RPP 17 2 Ravinder Barn Ruth Sinclair Black families and children: planning to meet their needs

Research Policy and Planning: The journal of the Social Services Research Group – Vol 17 (2) 1999

Black families and children: planning to meet their needs

Ravinder Barn, Senior Lecturer in Applied Social Studies, Royal Holloway, University of London; Ruth Sinclair, Director of Research, National Children’s Bureau, London


This paper documents some significant findings from a recent empirical study carried out in three local authority social services departments. The primary purpose of the study was to focus on the implementation of Section 22 (5) (c) of the 1989 Children Act and Section 71 of the 1976 Race Relations Act to examine the ways in which local authorities were meeting the needs of minority ethnic families and children. Here, findings are presented within the wider debates of social policy and practice in the area of ethnic record keeping and monitoring. It is argued that local authorities need to develop adequate management information systems around race and ethnicity to address minority needs and concerns.


This paper derives from a national study which set out to assess the implementation of Section 22 (5) (c) of the Children Act 1989, which required local authorities, when making decisions in respect of children looked after, to give due consideration to ‘a child’s religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background’. A selection of findings is presented, focusing on differences between ethnic groups in terms of referrals to social services and entry into the looked after system. From this it is possible to highlight some key issues in planning to meet the needs of black children and their families. Two themes are discussed – the critical role of ethnic monitoring and the need to provide a range of service options if the needs of black1 children and families are to be met. We start with some background to the research. Further details are presented in the research report (Barn, Sinclair and Ferdinand, 1997).

The research study: Aims and methods

The broad aim of this study was to examine the way in which local authorities had responded to the new duties imposed by the Children Act to consider issues of race and ethnicity in providing services to children. The research examined how this was reflected in both policy and practice within social services departments. More specifically, the research sought to determine patterns of service provision to children and families from different ethnic groups.

The study incorporated three dimensions:

  • a quantitative study of 1962 children whose cases were allocated to social workers in seven different teams in three local authorities;
  • a qualitative enquiry involving in-depth semi-structured interviews with social work practitioners, middle and senior managers, foster carers, and birth families and children;
  • an examination of policy and procedures in the three local authorities.

The research sites

The research was undertaken in three local authorities, reflecting different authority types: County – a shire county in the East Midlands; Metro – a metropolitan authority in the West Midlands and Borough – an inner-city London borough.

In part these authorities were chosen because they served populations with substantial and diverse minority ethnic communities. Examination of the characteristics of the child care populations, however, in these authorities in terms of their age, gender, legal status, accommodation, rate of children looked after by the local authority and on the Child Protection Register, indicates that they are representative of other authorities in their ‘family’, as defined by the SSI. All three authorities had equal opportunities policies in respect of both employment and service provision. The Children’s Services Plan within each local authority made mention of the needs of black children. While the three local authorities used as research sites were structured and organised differently, taken together they reflect a general picture of the policies and practices of social services departments in the area of child care, race and ethnicity (for detailed account of research sites, see Barn et al., 1997)

Research sample

The research sample was drawn from seven area offices in County, Metro and Borough, and was selected on the basis of allocation to a social worker. This provided a sample of 196 children and included not only looked after children but also those on the Child Protection Register and others receiving family support services.

In all local authorities, we found a clear hierarchy for the allocation of different cases to social workers. Child protection cases were accorded the highest priority, followed by looked after children and then children in need. Borough had problems even in allocating workers to all child protection cases; only County was able to allocate social workers to ‘children in need’ with any consistency. This clearly had an impact upon our selection of the research sample. The unallocated cases could have added an interesting dimension. However, for the purpose of this study, we were keen to explore the circumstances of families in receipt of social work help and assistance.

Our total sample comprised children from six different ethnic groupings – white (88), African-Caribbean (35), mixed-parentage (31), Asian (28), African (10) and Chinese (4).

Less than a quarter of the sample was under the age of five (22%). The largest single group of children were adolescents (44%), with those between the ages of 6-12 making up about one third (34%). Although there were no significant differences between ethnic groups, it was found that African-Caribbean and mixed-parentage children were more likely to be represented in the adolescent group than other children (over half compared with approximately two-fifths of whites, and almost two-fifths of Asian children).

