Digital exclusion and Roma communities in the context of child protection

In April 2021, Law for Life conducted preliminary research as part of our new project focusing on Roma and child protection.

The research consisted of surveys for social workers and family lawyers working with Roma and other vulnerable groups in order to find out more about the impact of remote working on Roma families and professionals involved in the child protection process. In addition, we conducted semi structured interviews with staff and community members from Roma organisations. Ten family lawyers and five social workers completed the survey and we conducted ten interviews with staff and community members from Roma organisations. 

In July 2021, we produced a report which was submitted as evidence for the rapid consultation on remote, hybrid and in-person hearings in the family justice system

Areas of concern

The report highlights several areas of concern: 

  • Lack of digital skills – our research shows that a large portion of Roma parents lack the skills to engage with digital platforms in a meaningful way. This was found to include basic skills essential for digital communication, such as knowing how to mute a video call, use a camera, or how and when to speak. 
  • Digital poverty - most professionals that took part in our research noted that many Roma parents lacked adequate technology and equipment, including smartphones and laptops. This led to difficulty for parents to participate in remote court proceedings.
  • Lack of appropriate space - the research shows that many Roma parents lacked proper technology with decent reception and private places where they could participate properly. This had an impact on how well they could engage with proceedings. 
  • Negative impact of language barriers and limited literacy - many professionals who took part in our survey noted that Roma parents who did not speak English well experienced additional barriers in the child protection process in a digital context. Those families were only able to cope with the process due to support from Roma organisations. Those who could not confidently speak English would struggle to talk to a lawyer/social worker without this type of support, and issues arose even when some help was available. 
  • Lack of skills to participate in court process – the research highlights that some Roma parents also faced exclusion from the child protection process on account of a lack of more general skills required to engage with legal proceedings, which could be compounded in the digital environment. Roma organisations highlighted how overwhelming the court process can be for Roma parents, increasingly so when proceedings are digital. They felt that parents were often side-lined and unable to participate, and often lacked the confidence to ask questions during hearings.
  • Negative impact on building rapport and relationships of trust - Many Roma organisations as well as social works and lawyers working with these communities pointed this as a key issue in the quality of their work when done remotely. 

Other findings in the report include some positive features of digital working for professionals including improved effectiveness and engagement with young people who might not otherwise have participated in some meetings. Roma organisations also acknowledged that hybrid ways of working could work well for Roma parents.

Recommendations

The report also lists some important recommendations:

  • Whenever possible, methods of communication and engagement (digital, hybrid or face to face) between professionals involved in child protection and families should be adapted to individual needs of families involved. 
  • Improved training for professionals (such as social workers, lawyers, judges) on identifying and ameliorating digital exclusion should be developed. This could be supported and potentially delivered under HMCTS Assisted Digital developments.  Improved training for HMCTS contact centre staff addressing barriers specific to Roma communities should also be developed.
  • Services carrying out statutory interventions remotely should develop resources, such as a checklist, to accurately assess people’s digital skills and additional needs to support them adequately. 
  • Children’s Services should provide technical support for parents who struggle with digital barriers through provision of IT devices and access to Wi-Fi. This could include access to space where IT equipment could be used for free. 
  • Children’s Services, legal representatives and courts should ensure that families who are not able to use relevant digital platforms are supported to improve their digital skills so that they are able to meaningfully participate in required meetings and court hearings whilst going through the child protection process. This could include commissioning Roma organisations to undertake digital support for Roma families through home tutoring, community classes, etc. 
  • Children’s Services and courts should ensure that Roma parents/young people understand important procedures (for example court hearings, child protection conferences) to enable meaningful participation and fair processes. 
  • Further research is needed to review the quality/type of decisions being made in virtual settings. For instance, how virtual ways of working have impacted on the support available for families and if virtual ways of working have made removal of children more or less likely. 
    View the full report.

    For further information about this report please contact Dada Felja (dada.felja@lawforlife.org.uk)

    July 2021