Lessons from serious case reviews: Immigrants and asylum seekers

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The NSPCC has analysed evidence from serious case reviews to identify learning. This issue we look at the risk factors and lessons for practitioners working with first generation immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees

Published case reviews highlight that professionals sometimes struggle to engage with first generation immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees. Families are often unaware of the services and benefits they are entitled to in the UK or may, for various reasons, be reluctant to make their presence in the country known to the authorities.

The learning from these reviews highlights the importance of putting children's rights above any consideration of their immigration status, and professionals should actively promote services to families newly arrived in the UK.

Reasons case reviews were commissioned

This briefing is based on case reviews published since 2010, where parents and/or children who were not born in the UK were the subject of the review and where the reports are sufficiently detailed to be useful for identifying and sharing learning points.

In these case reviews, children died or were seriously injured in the following ways:

  • Children died following a lengthy period of abuse or neglect, which was not picked up due to social isolation or family movement between countries.
  • Children died or were seriously injured after parents' legal status left them unable to access the support and care they need.
  • Children killed by parents suffering mental health issues, exacerbated by stress of uncertainty over right to remain and past traumatic experiences.

Moving to a new country can be a stressful and lonely time for parents and children. It presents a number of risk factors for the families involved.

Risk factors

  • Social and cultural isolation due to lack of a network of family and friends
    Families moving to the UK from other parts of the world may lack the network of family and friends that people who have lived here their whole lives have built up.

  • Language barriers for those who do not speak English
    There are risk factors when some or all family members do not speak English (see box).

  • Lack of knowledge of entitlements and means of accessing support
    New arrivals to the UK may not be aware of the services and benefits they are entitled to.

  • Transient population increases difficulty in services' ability to offer consistent support
    Newly arrived families may be relocated to different parts of the country. Moving makes it hard for services to build up relationships with families or ensure consistent support.

  • Uncertainty over right to remain
    Families may have arrived in the UK illegally, or be waiting to find out if they are to be granted asylum. The ongoing insecurity can have a considerable effect on mental health. It can also impact families' ability to access public funds; leaving them destitute or homeless.

    Families who have not been given the right to remain are less likely to seek help or engage with services, as they will not want any official record of their presence in the country. This seriously limits their access to care, and their ability to access the help and support they need.

    A precarious legal status may also leave families unwilling to reveal details of past experience.

  • Trafficking of some families into the country
    Some families have arrived in the country through trafficking. This leaves them owing a debt to their traffickers. This limits their ability to speak out, ask for or access help and support.

  • Periods of separation among family
    Families sometimes arrive in the UK at different times, leading to periods of separation. Some parents struggle to cope with bringing up children without their partner, and families can find it hard to readjust once they have been reunited.

  • Exposure to violence and trauma
    Some people have left their home countries to escape danger. They may be suffering as a result of their past experiences.

  • Gaps in knowledge of family history
    It can be hard for professionals to build up an accurate chronology of families who have lived in more than one country. Records are not automatically shared between countries, making it hard to identify pre-existing child protection concerns.

    In some situations, particularly in cases involving child trafficking, a lack of official documentation may lead to children being incorrectly treated as adults, unable to access the protection owed to them by the state.

  • Learning for improved practice

  • Sharing records between countries
    Professionals should try to build up information relating to newly arrived families by contacting the UK Border Agency or children's services in the family's home country.

  • Actively promote services to new arrivals
    Professionals should not assume that new arrivals are aware of how to access the support they need in the UK. Families should be helped to navigate the UK healthcare, education and welfare systems.

  • Engaging with family members outside the UK
    In cases where family members are dispersed it is important to try to contact members of the family from outside the UK who may be able to offer support.

  • Be aware of services for children whose parents have no recourse to public funds
    Children's rights outweigh any consideration of their immigration status. Local authorities have a duty to protect the welfare of all children, and professionals should ensure that children are able to access the support or protection they need.


Case reviews show that language barriers can sometimes prevent professionals from effectively accessing, supporting and protecting families. A lack of a common language can be a barrier to building trust.

This briefing is based on reviews published between 2008 and 2014, where families do not have English as their first language.

Risk factors

  • Parental power imbalance
    An imbalance of power may exist between the two parents where one parent speaks English and the other does not. The English-speaking parent can effectively act as a filter through which all their partner's contact with the outside world takes place. This can significantly impair the non-English speaking partner's access to help and support outside the family.
    Where parents have different first languages it can also impair their ability to discuss and resolve issues together.

    Where some of the family speak English and others do not, there is a risk that professionals do not engage with the non-English speaking family members. This can mean the professionals do not get a complete picture and so may be unaware of abusive partners or of the support that the non-English speakers need.

  • Lack of confidential space
    Using neighbours, friends, children or partners as informal interpreters removes the individual's ability to speak to professionals in confidence. This reduces the chance that abuse will be disclosed.

  • Child involvement
    Children who have grown up in the UK often serve as interpreters for their parents. This can mean children are asked to translate conversations inappropriate for their age.

  • Social isolation where families live in areas where their language is not spoken
    These families can feel isolated from their local community. Both parents and children lack social support networks. This can lead to problems with depression and a belief that there is no one to help them.

  • Misreading potential signs of abuse or neglect
    Children's delayed speech, withdrawn behaviour, or unwillingness to talk to professionals can be misinterpreted as issues related to a lack of English, as opposed to potential signs of abuse or neglect. Abusive parents may over-emphasise their lack of English as a means of withholding information from, or co-operation with, agencies.

  • Learning for improved practice

  • Awareness of language issues
    Always check that what you are saying has been understood.
    If you suspect that there are comprehension issues, establish as early as possible what language they would prefer to speak in and arrange interpretation services.

    When making initial contact with a family be aware that you may not be fully understood. A failure to respond or attend appointments may have more to do with a lack of comprehension than engagement. Follow up contacts, ideally with a home visit.

  • Record first language
    Clearly record language needs from the outset of your work. Make sure that this information is shared with other agencies involved, so that follow-up communications can take place in the appropriate language.

  • Written communication should be in a families' first language
    Write to families in their first language. The service user's spoken English may be of a higher level than their written English. Also bear in mind that literacy may be an issue, and that another form of communication may be more appropriate.

  • Use professional interpreters
    Use professional interpreters when speaking to service users who do not speak English fluently. Interpretation services should also be available in emergency settings (eg A&E).

    Speak to individual members of the family alone. Do not allow family members, neighbours or friends to translate or speak on another person's behalf.

    If parents are reluctant to use interpreters, try to establish the reason. Women may be uncomfortable speaking through a male interpreter.

    Where good communication is vital, for example during assessments, do not readily accept a family's initial refusal to use an interpreter. Continued refusal to use an interpreter should be recorded and treated as part of any assessment of child protection concerns.

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