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Creating a Culturally Competent Service

Clare Jerrom speaks to Art Gajewski about how local authorities are turning towards a culturally sensitive service to meet the needs of Eastern European families in the community.

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Low intervention thresholds in the UK

Given the growth of migration to the UK over the last decades, it is no wonder local authorities are seeking a more ‘culturally competent’ service when seeking to meet the needs of the families they are working with.

In 2001, just eight per cent of the UK’s population was made up of people born outside the UK. Yet a decade later in 2011, this figure rose to thirteen per cent, with people of Polish origin being the largest contributor to this.

There are now thought to be 1.5 million people of Polish origin living in the UK and the second most commonly spoken language after English in the UK is now Polish.

So given the influx of migrants coming to the UK from Eastern Europe, how are local authority services responding? Would people from Eastern Europe benefit from a culturally sensitive service delivery by local authorities? It would appear so.

“Child protection systems in Eastern European countries are quite different from one in the UK and this can trigger a great deal of confusion among Eastern European families living in the UK. In turn, this can result in parents feeling anxious, discriminated against, suspicious and non- cooperative with professionals, which is not conducive to achieving best possible outcomes for them and their children,” says Art Gajewski, founder of a national family support and assessment organisation AG Family Support.

Some families are resistant to working with British social workers

Mr. Gajewski explains that in most Eastern European states, the principle of the child’s welfare being of paramount importance tends to be superseded by an adult’s right to family life; in other words, child protection systems in many Eastern European countries tend to be adult and family focused.

“In addition, statutory intervention thresholds are much higher in Eastern European countries,” says Mr. Gajewski, meaning that child welfare concerns become very serious before child protection procedures or care proceedings are initiated.”

“The lower threshold in the UK means intervention is more robust and swift then Eastern European parents would ever imagine” he added. “Combined with cultural differences and language challenges, this can indeed result in complex and difficult working relationships.”

Mr. Gajewski is an Independent Social Worker. He was raised in Poland, then studied and worked in Australia for 13 years before moving to the UK in 2004, which he now regards as home. Prior to choosing to become an independent social worker over six years ago, he had worked for various local authorities both in Australia and the UK since 1997. As an ISW, Mr. Gajewski quickly recognised a need for culturally competent assessment and family support resources when working with Eastern European families. “There was, and I would argue still is, very little in the way of a one-stop-shop for families and professionals alike in terms of access to competent, culturally competent advice, support and intervention.”

“From very early in my ISW practice I have been inundated with assessment referrals regarding families involved in care proceedings in England and Wales. I believe that as a Polish raised, native language speaker professionals felt reassured by my capacity to engage with Polish families on a culturally competent level and with those from other Eastern European countries, in a culturally sensitive way…there are significant cultural, and in some cases language similarities, which various Eastern European nations share” he adds.

“Assessment is just one part of a complex puzzle. It is well understood that effective family support and monitoring, especially in the early preventative context, helps avoid problem escalation. AGFS family support workers can deliver parenting training to Eastern European parents in their native language, address issues of family social isolation, support their language needs, help them navigate housing and benefit laws, help them understand professional concerns about their parenting, explain cultural differences and how those might generate professional concerns, supervise contact, etc…”

The current contact supervision model is 'out-dated, expensive and unhelpful’

One of most common themes in working with non-English speaking families engaged in care proceedings evolves around contact. Commonly, two workers are involved in contact supervision; an English speaking supervisor and an interpreter. Mr. Gajewski explains that this makes the already alien contact environment even more unnatural and scary, for the children especially. Moreover, such model in contact sessions which take place in the community (in public, outside of a dedicated contact centre) understandably is very stigmatising and embarrassing for the families.

Mr. Gajewski feels passionate about the need to enhance the current contact supervision practices when working with Eastern European families, which in his experience can dramatically enhance overall contact experience for those involved. AGFS delivers this through highly skilled bi-lingual contact supervisors. This model, he says, is also cost-effective for the local authorities as it does away with the need for two workers.

Mr. Gajewski’s other collaborations include a partnership with WillisPalmer, which is another national organisation, catering principally for ISW and psychological expert assessments and intervention. Together, AGFS and WillisPalmer are able to offer a complete assessment and support package in relation to any Eastern European family, thus helping local authorities in achieving best possible outcomes for children and families at risk.

The AGFS / WillisPalmer partnership offers the following services:

  1. ISW and psychological assessments in the UK and the rest of the World
  2. Consultancy on liaison with central and local authorities in relevant countries, on agency checks, order transfers and implementation
  3. Contact Services for Public and Private Law cases
  4. Family Support Work
  5. Parenting Training based on the nationally accredited, therapeutic ‘Just What We Need’ model.
  6. Psychological and therapeutic support for parents and children.
  7. Interpreting and translations, specialising in legal and social care (Polish, Russian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Romanian, Czech, Slovak, German and French).
  8. Training on working with/assessment of Central and Eastern European Families

Our expertise can be utilised for British families too

AGFS already has a large team consisting of family support workers from various Eastern European nationalities including Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian, Czech, Slovak, Romanian, Russian and Ukrainian, who are based across the UK. Most are highly qualified professionals in their own right. AGFS family support workers are provided with robust training, guidance, support and supervision and the service currently works with several local authorities in England.

“Our clients are local authorities and we consider ourselves an expert service in culturally competent service delivery, to be used in any way deemed necessary in order to bring about best possible outcomes for those we work with” said Gajewski.

However, he is also quick to point out that as all AGFS workers are bilingual, “in the blink of an eye, we can switch to fluent English and hence use our experience and expertise when working with native-English speaking families”.

Mr. Gajewski says the feedback AGFS has had from local authorities and families since the organisation’s inception in May 2015, has been very positive and encouraging. As an example, one Polish mother of five children wrote to Mr Gajewski:

“My family and I would like to thank Alicja and Arthur for their work and effort they have invested in reuniting our family. Thanks to your support we are together again. You showed us what to do in the situation we found ourselves in. Thanks to you we have learnt to see things from different perspectives and we are now more open with each other. Was it not for your help, I do not know how long we would have had to endure the difficulties. You helped us understand our mistakes, which we were then able to rectify and we are forever grateful for that,”

Find out more about AGFS and Cultural Competency here.

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