Child Protection Social Workers and Asylum-Seeking Families in Ireland

Issues of Culture, Race, Power Relations, and Mistrust

by Colletta Dalikeni (Author)
©2022 Monographs XIV, 244 Pages


The issue of migration and asylum seeking has received increasing attention in the wider arena of international human rights and social service provision practice. Positioned within a liberal understanding of human rights and equality framework, providing asylum seekers with sanctuary is understood as an act of adhering to supranational and international humanitarian obligations. The issues generated by the culturally influenced needs of some asylum seekers have however challenged host countries’ social service institutions, where social work interventions and organisational contexts may still be based on the assumptions of European monocultural traditions. These may not be universally appropriate for service provision to all cultures. Colletta Dalikeni supports readers who wish to understand the challenges of culturally different asylum-seeking families. These families engage, or are required to engage, with child protection social workers. She does so by framing such issues as the reception and integration of asylum-seeking families, in the context of social exclusion, marginalisation, mutual cultural incomprehension, health and wellbeing. This book has a clear agenda. On the one hand, it aims to contribute to the field of research by addressing the silence in current literature on the perspective of African asylumseeking families. On the other hand, it allows the voices of those on society’s margins to be heard in the creation of knowledge. As such, the author employs a progressive approach to develop understanding of child protection issues within the context of asylum-seeking communities.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Abbreviations and Acronyms
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Narratives of Social Exclusion, Social Isolation and Enforced Idleness
  • Chapter 2 Narratives of Cross-Cultural Child-Rearing Practices
  • Chapter 3 Siobhán’s Story of Working with Chipo, an Abandoned Child
  • Chapter 4 Race and Racism Narratives
  • Chapter 5 Narratives of Cross-Cultural Communication
  • Chapter 6 Narratives of Mutual Mistrust: Social Workers and Asylum-Seeking Parents
  • Chapter 7 International Protection Applicants: State and Policy Practice Responses within the Irish Context
  • Chapter 8 The Need for a Paradigm Shift and the IASW Plan for the Future
  • Appendix
  • Bibliography
  • Index

←x | xi→


I acknowledge the asylum seekers and the social workers who were willing to answer the questions which I put to them in connection with their experiences of working together. I also acknowledge the commitment of the Irish Association of Social Workers (IASW) in Ireland to develop a strategic plan which is aimed at eliminating racism in the social work profession and improving the living standards of asylum seekers.

←xiv | 1→


Taking a cue from Trahar (2006), who asserted that ‘the beginning of a book that arises from a narrative study deserves the telling of a story from its beginning’, I begin by telling my own story as a migrant social worker before recounting the stories of the subjects of my PhD study, which culminated in the writing of this book.

I experienced the reverse of rural to urban migration within my own country, Zimbabwe, in the mid-1980s. At age 20, following completion of my A Levels, I took up a position as a volunteer at Mutemwa Leprosy Settlement, a centre which provides physical and medical care to recovering leprosy patients. Here I experienced a rural lifestyle which contrasted sharply with the city life to which I was accustomed. For instance, modern conveniences such as electricity and tap water – which one took for granted within the city – were less available in this settlement. Although there were some advantages to the rural lifestyle – for example, a slower pace of life and a lifestyle whereby people achieved self-sufficiency by growing their own crops – people in the rural area longed for the bright city lights, and it seemed to me that they were less appreciative of their own lifestyle. Adjusting to rural life, therefore, presented me with both challenges and opportunities.

In 1988, I immigrated into the city of Cork in Ireland to work as a volunteer in the L’Arche Community – an international federation dedicated to the creation of homes, programmes and support networks for people with intellectual disabilities. This was my first experience of international migration. In the 1980s, Ireland was a largely monocultural society with the exception of people from the Travelling Community. When I arrived at Cork airport and found that everyone was White, my culture shock was enormous. Even in subsequent years there were very few, if any, people from the African continent living in Cork. Volunteers to L’Arche came from within Europe or Australia. This early experience of arriving in Ireland was ←1 | 2→the first time I began to think about the colour of my skin and of myself as visibly different from others.