The vast majority of the children and young people in the sample were from one-parent or nuclear family structures (47 per cent and 39 per cent respectively). Whilst some children may have had wider family networks, only a small minority of each ethnic group was actually residing within an extended family. There was little evidence to support the common stereotype of Asian families living in extended households, only three of the 28 Asian children were living in extended families.

The biggest group of children who came from a single-parent family were African-Caribbean (two-thirds), followed by those of mixed-parentage (over half), white (two-fifths), and Asian (a quarter). The numbers of African and Chinese children were small in comparison with other groups. However, it should be noted that eight of the ten African children came from a single parent family.

Involvement with Social Services

This study highlights similarities and differences in the pattern of service use and provision by people from different ethnic groups. We shall examine three aspects: referrals to social services, the numbers of children from different groups who are looked after by the local authority; the reasons and speed of entry into the looked after system.


The paucity of adequate literature prevents us from having a sufficient understanding of the circumstances under which black families become involved with social services. Previous research highlighted factors such as length of residence in Britain, and knowledge and familiarity of social services provision (Boss and Homeshaw, 1974; McCulloch and Smith, 1974). However, very few differences were documented in the patterns of referral. Boss and Homeshaw (1974) asserted that not only were black and white parents equally likely to refer themselves: similar proportions of black and white cases were referred by other agencies.

Almost two decades later in a study of 564 families and children, Barn (1993) found that although black parents (primarily African-Caribbean) were equally likely as white parents to refer themselves to the social services, there were differential patterns of referral from the statutory agencies. For example, agencies such as the police and the school were more likely to refer black youngsters than white youngsters. Similarly, black mothers were much more likely to be referred for reasons of mental health by the police and the health service than white mothers.

Our new study of almost 200 cases confirms that a higher proportion of referrals of African-Caribbean and Asian families was from statutory agencies such as health, education and the police (see Table 1). Although there were referrals from non-statutory agencies, and other sources, the Table is presented to illustrate the difference between families voluntarily going to social services themselves, and being referred by statutory agencies as a source of concern. We found that with respect to Asian families only one of the 28 referrals came directly from the family. There was a notable difference between the situation of African-Caribbean and Asian children and those of mixed-parentage background in that the latter were more likely to be referred by their family. It should be noted that all but three of the 30 mixed-parentage children in our sample had white mothers.

Such differential patterns raise real issues about the accessibility of services and how they are perceived by different groups. Other studies suggest this may be linked to the discriminatory ways in which these groups are treated within the personal social services, juvenile justice, and the mental health arena (Barn, 1993; NACRO, 1989; Fernando, 1991).

Table 1: Number of referrals by ethnic group

Ethnic group Self-referral Statutory referral
African-Caribbean 5 18
Asian 1 20
Mixed Parentage 9 12
White 23 38
Total 38 88

The reasons given for referral in our research sample also display differences between minority ethnic groups. While ‘suspected child abuse’ was a significant factor for the referral of many children, it featured most prominently in the situation of the Asian children. Almost half of the Asian children were referred as a result of child protection concerns by statutory agencies. When we included Asian children who had previously been on the child protection register, this figure went up to nearly three-quarters.

Another noticeable difference in referral patterns was in the identification of the mother’s mental health as an important factor in the referral of families to social services. This was cited more often in the case of African-Caribbean and Asian families than for children of mixed parentage or white children.

We found that ‘suspected child sexual abuse’ was two and half times more likely to be a factor in the referral of white children than black children. Also a young person being ‘beyond parental control’ was twice as likely to be a referral factor for white and mixed parentage families than for Asian or African-Caribbean families.

Black Children in Care

Over the past three decades, research studies have documented the high presence of black children in the care system (Fitzherbert, 1967; Rowe and Lambert, 1973; McCulloch, Smith and Batta, 1979; Rowe et al., 1989; Barn, 1990). There was also a high proportion of black children within our sample of looked after children, as shown in the diagram below. Children of mixed parentage were the largest minority ethnic group; a pattern reflected in other studies. As discussed later, because of limitations in ethnic data it is difficult to assess how representative this is of the general population of the locality.

