedded cultural awareness and working practice with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, the child protection system is failing to meet the needs of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller parents. Those families who would be willing and able to make changes in order to take care of their children are often not given the support to do so.

With these issues in mind, professionals can learn how to improve their engagement with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families: Learn about Gypsy, Roma and Traveller culture: Take the time to learn the facts about Gypsy, Roma and Traveller culture and traditions from unbiased and fair sources. Treat every family as individual and if you are unsure about something, ask the family you’re working with to tell you their opinion and feelings about it. By doing this, you will improve your communication with families and learn to provide culturally pertinent support.

Build trusting relationships with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families: Some members of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities are fearful that authorities will take their children away. This may be a result of historic and institutionalised prejudice and mistreatment and is reinforced by the high number of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children in care. In practice, the fear and suspicion some members of the Gypsy and Traveller communities have towards children’s services can only be counteracted by building trusting and understanding relationships. The emphasis must be placed on supporting families to make changes in order to keep their children.

Communicate in a way families understand: There are low levels of adult literacy in the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities so it is important that parents with low literacy are given information verbally, not in written form (UNESCO, 2005; Ofsted, 2003, 2006; Levinson, 2007, as in McCaffery 2011). For some Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, English is a second language and some of the terminology used as part of the child protection process may be unfamiliar and require further explanation, so allow time for this when holding meetings. If you are using a translator to speak with Roma parents, be wary that racism and discrimination can affect the way translators relay the conversation with you and the family you are working with.

Engage in cross-boundary collaborations: ‘At risk’ children or families requiring support can move from one authority’s responsibility to another’s almost overnight. Nomadism is an important aspect of Gypsy and Traveller culture, providing a livelihood and sense of community. It is crucial that children’s services professionals take the initiative to communicate with each other and work together to support the needs of vulnerable children for travelling families.

Ensure culturally appropriate care for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children: There is a significant shortage of care placements which recognise and support the distinct cultural identity and needs of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children. When Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children are placed in foster placements within their own community, their cultural identity and customs are preserved during a period of their life which involves huge change and upheaval. Kinship care arrangements or placements within the communities should be prioritised and when this isn’t possible, foster carers should be appropriately trained on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller culture.

This article was originally published in COMPASS, the annual guide to social work and social care.

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