Coming from a previously colonised country, where sharing space with White people was not the norm until Independence in 1980, I had mixed feelings about the experience. In the early days of living in Cork, I was as much a novelty to the people I met as they were to me. On the streets, most people stopped to stare at me. Some curiously asked me where I was from, a question which I continued to be asked for the next thirty years – even up to the present time. In 2005, I obtained my Irish citizenship and now consider myself Black Irish. In recent times, when asked where I am from, I respond by saying that I am from Dundalk, the town in which I live. This response always prompts a further question ‘But where are you really from?’ at which point I am reminded of my real ethnic identity. When I respond by saying that I am originally from Zimbabwe, that answer seems to satisfactorily address the question. From my perspective, in the context of migration, this raises the question of identity in terms of how migrants might self-identify versus the host society’s perception of them. Belonging, therefore, is not simply a matter of how one self-identifies; it is also a matter of how the host country categorises one.

Among the many challenges of being an immigrant which I encountered in my early years in Ireland, some of which I continue to encounter to this day, were the loss of familiar things such as food, good sunny weather and family support, plus the problem of occasional language barriers. Although I speak perfect English, English is not my first language. It is, in fact, my third language – but one which I learned at a very early age in school during the then-Rhodesian colonial era when English was the administrative language used in schools and in employment circles. Not only was speaking in English all the time a new experience for me, but understanding the native Cork accent also required me to listen very attentively to people – something which I found extremely tiring as I had to think first in my native language and then translate it in my head before answering in English. Racism, both overt and covert, was then, and continues to be, part of my migration experience. Along with these challenging experiences came new opportunities, including the opportunity to experience a different culture and subsequently the opportunity to study Social Work ←2 | 3→at University College Cork where I obtained a Master’s Degree in Social Work in 1993. I returned to Zimbabwe to work as a social worker after I had finished my studies but came back to Ireland in 2001 to take up a post as a child welfare and protection social worker with the North-Eastern Health Board – now the HSE.

On returning to Ireland then, I found a more diverse country. There had been a sharp increase in the numbers of people coming to live in Ireland as refugees and migrants, and there were African shops, Chinese shops, Indian shops and diverse churches to cater for a more diverse population. In my new role as a child and family social worker, the presence of families from other cultures was evident, as were the challenges experienced by them and by the social workers who were engaged in providing a service to these families.

In part, this book arose from the unease I felt in those years in practice when, for example, immigration officers or the Gardaí (the national police force in Ireland) arrived at the office with an unaccompanied minor, often of African origin. My colleagues frequently asked what age I thought the young person or child was, but I was usually as unsure as they were. However, there appeared to be the assumption that since I was Black African, I might be able to tell the age of young Black African refugees. Over time I observed that, in addition to those issues related to age assessment, there were frequently other difficulties in the working relationship between my social work colleagues and the asylum-seeking service users. There were, for instance, misunderstandings in relation to cultural differences in child-rearing practices. This awareness propelled me to explore further the way in which the migration process intersected with the working relationship of social workers and the asylum-seeking families with whom they worked.

The concept of the insider/outsider as described by Breen (2007, p. 153), whose work reflects a continuum rather than a dichotomy, neatly captures my position in this book. Reflecting on my role as a researcher, I have come to view myself as being in neither one camp nor the other, nor even somewhere in between, but as a bridge connecting the two experiences. As both an insider and an outsider, I have a wide insight into social work. As an immigrant, I have an insight into many of the experiences of refugees who are seeking asylum, although I was never subject to ←3 | 4→the asylum process. To that extent, I am perhaps a partial insider but also a partial outsider. My simultaneous engagement with Irish society as both insider and outsider has allowed me to form a bridge between the spaces occupied by asylum-seeking/refugee families and their social workers. My own regular travel across that bridge has given me a clearer understanding of the differing perspectives in the stories of both the professionals and the asylum-seeking/refugee families.

This book, therefore, arises from an amalgam of my personal, educational and professional experiences. When I came to Ireland in 1988, services were limited in their response to the rise in the numbers of people coming to Ireland as migrants and refugees who were seeking asylum. Among other things, the presence of these newcomers demanded diverse approaches to child welfare and protection issues. During the later period of my ten years working as a social work practitioner, I embarked on a PhD at Queen’s University Belfast. Subsequently, in 2008, I took up a position as a lecturer in social care. My doctoral research explored the experiences of asylum-seeking families living in Direct Provision and the Irish social workers, with whom they engaged, in relation to child protection issues.

