Minority ethnic children and adolescents and domestic violence. Exposure and social work practices.

Sommerfeldt, M. B., Hauge, M. I., & Øverlien, C. (2014). Minoritetsetniske barn og unge og vold i hjemmet. Utsatthet og sosialfaglig arbeid [Minority ethnic children and adolescents and domestic violence. Exposure and social work practices.] Norwegian only. Oslo, Norge: Nasjonalt kunnskapssenter om vold og traumatisk stress. (Rapport 3/2014).

This report focuses on issues of minority ethnic children and adolescents and domestic violence. The report examines research and knowledge on social work practices from the Nordic countries.

Its objective is twofold: 1) to examine minority ethnic children’s and adolescents’ exposure to violence, as presented by surveys conducted in the Nordic countries, and 2) to highlight knowledge on social work practices from work with minority ethnic families where domestic violence is suspected.

Surveys from the Nordic countries (see section 2.1) indicate that minority ethnic children are somewhat more exposed to domestic violence than majority ethnic children. However, the results should be interpreted with caution, given the methodological limitations of this type of research. All the referenced surveys conclude unambiguously that most minority ethnic children by far have not experienced violence from their caregivers.

Emphasizing culture to understand the extent of violence in ethnic minority families is controversial, as this can reinforce stereotypes and stigma. Culture, in terms of parents’ values and traditions, serves as a frame of reference for rearing methods, including views on the use of corporal punishment of children, and may act both as a risk and protection factor for the individual child. The Nordic surveys highlight that social and economic conditions affect the risk for exposure to violence. Persistent poverty has an impact on the family’s stress level, and influences parents’ self-esteem and the level of effort they feel able to invest in interacting with their children. Similarly, social cohesion is a protective factor concerning psychosocial problems and exposure to violence. Thus, a stable social network and the experience of having a role and a position in society is of great importance. Knowledge on minority ethnic families social and economic conditions in the Nordic countries is necessary to understand the children’s and adolescents’ risk of being exposed to domestic violence.

Professional social work allows different ways to help children and adolescents who are exposed to domestic violence. Great responsibility rests on public services in facilitating the realization of their rights and providing opportunities for participation, for all families regardless of ethnicity. Equal access to public services for minority ethnic families means equal treatment, yet where the professional preserve the unique character of the family and their life history. It is the task of government agencies to provide available and accessible services, regardless of language barriers and varying knowledge of the public system.

A working client relationship requires sensitivity towards the other party and the uniqueness of each family’s situation. A relationship based on trust will contribute to a mutual understanding between the social worker and the family, making it easier to find solutions together. On the other hand, the unequal distribution of power and scepticism towards government intervention may represent a challenge when establishing a benevolent and cooperative setting. It is an important objective in social work to ensure that minority ethnic families experience real headroom for their perspectives and a genuine opportunity for participation and involvement. 

Child welfare services have a particular responsibility for children who are exposed to domestic violence. Dilemmas in the work of child welfare professionals can be further enhanced if the parents’ view on children and parenting differs from prevailing conceptions in the society, particularly in cases where parents consider public interventions as illegitimate. Minority ethnic families are not a homogeneous group with uniform requirements. It is therefore important to exercise flexibility in the design of measures. Sensitivity to the family’s overall needs and knowledge about their resources and challenges, is crucial in situations where the best interests of the child is to be realized in the form of child welfare measures. 

Definitions of violence and the prevailing zero tolerance in the Nordic societies are not embraced by all. There is a need for research in which minority ethnic children and parents contribute their understandings of domestic violence and their experience with public services. Furthermore, there is a need for more knowledge on how domestic violence can be understood in the context of parental values and traditions. Rather than focusing on ethnicity, there is a need for research which explores the connections between domestic violence and other aspects of minority ethnic families’ situation in the Nordic societies, such as mental health and social and economic conditions. There is also a need for more knowledge on how the existing methods and measures of government services are experienced by minority ethnic parents and young people themselves.

The Researchers