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Senior Practitioner, Rosie Corby, talks about the challenging but rewarding work she does in supporting unaccompanied asylum seeking children in the latest issue of Sanctuary Social Work News magazine. Here’s what she has to say…

Whenever a child enters the care of a local authority, they are accommodated under the Children’s Act 1989, but the experience of an unaccompanied asylum seeking child (UASC) can be very different to a child already residing in the UK. So how, as social workers, do we support these vulnerable young people?

The cultural context

Most social workers are able to access background information about a child’s previous life experiences, but this is simply not an option for practitioners working with an UASC. The majority of young people I work with will arrive without any documentation, and no means to contact other professionals such as previous teachers and often parents or family members.

With no way of obtaining an adult’s perspective on their life, it is often a real challenge to learn even basic details such as childhood illnesses. If a topic is too distressing for the child to speak about, it can be difficult to gain a clear picture. You are reliant on the use of an interpreter but this is not without its difficulties.

I work with some highly skilled interpreters, but the reality is that you cannot control another professional’s subtleties in communication; their body language, gestures and exact choice of words. These all impact how a young person understands something. When you cannot use your own verbal communication skills, you often have to place more reliance on body language. You also have to be aware of how a young person views the interpreter, for example if it is an older person from their culture, they might adjust what they say to show respect and feel uncomfortable discussing personal topics. This is why it’s so important, as a social worker, to develop an understanding of the cultural context in which you are communicating.

Breaking the stigma

Many children arrive here having experienced significant trauma, but will often surprise you how resilient they are. Of course, some do need mental health support, but you have to remember that receiving such support can have a stigma attached to it. We work with them to understand that accepting help is a strength rather than a weakness and explain what will happen.

Building trust

Entering the care system can be disorientating for any young person, but for an UASC it can be especially difficult. Suddenly they find themselves at the centre of a complex health and social care system which is very different to what they are used to. They might have also been told to be afraid of those in authority, including social workers and foster carers. They are not sure where to `place’ you as an adult in their life and it can take weeks or even months to build up trust.

As you begin to build up that trust though, it becomes possible to help them make sense of their new environment and adjust to life here. Often one of the first things they will ask about will be a familiar place of worship. This can be difficult as there might not be something local, but once we find somewhere they can attend, we try our best to facilitate access. 

To read more about how Rosie helps those she supports adjust to their new circumstances, read page 19 of the April-June issue of Sanctuary Social Work News magazine.
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