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Supporting early intervention that works for minority ethnic families

Dr Shaun Liverpool and Dr James Mulcahy, both research officers at EIF, reflect on the importance of engaging with families that are seldom ‘heard’ in research and what this means for EIF’s work on responding to parental conflict. 

At EIF, one of our driving principles is to ensure that early intervention is available, and appropriate, for all children, young people and families. In part, this must involve understanding and responding to the differing needs of different parts of society – including different UK minority ethnic communities or families from different ethnic backgrounds.

We have committed to sharpening our focus on race and ethnicity because data consistently shows that racial inequalities persist. As part of this commitment, we are seeking to be more explicit about diversity in our work. This is having an important impact on how we design our research, produce guidance for policymakers and those who design and deliver services, and integrate new sources of data and lived experience into how we work.

One way in which we are doing this is through SpeakOut, an ongoing project in collaboration with the Race Equality Foundation and Action for Children, creating a safe space for UK minority ethnic young people and parents to share their experiences of seeking support for their family. In so doing, we hope to understand how easy it is for families to find support, whether support is meeting families’ needs and how things could be made better, and to make recommendations that are informed by the stories they have shared. We are analysing the results of the public survey and will report later in the spring.

Another is through our role in the national Reducing Parental Conflict Programme. When we consulted local leads last year about their priorities for supporting healthy parental relationships, a quarter of them identified improving how they engage and support minority ethnic families. In response we have published a new practical guide, based on both research and practice evidence, to support local leaders to create effective relationship support for minority ethnic families. We hope our efforts will help local areas to understand how to better support healthy relationships among minority ethnic parents, and we will be testing this over the coming year.

The process of developing the new guide has not been straightforward. Despite the regular headlines about the increased risk of adverse outcomes for minority ethnic families, it was striking how little research evidence there was about the prevalence and impact of parental conflict on these families. The existing data does provide important background for local decision-makers, including showing how minority ethnic families are more at risk of experiencing parental conflict, due to other risks such as poverty, higher unemployment, lower hourly wages and higher housing costs. However, it’s hard to build on evidence where there is so little to work with.

Another significant challenge arises in the way that data is collected, analysed and reported. Research often groups families from diverse backgrounds under an umbrella term, like ‘BAME’ – but we wanted to dig deeper than that. We wanted to know how parental conflict impacts specific groups of families, so that we could provide practitioners with guidance that was relevant to their specific populations, such as Black or Asian families, or Pakistani and Bangladeshi families. For example, we learned that among some groups, such as Caribbean and Sub-Saharan African families, extended family networks might allow children to develop positive relationships with adults outside their home, and these relationships can be protective against the psychological effects associated with exposure to parental conflict. It is important that specific findings about particular groups are not lost or obscured by ‘lumping together’ all families from minority ethnic backgrounds. 

Our analysis was guided by our language principles, but finding the right balance between specificity and clarity has not been easy. Given the complexity of these issues, we won’t always get it right – but when we started this project we committed to working with humility and courage, and we want to continue our work in the same spirit. Therefore, we are open to admitting the limitations of our work, acknowledging that getting it right will take openness and dialogue, and proactively asking for feedback.

We know that working to build new evidence is the only way to recognise the needs of minority ethnic families: without a deep understanding of such diverse needs, it is difficult to ensure that the services being provided are suitable for everyone. It is also clear from our review of existing literature that the voices of various minority ethnic groups are yet to be fully captured.

When we spoke to local experts on relationship support, it was clear that identifying needs and relevant support is not enough. As they told us, recruiting, retaining and involving families from minority ethnic populations is not always straightforward, and support needs to be adequate and culturally sensitive, so all families feel welcome and have a clear understanding of the process. The only way to do this is to work with the families themselves.

For both projects – SpeakOut and parental relationships – our work has been supported by steering groups that include people with different expertise, experience and personal backgrounds and characteristics. This is another way that we can make sure that the voices of minority ethnic families and individuals are heard through our work. In both cases, bringing together the research evidence, perspectives from local areas, and the voices of minority ethnic families has been a powerful combination.

We have learned a lot over the past year, about the challenges of identifying what works for particular groups or families, and the opportunities created by casting a wider net in our research and engagement. We still have a long way to go, but we are more certain than ever that embedding this focus into our work is an essential part of supporting early intervention that works for all children and families.