Figure 1: Looked After Children and Young People by Ethnic Origin (%)

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Source: Barn, Sinclair and Ferdinand, 1997:55

Our study found children of African-Caribbean and mixed parentage background to be highly represented in the looked after statistics. In exploring the circumstances of referral and entry, issues around ‘suspected child abuse’, ‘parental neglect’, mother’s mental health, ‘child beyond control’ and ‘delinquency’ were typical factors. We found that mother’s mental health was a concern in many of the African-Caribbean and Asian cases. Child protection and mother’s mental health were significant concerns in the case of seven of the twelve Asian children looked after.

Our study located an important difference with respect to initial social work intervention. We found that there were differential rates between ethnic groups in the speed at which a referral translated into an entry into the looked after system.

The study shows that there are higher proportions of African-Caribbean children becoming ‘looked after’ within two weeks than any other ethnic group (68% compared with 59% of mixed parentage; 50% of Asian; and 49% of white). Such rapid admission into care is a matter of great concern and raises important questions about the level of support services to families in need to obviate separation of children and families. The high number of Asian children subject to child protection investigations, coupled with issues around the mother’s mental health is also worrying. Research studies have shown that the ability of the mother to care adequately for the child, in a context of lack of support networks, is significantly affected by her experiences of depression (Sheppard, 1993).

Implications from the study

The findings from this study have major implications for policy and practice development. Changes will be needed if the purposes behind the Children Act are to be fulfilled. In addition, the study has implications for those with responsibility to plan services to meet the needs of children – particularly those arising from consideration of race and ethnicity. It is this aspect of local authority activity that we focus on in this paper. In particular we discuss two areas of concern to service planners: ethnic monitoring and the provision of an appropriate range of services to meet the needs of black children.

Ethnic monitoring

The study reported here had as its primary objective an evaluation of the implementation of Section 22 (5) (c) of the Children Act. This new statutory duty – to take account of ‘race, culture, religion and language’- is an addition to the existing duties placed on local authorities by the Race Relations Act 1976. In support of these laws most local authorities have produced statements setting out their policy on equal opportunities in both employment and service provision (Butt, Gorbach and Ahmad, 1994). If such policies are to become a reality then their impact must be monitored. This requires a system for gathering information on ethnicity.

Similarly equal opportunity policies are a necessary backdrop to service planning. It is now recognised that any process for planning services that is needs-led must start from an assessment of need. Indeed as the Guidance on Children’s Service Plans makes clear, a strategic approach to providing children’s services requires ‘a thorough analysis of need and supply’ (DoH, 1996). This analysis will have many components; central to this is information on the race and ethnicity of users and potential users, as well as those delivering services. Again, this is a task that cannot be done without sound data on ethnicity.

Of course, ethnic monitoring is not without its problems or indeed its critics. The fear has been expressed that local authorities will see the mere fact of gathering statistics as evidence of their good intentions on equal opportunities without further action, or that the reporting of such information will be used to control rather than support black and minority ethnic communities (Owusu-Bempah, 1989; Ohri, 1988). While recognising the origins of these opinions, we support the establishment of systems accurately to record information on race and ethnicity.

The limitations of current systems

An increasing number of social services departments are now operating ethnic monitoring systems, although the coverage of these is often very limited (see Butt et al., 1994). Of the three authorities in our sample, one was able to produce regular management information which included ethnicity in respect of some children’s services and somewhat patchy records on the ethnic origin of staff and carers; one authority had some, but less regular, data in respect of the ethnic origin of children looked after; the third authority had no useful management information systems and no readily available information on the ethnicity of either users or service providers.

The lack of such key information raises major doubts about the ability of social services departments to undertake effective needs-led planning. For instance, without such information how are authorities to know if their services are accessible to all groups within the community; or whether there is disproportionate representation of particular groups receiving a service response such as child protection registration; or the extent to which policies such as ‘same race placement’ are being successfully implemented?

Undoubtedly an important driver for local authority information gathering is the requirements of central government. It is surprising therefore that the statistical returns to the Department of Health do not require information on ethnicity. Clearly this is a fundamental omission. A prominent recommendation from this study is for that omission to be addressed as soon as possible.

