Frykt, forhandlinger og deltakelse. Ungdommer og foreldre med etnisk minoritetsbakgrunn i møte med den norske barnevernstjenesten
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Background and aims: The quality of child welfare services (CWS) offered to families with ethnic minority backgrounds in Norway has been an issue of heated media debate, both nationally and internationally. Our knowledge about how families with ethnic minority backgrounds experience encountering CWS is however scarce. The overarching research question guiding this thesis was therefore: How do families with ethnic minority backgrounds perceive and experience contact with CWS? The question is addresses through three more specific questions, in three subsequent articles (see below). Key theoretical perspectives were Nancy Fraser’s theory of social justice and constructivist perspectives on childhood and parenting.
Methodology: To answer the research questions, empirical data were collected from parents and youth with ethnic minority backgrounds. The semi-structured interview was therefore considered a suitable approach, as this method enables the examination of informants’ different experiences as well as how these were linked to their perceptions of CWS. The sample consisted of 11 parents and six youth with refugee backgrounds. Key topics for the interviews were: contact with CWS; the quality of relationships with social workers; opportunities to participate; and frames of reference and values. The empirical material was analyzed thematically and narratively.
Research questions and results: Article 1,“Fear of child welfare services. Exploring the perceptions of ethnic minority parents” (title translated from Norwegian), investigated a dominant theme in the parents’ narratives: fear of CWS. The research question explored in this article was: How do parents with refugee backgrounds describe the fear of CWS among ethnic minorities? Thematic analyses showed that “fear” was not primarily linked to the informants own experiences, but concerned negative perceptions and representations of CWS among ethnic minority groups more generally. “Fear” was also linked to why many parents are hesitant to contact CWS, as well as other welfare services. The research question was: How do parents with refugee backgrounds describe the fear of CWS among ethnic minorities? Three perceptions were identified as substantiating minority parents’ fear of CWS: 1) child welfare services primarily take children away from parents, 2) child welfare services do not go into dialogue with parents, and 3) child welfare services discriminate against ethnic minorities. The article argued that “fear” reflected different forms of disrespect that parents can experience encountering CWS; having their children removed, not being listened to or taken seriously and being discriminated against. The analysis also highlighted structural arrangements that may deny families with ethnic minority backgrounds equal opportunities in participation.
Article 2, “Negotiating deficiency. Exploring ethnic minority parents’ narratives about encountering child welfare services in Norway”, explored another key topic in the parents’ accounts: experiences of lacking necessary knowledge and skills. Such “lacks” were linked to challenges that the informants experienced encountering CWS, as well as different negotiation strategies that informants applied to address an ascribed “deficiency positon”. The research question was: In what ways do CWS institutional practices position ethnic minority parents as lacking, and how is this positioning perceived, negotiated, and contested in parents’ narratives? Four narrative themes were identified: 1) learning to parent, 2) contesting expert knowledge, 3) learning to client, and 4) constructing CWS deficiency. Across themes a differentiation between “good parenting”, linked to Norwegian values and practices, and “deficient parenting”, linked to the parents’ ethnic minority background, was constructed. Consequently, the article argued that ethnic minority parents are positioned as deficient per se. The themes also highlighted that families’ everyday experiences, characterized by economic strains and care burdens, can be overlooked in service provision.
Article 3, “Ambiguous participation. Exploring ethnic minority youth’s narratives about out-of-home placement”, investigated the narratives of youth informants. All had resided in foster homes and/or institutional care and shared rich accounts of these experiences. The research question was: How do youth with ethnic minority backgrounds talk about their participation in out-of-home placements? The article focused on the informants’ agency as well as how structural arrangements enabled and limited their participation. Three narrative themes were identified: a) narrating participation, b) narrating ambiguous participation and c) narrating non-participation. A central pattern was related to how informants negotiated both normative and economic structures encountering CWS. Participation depended on how informants negotiated ideas of children as “competent and vulnerable”. Such ideas could be in conflict with youth’s wishes and social identity.
Discussion and conclusions: The thesis’ discussion chapter discusses patterns across the individual articles. In addition, some implications for professional practice and methodological strengths and limitations are discussed.
The thesis highlights how normative and economic mechanisms can work to marginalize ethnic minority families as participants encountering CWS. These mechanisms are effectual in Norwegian CWS, but also relevant for child welfare contexts internationally. Parity in participation, the thesis argues, can be achieved through: a) interventions to address fear and distrust in marginalized communities, b) putting into place conditions that enable social workers in identifying barriers for participation and addressing these, and c) developing models for children’s participation that include perspectives on how social positioning, such as ethnicity, sexuality and class, can influence children’s opportunities in participation. The results also bring out aspects of the CWS context that are effectual for families more generally. The thesis therefore has broad relevance for understanding challenges and dilemmas that child welfare services are facing today, as well as the more specific need for more research that investigates the participatory conditions for families with ethnic minority backgrounds. Such improved knowledge could provide a point for departure for both affirmative and transformative action that can improve the services provided to children and families.