Twenty participants took part in the study – ten social workers and ten asylum-seeking parents/guardians. I selected the participants by using the purposive sampling approach, and I used the Biographical Narrative Interpretive Method (BNIM) to generate data. BNIM is a general qualitative narrative approach founded on the premise that individuals construct the meaning of their lives through storytelling, which is grounded in social interaction. The key advantage of BNIM interviewing techniques is that the method acknowledges power relationships. It therefore sets out a robust framework within which the researcher invites the participants to direct the interview by narrating their stories in ways that they want and taking as much time as they want. It is the participant who ends the interview and not the researcher. I used the thematic analysis approach to draw out themes from the storied data.

The study highlighted new insights, among them potential conflicts between the more traditional child-rearing practices of migrant families and those of modern Ireland – which have been shaped by a number of factors, including a painful history of institutional abuse and changing legislation in ←4 | 5→Child Protection. There are also many other challenges to the social work profession as an arm of a state which is highly ambivalent – historically and up to the present – in its attitude to refugees. Although the study was undertaken in Ireland, its findings are pertinent to the Global North, given the prevalence of the forced migration of people from the Global South to the Global North which has increased in recent decades across the world.

This book, therefore, represents part of the work which I undertook in my PhD thesis. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it brings together the voice of professionals – social workers – and those of the persons whom they serve – asylum seekers living in Direct Provision, in a context where the voice of professionals has historically been foregrounded at the expense of that of the clients whom they serve. The structure of the book is designed to enable a broader understanding of how global migration trends influence the local context, and vice-versa, in relation to child-rearing and child protection practices.

Although the study focuses on the experiences within an Irish social care and child protection context, it has international implications owing to the worldwide migration of people from Africa in recent decades. The research aims to provide new insights into the difficulties faced by both the asylum-seeking population and the receiving country or state. The book highlights a range of challenges in this regard. Each chapter explores the main challenges and themes such as building relationships, language barriers plus cultural expectations and misunderstandings. Evidence from this research shows the multi-layered aspects of this engagement. The book aims to show that both the families and their social workers are required to continually negotiate with each other in order to achieve positive outcomes. The intervention of the state in family units has previously been examined by scholars in the field of social work and policy. However, this study aims to give voice to families in special circumstances within the Irish state. Consequently, it examines new contexts and interpretations of child protection issues. The book has a clear agenda. On the one hand, it aims to contribute to the field of research by addressing a silence in current literature from the perspective of African asylum-seeking families. On the other hand, the book allows those who are located on the periphery of society to actively participate in the creation of knowledge. As such, ←5 | 6→the research employs a much-needed and progressive approach aimed at developing an understanding of child protection issues within the context of asylum-seeking communities.

The evidence from the research which I carried out highlighted the fact that child protection issues for asylum-seeking families had specific challenges. This was evident from the perspectives of both the families and the Irish state. Despite the regulations and policies developed on childcare and protection in modern Ireland, special circumstances – such as families in the process of seeking asylum – should be afforded further consideration because of significant cultural differences, language barriers and the potential for discrimination. Based on the historical experiences of African people, this aspect of discrimination is vitally important. The research not only highlighted the difficulties experienced by families but also challenged the existing academic knowledge in the field of study. This book focuses on the importance of shared values, shared knowledge and shared futures. It is a forward-looking book, giving it credence in Irish and international contexts by acknowledging and respecting African parenting styles while offering explanations on practices which may have the potential to raise queries by practitioners in child protection agencies.

The study on which this book is based offers a platform for reflection on some of the issues which were shown in the narratives of asylum-seeking families and their social workers. The book presents a complex intersectionality of issues which emerged from the study upon which this book is based. As the title of this book indicates, the issues which were examined related to race/racism culture, cultural misunderstandings, power relations and mutual mistrust between social workers and the asylum seekers who were mostly of African Descent. By presenting such narratives, through the voices of social workers and asylum-seeking families, the reader is invited to critically reflect and draw lessons from their accounts. While this book does not claim to be exhaustive in this vastly complex topic area, it does, however, go some way towards engaging the reader with pertinent practice issues which arise in the context of child protection social work with asylum-seeking families, thus adding to our knowledge of state protection and the experiences of migrant populations.

