Supporting social work services for children in China

Dr Louise Brown talks about innovations to support service development in a huge country.

Chinese children gather together laughing.
Dr Brown's research aims to support developing in social work services in China.

‘There are a number of themes to what I do’, says the Department of Social and Policy SciencesDr Louise Brown. ‘Basically, my research examines the way in which social work services and their outcomes for children can be improved through the use of innovation; and the transfer of social work interventions from one country to another.’

A system in its infancy

Louise is trying to work out the best ways of using experience from the UK to support the development of child welfare services in China, and specifically their newly forming child protection system. She’s working with the Chinese to help understand which models of practice they should try to adopt from other countries, and how these could be adapted and used in a local context.

‘My background is in child protection social work, and I’m an educator in this field,’ Louise says. ‘If you look at recent research, it appears that the current system in China is very much in its infancy, yet the prevalence of child maltreatment is comparable with most other countries. Incidences of physical abuse and sexual abuse appear to be higher in China but, conversely, neglect and emotional abuse seem to be lower than in the UK.

‘That said, this could be because there are currently no reliable systems for registering or recording certain behaviours. Despite early indications that incidence rates are similar, issues affecting children aren’t always recognised and identified and, even when they are, there’s currently no formal system for intervening. There’s a gap in service provision, compounded by too few social work professionals to deal with it. Basically, social work in China is still at a very early evolutionary stage.’

Two main models

Louise and her team have been working closely with Sun Yat-sen University, in China. They have established a formal collaboration to address the gap in provision, and have developed two projects to address some of the gaps in services.

The first involves importing and trialling a model called Family Group Conferencing (FGC), which originates from Maori communities in New Zealand.

‘It’s work in progress but we think it’s a good cultural fit for China, because it aims to mobilise community support for families in need,’ says Louise. ‘We trained eight social workers to assist children who required help.

'Our first job, in year one of testing, was to think about how we could adapt FGC culturally, through a series of development workshops. Now, at the end of the first 12 months, it’s fair to say that we’ve had some success with five families and are looking to trial the model in other areas.

'We hope to see that these positive changes for families are sustained, and make long term improvements to the quality of these children’s lives. The project has also resulted in a number of academic publications, and we have used these to try and disseminate the learning from our project more widely.’

The second project addresses the training needs of professionals working with children, through the development an online training programme for Chinese social workers.

‘After a number of visits over the last four years, it became apparent that a range of professionals could benefit from training in recognising cases of child maltreatment, as well as in knowing what to do when they identified children in need,’ Louise explains.

‘The first time we flew over to China we managed to train 40 social workers through a five-day training workshop, but obviously it doesn’t make sense to keep going back and fore to China to deliver it. Hence, for our second project, we’re working on finding the best way to set up a comprehensive online training resource for them to use independently.’

What particular needs do Chinese children have?

‘The statistics in China are staggering, and they have a problem with the number of children abandoned by their parents for various reasons. There are an estimated 35 million migrant children, as well as 70 million ‘left behind’ children who stay in the villages where they were born while their parents migrate to urban areas to find work.’ says Louise.

‘There are two reasons for this, both of which are economical. Not only are cities too expensive for the whole family to relocate, but these children are only entitled to receive benefits like education and healthcare in the district where they were born and registered. This means they have to stay there, usually with ageing relatives who may not be able to care for them appropriately. Their parents’ migration can result in numerous social, physical and emotional risks to the children’s wellbeing, and impact upon the likelihood of educational success, and of forming healthy and positive social relationships.'

Baby hatches

‘The level of service in China, to respond to the needs of these vulnerable children, currently remains low. We’re beginning to see new responses being developed, but the size of the country and the sheer number of children is a significant challenge. There are many ‘child welfare’ homes in China, but they’re not really appropriate or able to support these children. In 2014 we started to see the emergence of state-provided ‘baby hatches’, often placed outside them, where parents could safely deposit their babies to be cared for by the state.

‘Watching it unfold has been interesting. The idea originates from medieval foundling wheels in Europe, where churches had circular hatches built into their walls, so unwanted children could be left. The Chinese have been adapting this model and testing it in various provinces in response to unwanted children being abandoned by parents. Sometimes they were found on buses or, worse, left to die in places where they wouldn’t be found. Many abandoned children are female, ill or disabled, with parents who simply can’t afford treatment. With a one-child policy in operation, even in modern, non-rural China, girls aren’t perceived as viable wage-earners who’ll be able to support their families twenty years on.’

These temperature-controlled hatches allow people to leave their babies, safely and anonymously; placing them in a little crib which sets off an alarm inside the welfare home, to alert the carers. There have been cases of parents leaving their baby and, quite literally, running away. Paradoxically, and although the facility is officially sanctioned, it’s technically illegal to abandon a child in China, so parents can be penalised if they’re caught. However, the scheme led to a huge increase in the number of children being abandoned, and so many have now been closed.

How did this project come about?