Children of mixed parentage

Despite the lack of comprehensive management information systems, in all three of the research authorities it was possible to retrieve data on ethnicity from the case files of the children and families within the sample, as shown earlier. However it was difficult to compare accurately the composition of the sample to that of the local population, mainly because of the high proportion of mixed parentage children; that is, those identified as having parents from different racial or ethnic groups.

The first problem is in assessing the proportion of children within the area which can be described as being of mixed parentage. As this was not one of the fixed choice options in the census it is not included as a category in readily available published data. This makes it difficult to gauge the representativeness of children in certain user groups, for example, those looked after.

This is particularly significant given that this study, in line with others, indicates that children of mixed parentage are the largest ethnic group among those looked after (Rowe et al., 1989; Bebbington and Miles, 1989; Barn, 1990 and 1993; Sinclair et al., 1995). The issue of an inadequate information base is of concern, and the decision to redesign the next census form to include mixed parentage as an option is to be welcomed. However the size of this group is so substantial that even without accurate comparative data it is clear that special attention must be paid to meeting its needs.


Although the Children Act makes clear that the concept of ethnicity is wider than racial origin – including also religion, language and culture – these are rarely part of routine management information systems. In our study, in almost half of the cases there was no record of the child’s and family’s religious background. This highlights the low priority given by social services departments to this aspects of children’s background and suggests that social workers are ill-equipped to address the spiritual and religious needs of the children with whom they work. Interestingly, the religious background was recorded for all 28 Asian children in the sample. It is important to recognise, however, that the mere recording of religion does not indicate that particular attention is being paid to this aspect of the child’s background; it is nonetheless a useful signal of social services assessment procedures.

Staff and carers

The analysis of need is only the first stage of the planning process, to be complemented by a review of services. The next task in ‘matching needs and services’ is to question the extent to which services are appropriate to match and meet the racial and ethnic needs of children and families. The ethnic composition of staff groups and carers is likely to be a significant factor in this. Is the ethnic composition of staff groups known? Is the racial and ethnic background of carers and that of the children they look after included in management information systems?

While such information may be available in case files, and is increasingly being included in management information systems, there is still evidence to suggest that only a minority of authorities can respond positively to such questions (Butt et al., 1994). The findings from this study indicate some recent advances in recruiting staff and foster carers from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. Good monitoring systems could help promote action to secure and extend these achievements.

Using ethnic monitoring

Clearly, the establishment of ethnic monitoring systems is not an end in itself but only a first, yet vital, step in enabling service planners to include relevant key parameters in their assessment of need, whether at case, operational or strategic levels. The value of such systems lies in how they are used; in how they inform developments in policy; in service provision and in practice. Here the influence and commitment of the information specialist or planner are crucial.

Providing a range of appropriate resources

The successful application of a strategic approach to planning children’s services is likely to result in a reappraisal of services; a more comprehensive analysis of need may indicate that adjustments to the range or nature of services that are required towards those best placed to meet identified needs.

Although not necessary as a result of a coherent planning process, there was evidence from the study that the research authorities had allocated resources to developing innovative services for black children. However, there was a recognition that these more imaginative schemes were often vulnerable at time of budget reductions. Examples include a black resources team able to offer a specialist service of advice or additional support in cases involving black children; a panel which dealt specifically with identity issues; creative use of Section 17 (The Children Act, 1989) monies to enable children to maintain contact with birth families living overseas.

More generally, this study points to a range of resources required to meet the needs of black children and their families. These include:

  • a staff group which reflects the ethnic composition of the local community and possess the necessary skills and attributes to engage, and work effectively, with black children and their families;
  • sufficient placement options to offer a choice and match with assessed need;
  • the establishment of strong links with the local communities that facilitate good access to support services and networks;
  • ready access to high quality interpretation and translation services.

The discussion below will focus particularly on the last two types of resource, community support services and interpretation and translation services.

Community support services

In taking forward the ‘re-focusing debate’ (DoH, 1994) social services departments have had to re-think and re-order their priorities, both in terms of case allocation and service provision.

Re-focusing work to protect children away from investigation activity and towards family support is only possible where high quality support services and community networks can be accessed. It is important that prevention and family support are seen as part of a continuum of child care tasks aimed at protecting children (Tunstill, 1997).