←6 | 7→

Chapter summaries

Chapter 1 presents narratives of social exclusion, social isolation and enforced idleness from families living in Direct Provision along with the narratives of their social workers who interacted with them. I produced the narratives using the BNIM, and I used pseudonyms that were chosen by the participants themselves to preserve their original identity. The main sub-themes from the accounts presented in this chapter are (1) enforced idleness and liminality; (2) the impact of liminal space and induced precarity on parenting; (3) injustice relating to food; and (4) the impact of liminal space on the mental health of international applicants.

Chapter 2 presents social workers’ and families’ narratives of cross-cultural child-rearing practices and explores the intersectionality of race, power and culture in those accounts. Sub-themes emerging from these accounts include (1) contested notions of child discipline; (2) contested notions of physical care of children; (3) contested notions of child neglect; (4) contested notions of evaluating ‘good enough parenting’; (5) tension between culturally accepted norms and the law; and (6) critique of attachment theory in relation to cross-cultural assessments.

Chapter 3 presents Siobhán’s story of working with Chipo – an abandoned child – and Chipo’s story of interacting with Siobhán. Chioma’s narrative is also presented in this chapter.

Chapter 4 presents narratives of race and racism from the lived experiences of asylum seekers and from social workers who worked with such families. Sub-themes emerging from these narratives include (1) racism at community level; (2) racism at institutional level; (3) racism at individual level; and (4) racism in professional encounters.

Chapter 5 presents narratives of cross-cultural/intercultural communication, highlighting challenges that emerge for both social workers and families in their interactions with one another. Contributory factors to miscommunication and misunderstanding in communication stem from ←7 | 8→a variety of sources including (1) different accents; (2) differences in pitch of voice; (3) misunderstandings regarding nonverbal communication; and (4) lack of a shared language.

Chapter 6 is based on accounts of mutual mistrust between social workers and asylum-seeking parents. Mutual mistrusts emanate from multiple sources including, but not limited to (1) contested understanding of child-rearing practices; (2) misunderstanding of the role of social workers whose role as state agents is perceived by families as similar to that of immigration officers; and (3) the subtheme of epistemic injustice which is also addressed in this chapter in relation to the marginalisation of those seeking asylum.

Chapter 7 reflects on the relationship between Irish state policy and practice responses to reception and non-integration of asylum seekers. It draws illuminating parallels in the historical and contemporary treatment of asylum seekers by the Irish state despite potential signs of positive change in recent times.

Chapter 8 concludes the book, proposing a paradigm shift in social work practice with international protection applicants.


XIV, 244
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (March)
Asylum Seekers Social Work Direct Provision Culture Race Racism Mistrust Asylum-Seeking Families Colletta Dalikeni Child protection issues Migration
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. XIV, 244 pp., 3 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Colletta Dalikeni (Author)

Colletta Dalikeni is a Registered African-Irish Social worker and academic, currently based at Dundalk Institute of Technology. She is Board member of the Irish Association of Social Workers, and co-founder of the IASW Anti-Racism Advisory group. Colletta’s local and international social work academic and practice experience encompass various areas that include but are not limited to child protection/welfare, medical social work and intellectual disability. Her research and teaching interests have a bias towards culturally sensitive social work practice with various ethnic minority categories such as immigrants, asylum seeker and refugees. Her particular focus is on how the intersecting discourse of race, racism, culture, come to bear on their human rights in the context of social citizenship entitlements. Colletta’s emancipatory activist research and scholarship is evidenced through her ongoing active involvement in several community social inclusion and diversity projects. Some of her current work is focussed on creating safe spaces and conducive conditions for addressing race-based issues in both social work practice and education through asking difficult questions about Racism. Her other current preoccupations involve leading collaborative Erasmus Plus funded EU projects that are also aimed at challenging Racism and other injustices to promote successful social inclusion and integration at national and EU levels.


Title: Child Protection Social Workers and Asylum-Seeking Families in Ireland
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