Clare Jerrom speaks to ISW Ranjit Mann about his specialism in international parenting assessments
For many of us, our working day begins with a short drive or train journey to the office. Not for Independent Social Worker Ranjit Mann who specialises in international assessments. He is currently working in Malaysia carrying out a parenting assessment as an Independent Social Worker.
“Amongst a variety of scenarios, I had a case of a young man from the middle east who had a relationship in the UK with a British born young woman and they had a baby. There were domestic violence issues, the baby was deemed to be unsafe and was removed from their care by the local authority. The child was not able to live with either parent and so the paternal grandparents put themselves forward to care for the child. They were based in their country of origin and so the court required an ISW to carry out a full assessment to see if it was suitable to place the child there,” explains Mann.
“To follow up the positive assessment, I accompanied the team manager to take the two year old child to the grandparents. I stayed there for four days to ensure a successful transition and to ensure the child was settling into the new environment. There was no local infrastructure services there so the court is completely reliant on your assessment as to whether the child can settle”, said Mann.
In fact, Mann’s work carrying out international parenting assessments has taken him to Iraq, Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Tunisia, India, Argentina, Jamaica, Cayman Islands, France, Latvia, Romania, Lithuania, Norway, and Slovakia. However, it was his early career in social work in the UK that led to him carving himself a niche in international work.
Mann was born in the UK to parents from Punjab. He grew up in Leicester and attended the University there to study social work before he began working in multi-cultural environments for Coventry City Council, Leicester City and Leicestershire County Council as a social worker and then team manager.
“I burnt myself out. I spent 11 years on the frontline and it was too much time,” explains Mann. “In 1998 I became a Guardian ad litem and then a Children’s Guardian for Cafcass and this was much more reflective work which I really enjoyed.”
Mann said he’d always wanted to work for himself without being constrained by bureaucratic and organisational processes. In June 2008 he became an ISW and began carrying out fostering assessments before specialising in parenting and kinship assessments. Due to his experience, he started to receive more and more requests for international assessments.
Usually it is the local authority who instructs Mann and funds the assessment. An international assessment can take a week and then more time is spent writing up the report. “The benefit of being in a country for a week is that you spend a lot of time with the family which gives you a good insight into family life and dynamics,” he explains.
Building a rapport
“The format of information you require from an international assessment is the same as if it were an assessment in the UK, you cover everything to make a suitable decision around a placement so you look at family background, relationships, support network, local services, housing, financial situation and parenting ability, taking into cultural differences” said Mann.
It becomes challenging when you are going to a country where there are big cultural differences and you need to adapt very quickly, build a rapport with the family quickly to enable them to understand it is an in-depth, but culturally-sensitive process. “Sometimes, the family may only have a vague picture of what’s been happening which may have been filtered through a parent. They need to know the key issues so they know what they are taking on and what the potential difficulties may be, particularly if the child has emotional difficulties or challenging behaviour,” said Mann. “We need to discuss their ability to deal with various situations.”
‘Clear clash’ in what is right for the child
Children First spoke to Art Gajewski, an expert in culturally competent services earlier this year. He explained 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,” said 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.”
Mann is very familiar at working with cultural differences. One case he worked on involved a Romanian woman who came to the UK believing she had a job, in fact it turned out to be working in the sex trade. She became involved with a violent man, the couple had two children and the authority removed the two children. The woman returned to Romania and Mann was instructed to carry out an assessment of her parenting skills. “The mother had great difficulties accepting the domestic violence and how severely the violence had impacted on the children. Her parents had tried to support their daughter but were unable to protect her. I wrote a report with a negative conclusion which contradicted the report written by children’s services in Romania. Their report had been positive but there was no analysis of risk or her ability to cope,” explained Mann, saying there was a “clear clash” in what was in the children’s best interests. The case was heard in the UK and the judge decided the children should be adopted.
Mann says the quality of assessments from Eastern European countries can be very superficial, not least due to the fact that in Latvia for example, Court officers are dealing with 150-200 cases at any one time and are completely over-stretched. “The assessments to the UK courts are based on British standards. You have to keep an open mind to cultural differences and analyse whether these differences can be overcome.”
“For example, I carried out an assessment in Ethiopia, the parenting assessment was very positive but there were no facilities to bathe the child. I recommended the family received a grant to have some bathing facilities built,” said Mann.
“To this day I still find sometimes that cultural awareness is lacking in local authority assessments where cultural differences are not taken into account. The difficulty is that local authorities are over-stretched and often at the viability assessment stage, sometimes families are dismissed too readily. As an Independent Social Worker, I go into much more depth at the initial assessment stage and analyse that information. Most social workers do not have that opportunity,” he added.
The challenges of international assessments include:
- Adjusting quickly to the environment
- Enabling the family to feel comfortable about the process
- Logistics such as transport
- Sourcing and working with interpreters
- Safety risks and taking precautions, particularly in war-torn environments
- Seeking travel advice and carrying out a risk assessment
“Even when it looks like things are ok, things can go awry,” said Mann. “For example, when I arrived at Tunisia, it emerged that the interpreter did not have a driving licence and so I suddenly found myself driving through arid desert conditions for some 150 miles. There is always a degree of uncertainty.”
SGOs are not always recognised
Mann says he always comes away from the environment and into the cold light of day to write his report and make recommendations so as not to be affected by the ‘romance’ of being in another country and culture. He insists he is guided by his letter of instruction as to what to include in his court reports, of which he has written more than 400. He says it is vital to be open minded during assessments of families which also provides them with an opportunity to be heard and their views presented in the report. In addition, it is vital to talk to other agencies such as obtaining police checks or whether there is any other professional involvement with the family elsewhere.
Mann says many of his reports are up to 90 pages long and include detailed, comprehensive evidence for example certificates, references, housing tenancy agreements, proof of financial situation etc to get a full a picture as possible to present to the court. It should be an analysis outlining the implications for the child and should include back up plans covering issues such as how will you support the child financially if your financial situation changes, can you sustain support for the child now and for the next 10-15 years? How will the child be integrated into the family? If the safety situation changes, what is the family’s contingency plan?
Mann is often asked to make recommendations as to whether a Special Guardianship Order would be suitable, where the carers have overall say in the child’s day-to-day lives and decision-making yet the parents retain parental responsibility. However, Mann says this can be difficult as there is not much understanding of SGOs outside of the UK. In European countries, it takes communication between legal departments to ensure they understand what is required. Other countries do not recognise SGOs and communication with authorities can be extremely difficult.
It was eight years ago that Mann began carving his niche in the international assessment market, “Initially, it was the marginal case but I now receive a lot of requests for international assessments, particularly from the London Boroughs,” he says. “Now it is a growing area with globalisation and migrant groups coming to the attention of children’s services, the demand has increased and it’s a much more mainstream issue,” he concluded.