By Ewa Wilcock
Vesta SFS CIC has been supporting Polish families since 2014, working with those experiencing complex issues: domestic abuse, problems with mental health, parenting difficulties, or addictions.
We address these problems via the offer of specialist services including domestic abuse awareness and a recovery programme for women, a course for perpetrators of domestic abuse, a parenting course, counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy. We also run courses for British professionals about effective working with Polish families.
Our recent projects in Wales raised a variety of concerns about the difficulties Polish parents face when working with children’s services. What are they worried about?
Will they take my children?
This is the biggest fear experienced by all parents who have to work with children’s services but what makes it worse for Polish parents is a complete lack of knowledge about how the social care system works in the UK. Their views of children’s services are often based on the very negative press this service has on Polish social media, television and in the community.
Polish people seek information and advice from their friends, family and the internet in the first instance, not the official British agencies. This is especially true of those who can’t read in English and are, consequently, extremely limited in their access to the official information.
The fear of losing children stops them from being open about their problems. But it can also make them overly compliant without having a full understanding of why they need to make changes and whether the process of making them is beneficial to them and their children.
For example, Polish parents often agree to social workers’ requests to speak in English to their children during contact sessions although they use Polish at home and can hardly speak English themselves. They have the right to communicate with their children in their native language.
How am I going to do all they ask me to do?
Polish families remain hidden from British agencies. Their problems escalate over time and, at the time when the services get involved, their situation is usually profoundly serious or dangerous. Unexpectedly, a number of professionals ring them, asking the same questions. They get lost in who is doing what and they are under immense pressure to meet the demands of various agencies.
Clients we worked with in Wales communicated that they had experienced high levels of stress related to ongoing work with children’s services. They were not able to access mainstream support provision due to the language barrier or work commitments.
The expectations of them were the same as for British clients but the available support was not.”
Some of the support options suggested did not work well. For example, women were asked to join local groups for parents and toddlers. It might seem like a good idea but, for a Polish woman who does not speak English as a first language and has low self-esteem, it may be a very daunting prospect.
As a result of Brexit, Polish people feel much more self-conscious about signs that would identify them as a migrant. Some are uncomfortable about speaking Polish, having an accent, or having poor English. They have a heightened feeling of being unwelcome (Benedi Lahuerta, S & Iusmen, I, 2019).
The woman may find that others’ ways of raising their children are vastly different from her own, embedded in Polish culture, and she may find that they haven’t got a considerable amount in common.
Who can I ask for help?
When we ask the Polish community about the barriers to seeking help, the lack of knowledge about support options is one of the main concerns. They simply don’t know what support is available and they find it hard to navigate through the information about various agencies and the support system.
Losing the support from family and friends who stayed in Poland can be a harsh blow for them. Our data suggest that 70% of victims/survivors of domestic abuse felt isolated from family and friends.
More on working with east European families
Polish parents’ cultural views about raising their children emphasise the role of grandparents, close family and friends in supporting childcare needs in the early years of children’s lives. With no family to support mothers here, they often stay at home to care for their children and rely on partners to provide financially for the family. This makes it extremely hard for them to leave and become independent when the problems within the family start to escalate.
How children’s services can better support Polish families
Based on our experience, we would suggest the following advice for social workers and their managers:
- Assume that the family doesn’t know anything about your service and clearly explain your role, what you will be doing and how you can help.
- Ensure that you have an interpreter present in your meetings if families struggle to communicate in English. Preferably, use the same person each time but never use children, relatives, or friends to assist you with language needs.
- Translate documents explaining your procedures, for example in relation to child protection, into Polish.
- Translate letters for families into Polish to send to them following important meetings, eg core group meetings, even if family members speak English. It’s likely that they don’t remember what was discussed as it was such a highly stressful situation for them that they struggled to focus.
- Find out what specialist support is available in the client’s native language and ensure that you have money in your budget for those who cannot access the mainstream service provision. Offering them language-specific intervention early can save you money in the long term.
- Employ Polish-speaking workers – this is the most effective way of increasing clients’ engagement with your service and making good progress with the families you work with.
- Be prepared to spend more time supporting a non-English speaking client. You may have to assist them in accessing other services, such as Citizens Advice or a debt service. Simple signposting and giving them leaflets about other services may be insufficient
- Pass on information to families about English classes in the area. Be mindful of the fact that we do not learn new things well when we live in fear and experience high levels of stress
- Be more supportive than punitive – if your contact with the Polish family focuses only on investigating the safety of children, this will only confirm their initial fears of your service.
Ewa Wilcock is managing director of Vesta – Specialist Family Support CIC. She was the founder of the first UK-wide Polish domestic violence helpline and a Polish website with information about support available in the UK. She is a qualified independent domestic violence advocate (IDVA) and interpreter.