The aim of this issue is to provide an academic and professional space for describing and critically analysing empowerment as one of the current frameworks of social work practice with children, youth and families. When it comes to assessment, planning and delivering interventions especially for children, service providers tend to focus more on problems and deficits of their clients. They tend to rationalize the failure of the professional efforts by describing clients as “unmotivated”, “resistant”, and/ or “not ready” for change. Professionals tend to think and do things for them, rather than with them, especially if they are seen as less competent, challenged.
Opposing this view, many services and professionals have expressed a heightened interest in using a strength-based approach. In this theoretical perspective, empowerment of service users in order to cope with their issues is an important goal in any working relationship with social workers. Therefore, focusing on strengths and not on the problems and deficits shows respect and has multiple advantages both for providers and people they serve: increased involvement in problem solving, setting positive expectations about the future and increased responsibility in taking action toward change.
Looking at the problems of the disadvantaged and powerless categories from the perspective of the critical social theories one can’t expect that individual empowerment is a universal solution for the oppressed unless they are given the opportunity to make important decisions about their lives, and have the means to do that. Going further, empowerment can be conceptualised as engagement of vulnerable people in social and economic development action, and fighting oppression. This framework is embedded in critical realism and antidiscriminatory social work and recognizes the ability of people, including children and youth to understand disadvantages, learn new ways to influence their own situation and foster social and political change (Thompson, 1997). Working with participatory methods, powerless groups like African Americans in the US, or Roma in Europe, can reduce, fight and reverse disadvantages and demonstrate abilities. According to Ivasiuc (2013), community development practice was adopted by the World Bank, in order to empower the poor and was accompanied by a boost in academic reflections on the concept of participation. Empowerment approach with children, minority, disabled or mentally troubled has much gained form the rights perspective that has slowly penetrated all areas of child welfare, youth work, and disability work. As a consequence, youth are more and more seen as active human beings, right-holder partners, contributing with their strengths and expertise in a growth process. Empowerment is often placed in the centre of youth work (Siu-ming, 2009).
For those coming from the UN Children’s Rights Perspective, an important aim is to identify facets of empowerment as best practices in designing contexts that provide young people with an authentic and effective voice allowing them safe and meaningful participation. Children’s rights to participation are spelled out in articles 12 through 15 of the CRC. Exercising rights, children and young people can learn about their right to freedom of expression, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom of association and claim these rights. According to article 17 of the CRC governments shall ensure children's access to information, seen as a necessary foundation for informed participation in decision making, and a contributor to the promotion of their well being and health. In sum, the CRC provides that persons below the age of 18 shall enjoy the central civil and political rights laid out by other human rights treaties, such as the international Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In article 42, the CRC adds that children also have the right to be informed about the rights established by the Convention.
Starting from these foundations, empowering children should be a central goal of the policies and practices.
This special issue of the Social Work Review frames ways of thinking about empowerment of various target groups of youth, and its outcomes for children and youth themselves, as well as for their schools, employment and welfare status, communities, for their present lives and their future. Development of communities by empowering youth can be seen in the framework of helping the vulnerable to gain control and power, and while transforming communities, change the way they think about their needs and capabilities as individuals and as citizens. Beyond fulfilling needs, empowered young people can better face their personal histories, or attend for their present and planning their futures.
How the articles reflect the thematic issue
This issue contains 8 articles focusing on theoretical approaches and empirical examples fostering children and youth participation from different national and cultural contexts: Denmark, Great Britain, Norway, Romania, and Sweden. These are grouped into two main sections:
• Understanding and researching participation
This section contains two articles, based on the work of a European project (Participation, Experience and Empowerment for Roma youth, shortly PEER). Larkins outlines in her article the theoretical background of the project that can enable not only Roma, but any marginalised youth and children (e.g. refugee, disabled children and children in contact with social services) to engage themselves into action and learn from following, understanding and evaluating their own process. The paper is grounded in the ontological and epistemological understandings provided by critical realism and supplemented of participatory action research, offering readers a systematic review of the theories of Freire and Bhaskar’s. The paper recommends a clear structure through which groups of children with disadvantaged backgrounds can explore the problems they have experienced “through a cycle of dialogue, action and reflection”. After the discovery of ideas, conditions, and habits these can be included in a critical dialogue with group members, to reformulate their experience, develop “critical consciousness” and take action “on their own understandings of their situation and on external causal mechanisms”.
In the same framework of understanding participation, Popescu et al. review the projects and publications focusing on stimulating and capacitating youth to participate. Publications and participatory projects from nine European Union countries were inventoried according to several items such as: titles and authors; Roma youth age groups under study; short content descriptions in terms of the participation form; sector of participatory activity. In spite of the largeness of the criteria, a relatively low number of projects and publications were recorded, in spite of the existence of a large number of civil organizations and funding mechanisms for the Roma. In order to illustrate how participatory projects with Roma children and youth can become a part of social practice to fight discrimination and promote inclusion of the Roma, the second half of the article presents such participatory actions with some of their outcomes. The authors conclude on the scarcity of data in the literature, and reflect on the need to put such participatory and empowering projects into practice and also to document them as thoroughly as possible, in order to allow further reflection on processes and results, and contribute to evidence based practice in this area.