Many social services departments are finding these adjustments difficult to make. The evidence from this study is that even greater changes are needed in current practice in preventive and family work with black families. First, this study confirms the inability of many departments to allocate social workers to ‘children in need’ cases. As highlighted earlier, only one of the three ‘research’ authorities was able to allocate social workers to such cases. Second, there is clear evidence that few Asian families find services sufficiently accessible for them to seek help for themselves – hence a majority of children from Asian families are referred by other agencies. Third, the more speedy move of black children, particularly African-Caribbean children into the looked after system suggests they are less likely to receive effective preventative inputs.

The task of developing preventative family support services is made easier through good links between social services and local community groups. Often there has been a failure to build such connections with black and minority ethnic communities. The creation of strong links depends upon the establishment of trust and the building of active partnerships. Strenuous constructive efforts to work with local communities are likely to result in a wider range of appropriate service options that will enhance preventive work.

Good contacts with local communities also offer the possibility of finding support for children looked after, for instance through the recruitment of foster carers or the use of independent visitors. In addition, in situations where a child is placed with a carer who is unable to meet all needs arising from her race or religion, additional supports can more readily be provided where there is knowledge of, and positive contact with, local communities.

Interpretation and translation services

The ethnic diversity of the areas in which this research was conducted meant that interpretation and translation services were essential. Each of the authorities provides these services, although all recognised that there was much room for improvement. For instance, in County -which served a large and diverse Asian community – the department had given some priority to its interpreters service. It was confident that it could always find a member of staff with appropriate language skills to meet all the demands from the referral or duty desk. For case conferences, team leaders estimated that translators would be needed for around a quarter of those held. Given a little time to arrange, it was felt that this too could be organised. That is not to say there were not still issues to address, especially around confidentiality and the use of people known in the community. Nor should the skills demanded in a high quality service be under-estimated. This is particularly true in working with families outside the set piece meeting.

An important principle of the Children Act is that of working in partnership with parents, with social workers placing much emphasis on working alongside, and supporting, parents in both safeguarding and promoting the well-being of their children. This requires an ability to really get alongside the parent, to establish trust and easy communication and to be able to respond readily to any problems. All of this is so much more difficult where the family and the social worker do not speak the same language. And it is in this ongoing, day-to-day contact that highly skilled interpretation is so vital – and so often just not available. If all children are to have an equally appropriate service, if due account is to be taken of a child’s ‘linguistic background’, then those responsible for planning services to children and families need to review the priority that is given to translation and interpretation services.


When the overall findings of this study are set against those undertaken in the 1980s, pre-Children Act 1989, it is possible to identify certain positive developments in recent years in both policy and practice with black children and their families. The ‘research’ authorities had placed a high priority on providing equitable services but they also recognised that they still had much to learn.

On the positive side, we found staff groups that broadly reflected the local populations with substantial and diverse minority ethnic groups; similarly with foster carers, so that most children were placed with carers from the same broad ethnic groups as themselves.

The study also identified areas that were more challenging for social services: for instance, the confusion in the operation of policy and practice in respect of children of mixed parentage and the need to enhance skills in order to offer appropriate assessment to black children and families.

Most particularly in this paper we draw attention to two issues: the crucial part to be played in service evaluation and planning through applying good ethnic monitoring systems; and the importance of taking account of ‘race, culture, religion and language’ in undertaking the analysis of need that underpins Children’s Services Planning. This will surely increase the possibility of providing a range of relevant services, especially community-based support and networks, that truly meets the needs of children from all ethnic groups.


1 The term Black is used in its political context to refer to those who share a common, but not necessarily similar, experience on the basis of their ‘race’, colour and ethnic origin in Britain. In this study, it refers to individuals of African-Caribbean, Asian, African, Mixed-Parentage and those of Chinese/Vietnamese origin. Ethnic distinctions are made wherever necessary and relevant. The term ethnic minority is used interchangeably with Black.

2 Although our sample includes a total of 196 children; it is important to note that this includes those looked after and those living at home in receipt of personal social services. Thus when individual comparisons are made between different ethnic groups in specific situations caution must be exercised due to the smallness of our sample size.


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