Transgender issue poorly understood by social workers

Childhood gender dysphoria remains poorly understood by social workers, resulting in transgender people experiencing discrimination, a study has found.

There is a significant lack of transgender-specific social work research, the study found, but on the basis of the limited research identified, the evidence suggests transgender people commonly report having poor experiences within social and care settings.

“Transgender people, therefore, report significant gaps in services,” the review by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research for the Department for Education found.

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The review identified a complete lack of specific evidence regarding the inclusion of transgender issues in social work education in England. Some evidence which reflected on the experiences of transgender people, however, signposts the need for a knowledge-base of good practice to be incorporated into the social work curriculum in order to combat the limited knowledge or training of social workers.

Interviews with stakeholders, which included the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), the Association of Professors of Social Work (APSW), and the Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee (JUCSWEC), suggest that transgender people continue to have poor experiences when in contact with child and family social services.

Examples of this include some social workers:

  • Behaving in a prejudicial manner
  • Labelling parental support of gender variance as abuse
  • Failing to recognise risks associated with unsupportive home environment and
  • Making uniformed judgements around the acceptance of gender variance.

However, these accounts are offset with some examples of more positive experiences, with stakeholders recognising some social workers as playing a key role in family mediation, being a key resource of information, facilitating treatment pathways and support, tackling local discrimination and generally ensuring that the interests of gender-variant children and young people are best promoted.

The report suggested that on the basis of the range and diversity of views and experiences collected, it seems likely that child and family social workers’ knowledge of transgender issues is very mixed. While some child and family social workers would seem to have minimal awareness of transgender issues, others operate “within pockets of expertise, characterised by specialised knowledge and good practice”.

In line with this, child and family social workers’ education and training in regard to transgender issues is likely variable, yet largely deficient. Very few social workers would seem to have specific education or training in relation to transgender issues, at qualifying or post-qualifying level. Of those social workers that do, there would seem to be a tendency for transgender issues to be subsumed under the LGBT umbrella, resulting in a lack of specificity in education.

Children and family social workers who identified themselves as having little to no education or training in regard to transgender issues describe undertaking their own research in a bid to meet the needs of gender-variant services users.

Where good practice was identified in regard to transgender equality, a number of common drivers can be identified within higher education institutions and local authorities, including:

  • A broader culture of trans-inclusivity;
  • Access to relevant personal and professional networks;
  • The presence of transgender service users actively campaigning for better services; and
  • The presence of academics and/or practitioners with particular expertise in LGB and/or T equality.

The report says it would seem reasonable to suggest that the current regulatory framework in which child and family social work resides is not prescriptive enough to ensure sufficient or consistent awareness of transgender issues amongst the profession, due to a lack of specificity in regard to HEI’s curriculum content; a lack of explicit guidance regarding professional values and ethics in regard to protected groups, and a lack of regulation applied to post-qualifying education.

“Within this context, it would seem transgender issues are unlikely to explicitly feature in initial and ongoing education of child and family social workers for a number of reasons. These include low priority due to low incidence; a preoccupation of core safeguarding issues (such as radicalisation and child sexual exploitation), and increasing pressure on recently declining resources,” said the report.

The report concludes that transgender awareness is an area in need of development across the profession, with the evidence clearly indicating a demand for additional training materials, which could include e-learning, toolkits and good practice guides.

Recommendations include instilling leadership on the issue, namely from the Department for Education and Chief Social Workers; improving the visibility and inclusion of transgender people in the social work profession; and continuing to promote multi-agency working.

Transgender awareness in child and family social work education


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