The purpose of this essay is to discuss my intervention as a co-worker whilst on placement as a student social worker in a Children`s social care team with two unaccompanied asylum-seeking teenage boys from North Africa. Our role was to meet with the boys, get to know them and, assess their needs and help them settle into their new home.
I will reflect on my practice which is underpinned by the components of good practice including skills and knowledge, personal and professional values and ethics, and by considering relevant legislation including the Children Act (1989), Equality Act (2010), and immigration law whilst linking theories including Lifespan theory and Erikson`s life stages with transitions and cultural competence.
Musharraf and Mahmud traveled together for six months from North Africa, through Europe making their way to England for what they saw would be a better life, both had very different reasons for their journey. They are described in s.6 of the European Asylum report (2020) as Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children as they are under eighteen years of age, outside their country of origin, and, have arrived without an adult being responsible for them (European Asylum Support Office, (EASO),2020). They arrived and reported they were brothers in the hope they would stay together. It is stated in s.6.2 of the EASO (2020) report that the number of unaccompanied minors arriving in the United Kingdom in 2019 increased by 19%, and the United Kingdom is seen by many as a primary destination.
On arrival to the UK, Musharraf and Mahmud were registered by Border Force and under s.55 of the Border, Citizenship, and Immigration Act (2009) became the responsibility of the local authority where they presented. It is recognized in the Equality Act (2010) they have protected characteristics including age (teenage), race (Human) ethnicity (North African), and religion (Muslim). Principle 1 of s.2.2 of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) Code of Ethics emphasizes that these children had a right to not face any disadvantage or discrimination compared to other children in the UK. Given this, they are protected under UK legislation and were provided support under s.17 of the Children Act (1989) and emergency accommodation under s.20 of the Children Act (1989).
I was not involved in the matching process and was informed that the foster placement was with a White British lady in her seventies, living alone from an independent fostering agency in a neighboring local authority. I was told by the Social Worker our local authority had no available foster placements at that time, so this cross-cultural placement was an alternative to a preferred culturally matched placement. She advised shortages in foster care have a national shortage, more so for matching children from BAME groups or unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. This was supported by a BBC News report (2020) that states there is a foster care shortage for children from BAME groups in two-thirds of English councils. I was informed that this was a more expensive placement to the local authority and when a placement was found within our local authority the boys would be moved.
I was conscious from the beginning of our meeting that I had very little knowledge or experience in working with children seeking asylum in the UK and felt it unjust that for the boys that were being placed with what was seen as an alternative as the preferred resources were not available asking if this is challenged which she said it is discussed not only with our local authority but countrywide. This is highlighted in s 2.2 of the Code of Ethics (BASW, 2014).
We had received very little information about the boys and were informed that they spoke Arabic only and did not speak English which we immediately identified as a language barrier. For most appointments, we used the same interpreter to communicate. An alternative method I used, when an interpreter was not present was Google Translate on my mobile phone. The boys were familiar with this and, although it was effective most of the time, it was not perfect and sometimes took several attempts to clarify our joint understanding. In communicating with the boys, I became more aware of my own communication skills as we needed to rely on non-verbal elements including eye contact, facial expressions, behavior, and hand gestures. I found this became more important than words as highlighted by (The Open University, 2020a).
I worked collaboratively with a consistent interpreter which is fundamental to positive outcomes for all involved (Cooperman, 2016). He was male, in his forties and it appeared that the boys built a trusting relationship with him and he was able to share information with the boys about their lives, homes, families, and history. It is important to check the interpreter is appropriate for the service user and I used a checklist (The Open University, 2020c) to ensure this was the case although he was recommended by the team manager who advised he had experience working with other unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. He was also able to share his findings about the different experiences of the boys and could tell by their language that Mahmud had remained in education longer and appeared more academic using more formal language whereas Musharraf had left school earlier, used more slang words, and appeared more streetwise. I reflected that I would not have identified this by watching them communicate and they confirmed this during the assessment.
I met with the boys consistently over several weeks, getting to know more about them. I considered and discussed in supervision the Lifespan theory as discussed by Coleman (2013) who uses it to aid in understanding adolescence. Coleman (2013) describes adolescence as a transition from childhood to adulthood linked with Erikson`s life stage development and at the age of the boys (sixteen), they are in the development stage of identity v`s role confusion searching for autonomy and independence.