• Empowering vulnerable children and families
This section contains several articles focusing on specific groups of vulnerable children. Aytar and Brunnberg are presenting the situation of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Sweden staying in foster families. Using a mixed model design, the authors followed migrant children’s evolution in the host country to unravel their adaptation process and to evaluate the empowering effect of care and social assistance received by the young people in foster families. They concluded that unaccompanied children’s relationships with other children improved, they developed their ability to plan and adapt, some of them started to attend regular schools, and previous traumatic experiences were processed to some extent. All of these are interpreted as increased empowerment in unaccompanied children’s everyday life.
Using a qualitative approach, the article The Role and Influence of Family and Community Relations on the Disabled Persons’ Labor Market Status: Perspectives of Disabled Individuals and Family Members explored the role and influence of family and community relations on the disabled persons’ labour market status. Authors concluded that disabled people and their families meet difficulties in accessing education, work, health services due to the distance between rural areas-cities, limited financial resources, limited dispensaries, community services, and schools. Also, the lack of community resources for meeting the medical or social needs of the disabled children exacerbates the parental stress regarding the children’s possibilities to of rehabilitation and inclusion, thus limiting their participation.
Situated in the same capability for work approach, the article Activation for whom? Experiences of the Transition to Adulthood and Adapting to Norwegian Activation Policies investigates the experience of accessing the labour market for two groups of vulnerable young people, in a comparative perspective: 1) young people who have been enrolled in the child care system since childhood till they aged out of care and 2) young people with intellectual disabilities. Results shows that the young adults who have been under the care of child protection services during their childhood need to fight for welfare benefits and is pushed into activation schemes, while young adults with intellectual disabilities tend to be channelled into welfare agencies being neglected with regard to employment. Therefore, young people with intellectual disabilities are more perceived as deserving righteous beneficiaries of the welfare benefits and as such are not considered as possible recipients for support in actively finding employment.
Diaconescu and László describe a different way of empowering groups of children against violence using the opportunities of Forum Theatre, as a method to prevent bullying for children 12-15 of age. They thoroughly describe the preparation and the phases of their project implementation, making visible the aspects that lead to the involvement of children as co-actors (“spect-actors”) in finding solutions instead for a violent scene. The authors conclude that in the context of the spread of violence in the schools this method is able to capture the attention of students, to motivate them and to mobilise them towards change. However, used as a single event, it is insufficient in leading to and sustaining long term behavioural changes.
Lundemark Andresen is focusing in her article on the topic of empowering ADHD children, relatively little debated in the area of social work. Many ADHD young people experience the support they receive from the social system as severely inadequate and sometimes disempowering. Following these findings the article suggests that future social work in this area could still find more space for empowerment by allowing more participation of service users in improving their own situation. They should use their own problem definition as a starting point, followed by more empowering approaches.
In the last article included in this issue, Voicu, Antal and Roth discuss the role of children in research focusing on child abuse and neglect which takes place mainly in the family. Children in this project were not simply surveyed subjects, but were involved in all stages of the research: adaptation of the translated survey, application, and interpretation of data and were offered continuous support and information. Children who disclosed being abused, but also the others received information sheets, in order to inform them on options of protection against violence. As the research topic was highly sensitive for children, one of the goals of the authors was to find out the opinion of children whether they felt comfortable with the subject and whether they felt they needed parental approval. Children reacted in detailed ways, depending on their age, but mostly they felt proud to be listened to in matters of family violence.
Looking at this journal issue as a whole, it succeeds to capture a small variety of the problematic of empowerment of children and youth, from the perspective of children’s rights framework, critical social theory, intervention research and the ecological perspective. Articles illustrate that a strengths based view on children’s rights to express their views, to participate in social action and decision making creates a richness of options for social work profession, that it cannot afford to overlook and ignore, but has to further explore and document.
Împreună Agency (2010). Final Narrative Report of the Project ”Empowering Roma Communities in Influencing and Monitoring Local Agendas in Romania. http://www.agentiaimpreuna.ro/files/wb_jdsf.pdf
Siu-ming To (2009). Conceptualizing Empowerment in Youth Work: A Qualitative Analysis of Hong Kong School Social Workers' Experiences in Generating Empowering Practices, In: International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 15, 3, 257-276, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02673843.2009.9748032
Thompson, N. (1997). Anti-discriminatory practice, in M. Davies, The Blackwell Companion of Social Work, Oxford: Blackwell Pub., 238-244.