The difficulties of meeting the ethnic and cultural needs of children and young people whose background you do not share

By Mary Winters

Mary Winters was for some years a residential child care worker. She now works as a legal assistant with a law firm and is training to become a solicitor. and hopes to specialize in child and family issues.

Date Posted: December 15th 2012


The difficulties of meeting the ethnic and cultural needs of children and young people whose background you do not share.



When I was a residential child care worker I was concerned about meeting the cultural needs of the children I met within my workplace. I was still interested in this subject but since I’d left my post in the children’s home it has not been so much on my mind because I sensed it had become a less urgent matter and people seemed much more relaxed about it. I took this as a sign that in general for this particular aspect of life in our society, ‘things were getting better’ but the whole matter was brought alive for me again by a newspaper report I read recently which suggested that the subject had once more become a hot issue.

The report mentioned that the Coalition government’s education minister, Michael Gove, had criticised local authorities for the “outrageous” practice of denying a child the chance of adoption because of a misguided belief that all children must be matched with parents of the same race.

Expanding on his view, Mr. Gove, who himself was adopted at the age of four months, said: “One particularly sensitive element of the matching process is, as you all know, matching by ethnicity, which is much more complex than simply race.

“I won’t deny that an ethnic match between adopters and child can be a bonus. But it is outrageous to deny a child the chance of adoption because of a misguided belief that race is more important than any other factor. And it is simply disgraceful that a black child is three times less likely to be adopted from care than a white child.”(Michael Gove cited by Watts, 2012).

I was surprised to find I had ambivalent feelings about this. Despite the use of extreme words like ‘outrageous’ and ‘disgraceful.’ I found myself wondering if in fact he might have a point. Far better perhaps that a child has a good family now than have to wait for one which is a good ethnic and cultural match. Yet that view seemed to run contrary to what I felt I had fervently felt and had learnt about the care of children in a children’s home.

The children’s home I worked in, although not a therapeutic community did underpin its work on psychodynamic theorists like Melanie Klein and Donad Winnicott and we were given training in how to put these theories to some practical use. One of the consequences of this was that I wrote an essay in which I very weakly related the psychoanalytic theories of introjection and identification to my relationship with a young man in the children’s home, Ben, who was black and British and from a Caribbean background. I am white but like Ben I was born and raised in England. What follows is the text of my original essay. I hope it will at least be of interest to those who need to think and feel about cultural and ethnic matters as they relate to the care of all children.

I am aware that making a direct link between the care of children in a children’s home and the care of children in adoptive families may not on many levels be valid but it seemed to me that their may be some areas of common concern.

Readers will be immediately aware from my observations and my stereotyping reflections that this is the writing of an inexperienced residential child care worker.

In the essay I hoped to show how the theories and concepts of identification and introjection helped to give me a better understanding of the cultural needs of young people in a children’s home. They did indeed give me more insight, but much more relevant was what I found out about my relationship with Ben, the young man I was nominated to keywork in the children’s home.

The Cultural needs of children and young people in a children’s home.

This essay is about my relationship with a young man called Ben. I met Ben in the children’s home I work in which was situated in a London borough. Ben, who is of a black Caribbean background was 15 years old when I met him. Ben came straight to us from a secure unit where he had spent the previous three months because on a number of occasions he had assaulted his mother and siblings. As well as this he had committed other petty crimes.

I was assigned as Ben’s keyworker. He was my first keychild since I had been at the children’s home so I felt both nervous and excited about meeting Ben for the first time. I wondered what he would be like and what he would think of me. The thing I remember which struck me most about meeting Ben was the lack of eye contact he gave to me and other people. He seemed to be anxious when in the group of other young people and the staff. He was very shy and without the social skills that would help him feel part of the group. What also stands out in my mind is that when I first had opportunities to be with him on his own and I asked about his family or his friends or about how he was feeling, he would assume that my curiosity about him had an ulterior motive. It didn’t seem to occur to him that I was only interested in him.

Ben’s mother had been ill for a number of years and she suffered severely from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME). A consequence of this was that since the onset of her condition for most of the time she did not have the strength to care for, or control Ben. She was also not able to keep the home clean and tidy. Ben seemed to resent his Mum for this, and perhaps because he was the eldest child and perhaps because his Dad had long since left the family home and was never around, Ben tried to deal with this himself by criticizing his mother and trying to become the discipline keeper in the home. His father occasionally ‘phoned the family home promising Ben that he would visit but he never did. On the few occasions he talked about this Ben was angry and bitter because he thought things would be a lot better for him if his Dad was around.

In the children’s home he found it very difficult to accept warmth from the staff and certainly as I began to try to form a relationship with him he found it difficult to trust that I cared about him because I wanted to. He found this – and to an slightly decreasing extent he always did – difficult to accept. My concern for him and my interest in him appeared to surprise him when I tried to make conversation with him about his life and family. When I did so he became defensive and he would be dismissive of me.

Even towards the end of his stay with us (he lived in the home for just over a year), Ben found it difficult to express his feelings and kept me at arms length and outside of his emotional space. It was as if he didn’t want to be seen. Other things made me think this more and more. For instance when he first came to the children’s home we found that Ben would drape items of clothing over the light shade in his bedroom. Ben said he did this to block the light out and he said that this was, “OK€ because it was what his mum did at home to block the light out.” This made me feel very sorry for Ben, for two reasons. Firstly health and safety regulations wouldn’t allow us to permit Ben to drape the light in his bedroom at the children’s home. Secondly I thought that keeping out of the light was another way he isolated himself. I would have liked to have gradually weaned him off this and I suppose idealistically I thought I could encourage him “into the light” but because of the regulations we had to do it immediately and so it was just another thing which confirmed Ben’s notion that our world, my world, just wanted to control him and force him to do what it wanted him to do. So this did nothing to dispel his lack of trust in me or other adults.