I felt the boys had moved more into adulthood at an earlier age as they described their role in their families. Mahmud was the eldest son, he told us his father was dying of cancer and his mother had mental health issues so he had taken on the role of head of the family looking after his four younger siblings and he had begun his journey with a purpose to earn money to send back to provide for his family and pay for his father`s medical treatment.
Musharraf also told us he was the eldest son but his parents had both died, his younger sister and he were orphans and he had left her in the care and service of a local family where he thought she would be safe so he could travel to earn money and create a new life. He described a life of “oppression from the police” in his local town as they were homeless with no income. I explored further with him via the interpreter his sister being in the care and service of another family and he explained that there was no one to look after her and this would be the way she would pay for her food and accommodation. He explained they had no other option, and this was what they did in his country, “Families looking after each other” and hoped they would look after her well.
I considered Mahmud and Musharraf`s lives and roles within their family and how different arriving in the UK must have been. At home, they had made what I felt were adult decisions on behalf of others, difficult choices during their journey to keep themselves safe and, then managing the transition of arriving to be treated as children, placed in foster care to be looked after by a stranger and encouraged to engage with education when their purpose was to get a job to earn money as they saw this as their responsibility. I realized they may have felt our legislation may have been a constraint on their ideals. I felt this must have been very confusing to them and their identity. Brubaker et al (2008) cited in Simpson (2016) states a person`s identity can often be identified by their day-to-day concerns rather than stereotypical viewpoints.
Coleman (2013) discusses the timing of major life events and how this can cause additional stress to an already confusing time in a young person`s life and how it is important to consider another key element of the context of their lives taking into account the historical picture and their culture when considering their development.
In supervision, I explored with my practice educator my own thoughts and values around this as I felt I needed to understand Mahmud and Musharraf to be able to support them and I found it difficult to imagine what life was like for the boys and how they had felt deciding to leave their families, to make a hazardous journey to a different country in the hope that this would be the solution without any guarantees. I reflected on my own life at that age and the safety and security I had without major responsibilities and the opportunities, encouragement, and, support from my parents to transition from education to a training scheme which Mahmud and Musharraf did not have. I recognized what a huge responsibility this would be for them at such a young age however recognized that this may have been the difference in our culture. Coleman (2013) mentions continuity in life stages from childhood to adulthood and how this should be a gradual transition from one stage to another however it felt listening to the boys based on my own values and experiences that my transition was gradual whereas theirs appeared to be more of an unexpected shift to adulthood.
I felt that the boys had been through such a lot, putting themselves at risk to get to our country, and recognized when exploring their short-term goals that basic needs of food, safety, and shelter were most important to them which links to the grounding stage of Maslow`s hierarchy of needs ( The Open University, 2020b) and Mahmud`s long term goals were all focused on his family. Fell (2013) highlights that people seeking asylum may have cultural differences but are still people who seek shelter, well-being, belonging, and happiness like anyone else however social work interventions with this group should be no different than anyone who requires social work support and their strengths and qualities, resilience and determination for a new life and the positive contribution they can bring to society should be recognized (Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE), 2012) cited in (Fell,2013).
Through observing the social worker using models such as Three Houses from Signs of Safety (The Open University, 2020d) we were able to identify Mahmud and Musharraf`s thoughts and feelings, their worries and concerns, and aspirations for the future. This was done with the support of the interpreter but by drawing pictures, we were able to promote participation from the boys in their individual sessions and they appeared to enjoy talking about their lives before leaving their countries. I did not feel using the Framework for the assessment triangle would have been a helpful tool to use as we were not able to assess a key area, the parenting capacity (The Open University, 2020e) however, I used a culturagram model (The Open University, 2020c) for my practice to try and reflect on the information we had gathered.
Throughout our assessment, I was aware it was very important to be culturally competent as I felt I knew little of their culture but felt it important to learn from them, and, in turn, I was able to share my knowledge with their foster carer. Cultural competence is described by Papadopoulos et al (2003) cited in The Open University, 2020c) as “cultural knowledge, awareness, and sensitivity”.
I learned from Mahmud and Musharaff their likes and dislikes of food and was able to support them to visit a supermarket in another town that sold the food they preferred and personal care products like hair oil. I was able to find out about their religion and beliefs and provided information to the foster carer about religious festivals, how they celebrated, and other things that were important to them.