‘The University’s original contact with China came through an approach from academics at Sun Yat-sen University, who wanted to develop a partnership with the social work group at Bath,’ Louise says.

‘I and some of my students went out there to meet them, and we’ve since run study tours for our undergraduates to experience what social work looks like in different countries. It’s been an invaluable experience that gets them thinking more broadly about our own services. We’re delighted that several Chinese students have chosen to come and study with us at Bath.

What challenges have you faced?

‘What I hadn’t really anticipated about China is the sheer size of the population. It sounds daft, but the country is just enormous! In 2013, Save the Children asked me to host a delegation of Chinese government officials who were coming to the UK to look at our child protection system. They asked lots of questions about how we manage children at risk who can no longer live at home, and the costs involved. And together, as we discussed this afterwards, it became fairly clear that in a country that size, the scale of the problem is so great that they simply wouldn’t be able to afford to do what we do here.

‘So instead of launching into a Westernised model, we’ve been getting their own academics to think about building on what already happens in their communities, and considering models that might be appropriate and work in that context. Family Group Conferencing seemed an obvious place to start, as it mobilises informal support systems around families.

‘The FGC approach can potentially have a positive impact on communities. The way our Chinese colleagues adapted the model to fit was really interesting: where children were identified as being at risk from harm or neglect, through poverty, they brought in ‘sponsors’ to help individual families. Often, communities find their own ingenious solutions, and they’re remarkably good at it. Neighbours will sometimes step in to look after a child or, in a country where education is seen as crucial to a child’s success; someone will pay for a child to board at a school that isn’t near their home. Boarding is common in a country where school days routinely last 10 or 11 hours, with additional evening sessions, and travelling there and back each day is impossible. ‘That sort of thing – using volunteers to step forward in the absence of statutory support – doesn’t often happen in the UK. But in China, millions of children would have no future without them.’

Has anything taken you by surprise?

‘I found the scale of the problem overwhelming to begin with, but I didn’t find these children’s situation shocking; I guess my background in child protection in the UK prepared me for that.

‘Problems? Of course. The biggest challenge at the moment is the lack of a formal infrastructure in China – and virtually no social workers! It’s quite a surprise when you first go there, especially considering the economic growth and success in China. Technically, there are training schemes: many universities offer social work degrees and practitioners can take a national exam leading to a formal qualification. However the numbers remain very small. As it stands, only about 10% of degree students go into practice because social work is poorly paid, has little or no status and there are few jobs.

‘At present, their social work agencies also struggle, as we do, with funding. Chinese non-government organisations (NGOs) regularly have their funding reduced or withdrawn, and when funds are precarious it’s hard to plan services. However, money is beginning to flow into the development of welfare services, and many NGOs have been set up and managed by academics. It remains very piecemeal at the moment because the country’s too big to instigate a national system of, say, fostering, so they have to do develop small, local responses.’

‘Because social work is such a young profession in China, with hardly any graduates going into practice, few academics have had the chance or time to go into practice before moving into teaching, as we tend to do here. This creates a dilemma for the Chinese: they want to develop their own infrastructure but few of their social work educators are able to pass on practice experience. That said, they work closely with social workers from Hong Kong, who have provided much support, particularly to nearby regions.

Responding to requests to support their service development requires a very sensitive approach. It’s obviously important that the system that develops in China is culturally sound; we can’t simply turn up and tell them what to do, because what’s right for us isn’t necessarily right for them.’

An almost blank canvas

‘On the flipside, in that space we can help them to create things – and that makes it potentially exciting. For me, what’s inspirational about China is that it’s almost a blank canvas in terms of social work.

‘Admittedly, we need to address a few issues. Some Chinese companies have offered to develop our projects there but our Chinese colleagues remain genuinely concerned for their reputation if things didn’t go to plan. We have to be completely certain that the people we’re dealing with are credible. Also, not being based there full-time makes it difficult to keep the momentum going and fully understand the networks and dynamics.

‘We’re haven’t been deterred because through these partnerships, with perseverance and a big dollop of patience, we have the potential to help support and change the lives of literally millions of children. At the moment we’re optimistic about collaborating with Save the Children and a number of other universities. And I very much hope we’ll continue to work with the range of Chinese-based partners we now have in place. They have the right contacts within the Chinese government to enable things to happen, and the government’s endorsement is essential to the long term success of our projects.

‘A vast number of children continue to be identified as in need of support, and we think our projects have huge potential impact. Think about it: China's population is 1.411 billion, around 221 million of whom are children. These are some really big statistics, so you’ll understand why developing and setting up an online training programme there is a massive challenge, but one worth pursuing. It’s a very sensitive area to be working in, for all sorts of reasons, but if I can pull it off, with funding to find the right partners, we should be able to get this up and running relatively quickly.

‘My vision is to create a jointly developed, Chinese-based programme that draws on the UK’s experience, both good and bad. Eventually, it could fly off the internet’s shelves! Moreover, this joint programme would train hundreds of thousands of people to help millions of children in need.’