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UK Children and Families
Homeless families are generally defined as adults with dependent children who are briefly accommodated by voluntary agency, local authority or housing association hostels in the United Kingdom (Vostanis 2002). They are taken in from a few days or several months, often four to six weeks and generally provided with bread and breakfast. Although this broad definition does not include children who have lost homes and live with friends and relatives, it is estimated that there are 140,000 such displaced families in the UK today. The average family consists of a single mother and at least two children. Trends show that these families become homeless again within a year from being housed by agencies. Domestic violence and harassment from the neighborhood are the most frequent cause behind their homelessness. The volume of homeless refugee families among them has dwindled in the late 90s, mostly confined in the London area, but recently they have spread throughout the UK (Vostanis).
Most of these homeless children and families have gone through some types of chronic family conflict, violence and breakdown, with the mothers often victimized as children and into adulthood and their own children now becoming at-risk on account of the neglect and physical and/or sexual assault prospects they face (Vostanis 2002). Their most common needs include low birth weight, anemia, dental caries, delayed immunization, short stature and nutritional stress. They are also more vulnerable to accidents, injuries and burns. Studies also indicate that these health problems increase as homelessness persists. These children also suffer from developmental delays when compared with children who were not homeless. Specific developmental delays include receptive and expressive language and visual, motor and reading skills, general skills and educational status.
Studies reveal the high prevalence of emotional and behavioral disorders among children in the pre-school and primary age groups among these families (Vostanis 2002). Among these disorders are sleep disturbance, feeding or eating problems, aggression and hyperactivity, in many cases coinciding with emotional or developmental dysfunction or deficiencies. Anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder develop in most of them after witnessing tragic family events. Their mothers' experience of abuse or mental illness has been the strongest predictors of the children's disorders, which persist with the absence of effective intervention. This appears to link these children's mental ill health strongly with poor family and social support network delivery service (Vostanis).
Homeless adolescents and street youth have their own set of problems. Two major studies conducted in London revealed the high incidence of depression, attempted suicide, drug abuse and HIV / AIDS among them (Vostanis 2002). The subject youngsters received residential care, experienced family discord and breakdown and had low-level educational attainment. The studies also connected the subjects' typical sexual-risk behavior, drug dependence, and mental or emotional dysfunction to their mothers' own psychiatric disorders at a high 45-50%.
Child care services in the UK evolved from the concept on the rights of children and the responsibility of their families and the state in the rearing of children (Nixon). The Children Act of 1989 aimed at "constructing a new consensus (Parton 1991 as qtd in Nixon)" on children's rights and their families' and the state's responsibilities and at balancing these rights through greater inclusiveness and collaboration with families.
The Act was an attempt at influencing not only the appropriate line and kind of thinking about families and also child care practices as a consequence. But, in time, partnership approaches appeared lacking under the Act, so that in 1990, family rights groups in the UK invited a group of New Zealand practitioners from whom UK patterned its own family group conferences or FGCs to fill in the gap left by the Act in the area of implementation of its principles. A national pilot group was established two years later to connect pilot projects and enable them to share advice and support from one another through policy materials and practice ideas at a high level of cooperation. Their projects were drawn from either the grassroots level or by management and implemented by hard-driving leaders. Although the purview of FGCs over child care was largely marginal, interest in their formation increased from 4% to more than 60%. (Nixon).
Decision-making for social work professionals was not an easy or fast goal to achieve. It required skills, wisdom, compassion and steadfastness. It was a balancing act for these professionals that had to take into account parental views on surrendering control to the powerless (Cleaver and Freeman 1995 as qtd in Nixon) and this was a complicated ground to reach, especially in the UK. The philosophy of the Children Act did not suit the practice and procedures for inclusion under the FGC and the outcome was a slow acceptance of the approach. It was soon discovered that FGCs tended more to conflict decision-making processes than to complement or enhance them. The usual decision-making function was derived or grounded on the acquisition of specialist knowledge, which professionals were perceived to have the best of. Professionals were, therefore, supposed to know more about these subject families than the families knew about themselves. These professionals' perspectives, in turn, were legally mandated by society's expectations (Ryburn 1991 as qtd in Nixon).
The agencies' relationship with the community was made possible and under the control of systems, which the agencies' professionals themselves conceived of and dominated (Nixon) and, instead, they made the subject families' responses fit the preordained professional methods and forums, which in, turn oppose the FGC philosophy or concept (Nixon). Although the inclusion provision did not hand over power from professionals, they still resisted. The fact was that these professionals could assert power through their own working systems, structures and resources, which, in the first place, effectively denied the full participation of the families. The point was that, even with the best intentions, FGCs inclusive practices would not empower the subject families: the only extent in which these families could really share in decision-making could be determined only by the context of the action.
In the UK, FGCs were interpreted by professionals as a last-resort intervention when all other options had failed and as a mode of squeezing resources out of families (Nixon).
Forces have been attempting to move FGCs from their reactive stance to another more central in practice and viewpoint and towards winning the "hearts and minds" of professionals than educating or changing systems. The present disagreements and departures on child care policy and planning could be reduced to differences in values as to the amount of responsibility the families should exercise in the decision-making processes involving their children (Ryburn 1997 as qtd in Nixon). FGCs drew much attention to these issues, but with the turnover of decision-making to families and communities, child welfare and youth justice entities got shaken (Marsh and Crow 1998 and Jackson 1998 as qtd in Nixon). Traditional decisions on these issues have always taken the entire family in context. Family values and structures would influence traditional viewpoint on collective responsibility and the consequent patterns of parenting behavior. That consequence would eventually become apparent to the subject families but not so easily to professionals (Giovannoni and Becerra 1979 as qtd in Nixon).
Access to services was another feature of the current state of child welfare service delivery in the UK. Homeless children and their families cannot access mainstream health and social care because of their mobility between different health and local sectors. These children and families change addresses frequently or urgently and are not likely to be registered with a general practitioner like families staying in permanent addresses. (Vostanis 2002). As a result, they have reduce access to medical care, immunization and preventive care heath procedures and just take recourse to accident and emergency departments for treatment and medication. Or else they get admitted in hospitals.
Homeless children also tend to drop out of school to evade a pursuing violent parent or because of the distance of the hostel to where they live (Vostanis 2002). Parents had to wait to be re-housed before they could register their children in schools. These schools also have limited vacancies and with a high rate of pupil turnover, resulting in high cost. The situation is worse in the case of refugee children. In the overall, children lose their only source of social stability -- their peer, routines and a sense of achievement, which are important protective factors for them in their condition.
In addition to the difficulty of accessing services due to organizational problems in the agencies, these subject children are disadvantaged by the lack of continuity and information transfer due in turn to their mobility in different parts of the country (Vostanis 2002). Local services departments were not always aware of their previous history or not promptly informed about it. These gaps had significant impact especially on mental health services. The negative impact may not be too obvious adults with mental disorders, but because they had no fixed dwellings, health care agencies would assume that the volume of these referrals was large and increasing…[continue]
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