One thing for Mahmud was contact with his family so we provided him with this, and we talked of things they liked to do and looked to introduce them to activities within their local area. I reflected on my own values that I was supported as a child to follow my ideas of interests and activities that I feel helped me grow as I built positive relationships and learned new skills and felt this was important to help the boys to improve their social capital. (Putman, 2000) cited in (Leach, 2015) talked of bridging with other people with similar interests like football, or bonding with people from similar backgrounds which was possible in their area. The boys said they wanted to adapt to living in their new area and we understood that maintaining their culture with others who shared similar values and experiences was important and there was a plan to introduce them to some more boys who were unaccompanied and seeking asylum.
O`Hara et al (2018) go on to discuss self-exploration concerning cultural awareness and I discussed in supervision my fears of offending through lack of knowledge at the start and how before I met the boys I was aware of different prejudices in society about asylum seekers coming to the UK illegally through the media and social media. I discussed how this could have influenced my own attitude towards the boys although my personal view was that role in society was to challenge any negative prejudice and to encourage society to accept them for who they are rather than them adapting to fit the society that was perhaps prejudiced against them as discussed by Thompson (2020) cited in Moss et al ( 2020) pp157-158.
As described by O`Hara et al (2018) I felt in being culturally sensitive, acknowledging that culture was highly important to the boys and having an awareness of society`s prejudices, respecting diversity, promoted equality as recognized in s.3 of (BASW) professional competence framework (2020). I felt I had increased my knowledge some but felt I had only scratched the surface and did not feel fully competent, but I would continue to learn from Mahmud and Musharraf through our intervention. In supervision, we acknowledged that we cannot always know everything about every different culture, but it is important to learn from the person their culture and what it means to them in our particular intervention (Simpson, 2016).
In supervision, I also reflected on the boy`s experience of working with us as their social care practitioners. I realized that the team supporting them were all white British females, aged 30 plus apart from the interpreter, and wondered about the impact on the boys. I previously mentioned the difference and the impact of moving to foster care and wondered how it was for them to be living with, told what was happening in their lives, and, taken to appointments by strangers. An example was a visit to a legal appointment with their solicitor who was also female. I recognized that there were power differentials in all of our interactions and that according to ( Smith 2010) cited in (Maclean, 2015), I had positional power invested in me within my role and I was working to gain relational power when building trust with the boys whilst working together and them trusting in my role. Smith (2010) explains power is fluid and something that flows between groups and I reflected on this at a time when I was asked by my manager to support the boys to an appointment. They declined to go when I arrived. I recognized that the power dynamic had changed, and they had exercised their power to express autonomy in making a choice not to go and listening to their reasons. I recognized my ethical dilemma and felt powerless to complete the task I had been set by my manager who held professional power over me but respected the power that had been used against the situation. I felt happy that the boys had felt able to exert their right to make a choice (Maclean, 2020). I related this to section 1.7 of the professional standards of Social Work England (2019) in being aware of power differentials and not using power inappropriately and making sure my interventions were in the best interest of the service user.
This led me to think of the power within the other relationships and considered the power when using an interpreter and how the service user holds the power of their own information, however in passing their information to the interpreter, they then hold the power and in this interaction, I was powerless, however whilst decisions were made by the care team, the boys may have felt disempowered about what was happening with their future.
In evaluating the intervention with Mahmud and Musharraf in helping them to settle into their foster placement after they arrived in the UK, I feel that my interventions helped as I got to know the boys, I built a positive relationship with them and I felt in showing them honesty, integrity and that I was doing my best to communicate effectively with them they could see we were there to support them.
I reflected on the cross-culture placement and wondered how a matched placement would have been different and how the needs of the boys would have been met differently. I felt it may have been a more natural process however, Raghallaigh & Sirriyeh's (2015) research into the perspectives of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in foster care established that young people between the ages of 13-18. placed a great importance on the continuity of their culture and a young person does not need to be matched with a carer from their own nationality. They found the young people identified that if their cross-cultural carer is respectful of their diversity, takes an interest, and makes a concerted effort to promote the young person`s culture and identity it can be a positive experience and the young people added could even be a benefit in helping them to adapt to their new environment.
At the end of our intervention, the boys said they felt settled in their home and they said they felt happier. I created a questionnaire based on our local authority service user questionnaire and translated it into Arabic to aid their understanding. Mahmud declined to complete the questionnaire, but Musharraf’s feedback was positive, he said he felt I was reliable and trustworthy and found me helpful and friendly and he appreciated my help.