Given Ben’s reluctance to accept me into his social and emotional space I found it extraordinary to see that his lack of trust in adults was seen most clearly in his relationship black women in our staff. He was consistently verbally aggressive towards them. He appeared confused and angry if they stood their ground when he made unreasonable requests of them. I imagined that he found this hard to deal with because for so long he had felt that he controlled his mum. Over the months I came to see that he was much more emotionally involved with these women than he was with me. Again I assumed that this may have been related to his relationship with his mother. On the rare occasions when he talked about her, he spoke in derogatory terms, saying she was useless.(I remember him doing this after he’d had a short and angry telephone conversation with his Mum). I took the view that he had for so long controlled her by frightening her to the extent that she felt she could no longer stand up to her. As a human being, as much as I was a residential worker I was concerned and anxious about Ben’s lack of love or affection towards others. I was aware that his mother had been so wrapped up in her own unresolved emotional issues as well as her poor health that she may have had little left to give him in demonstrable love and affection. I thought Ben’s abusiveness towards others suggested that he had suffered some form of abuse in the past and his Mum told me that when Ben was a younger child he had been bullied by an older boy for a considerable period of time and when I heard this, my fantasy was that, in the absence of any other elder male figure to model himself on, Ben’s adoption of a bullying attitude may have been something he had introjected from the young man who had bullied him (*n1). Ben’s Mum went to the police to complain about the older boy, who subsequently threatened her and his siblings to the extent that Ben’s Mum dropped her charges against him and stopped the case going to court. Ben’s Mum told me that it was after this event that he started to become violent towards her. I still wonder if it was at this time Ben had begun to lose trust in his mother and to identify(*n2) with the control the young man who had bullied him had exercised. In any case in the first few months that he was with us at the children’s home he seemed not to be able to express real feeling except when he was angry.

John’s behaviour and his mannerisms often made me feel useless. As far as our relationship went he kept a distance from me. His verbal abuse towards me as well as his silences could make me unliked and worthless. He often used his cultural background and his ethnicity to tell me I was ignorant about anything he might need and that I was a racist. Although in the intervening years I have come to belief that there are racist elements in all of us, I saw myself at that time as an idealist and to be called racist did upset me. I also thought that he put these objections to me as a barrier to stop us relating to one another. When I suggested this he would say that this confirmed that I was racist. Other white staff were also labelled by him as racists particularly when they tried to persuade him to attend the school room which was available for children who did not currently attend mainstream school. He would say they were racist because there were some other children in the house who were also not attending school. It did not seem to count for Ben that we also tried to persuade other children who were reluctant to attend school to join the teacher in the school room. To try to solve this matter I asked the manager of the home to talk with Ben. My manager was, like Ben, from a black Caribbean background. Ben listened to the manager and he began to attend school room. It was clear that Ben had respect for the care manager and could identify with him.

If we were alone and there was nobody around to witness it, John began to talk to me a little more. We would discuss food and he would tell me about the Caribbean food he liked. I told him I didn’t know how to cook the food he was telling me about but when I said I would try to cook it for him. Ben said to me,”No, it doesn’t matter,”and that he would not be around at mealtimes. John’s appetite was poor at the best of times and not being able to feed him I felt once again inadequate as well as naive and uneducated. I was beginning to realise what I was dealing with here much more complex than I had persuaded myself.

At the same time I tried to persuade Ben to walk out in public with me but he was very reluctant to do this. Eventually he did agree to go shopping with me but Ben found this very difficult. He was very anxious throughout our expedition and walked well ahead of me. We briefly managed to have a conversation about some shoes in a shop window he liked but this moment of relaxation ended suddenly when Ben felt people were watching us and he distanced himself again by walking in front of me. When we got back to the children’s home Ben told me that he could not walk with me because he did not want to be seen with a white person because people would know he was in care. It had never occurred to me that Ben could feel so exposed and isolated. Not because he was black, but because he was in care, and people would recognise this because he was black and I was white. It began to dawn on me that I was just as exposed and isolated and certainly did not have the insight to take in how complex working with young people whose cultural background was so different from mine.

I knew Ben’s needs were different from children of other ethnic backgrounds and they were also completely different from mine and I began to wonder why I had been asked to be Ben’s keyworker. There were other staff who seemed far more suitable to be Ben’s keyworkere than me and when I asked about this it turned out the reason I was asked to do it was because it was expedient for the staff. All the other staff already had keychildren and as a new member of staff I did not have keychild. Such can be the fate of children and staff in children’s homes.


My inadequacy in meeting Ben’s needs was underlined on reading that, ‘there is a need for specific training in the care of ethnic minority children to ensure competence at the basic level of physical care'(Dwivedi,1996). I have thought long and hard about this and it has made me wonder if I, as a white female worker could ever have given Ben what he needed from a keyworker. For me Dwivedi’s recommendation would not be enough. I would need training in the social, emotional and cultural needs of these children and even then I am not sure that I would know and understand enough. Ben left us when he had reached the age of 16 years. His local authority felt he no longer needed residential care. Despite my limitations I believed he still needed the support of my colleagues in the children’s home who shared his ethnic and cultural background and I watched how their relationship with him gradually drew him in and engaged him. He was even getting on better with me. He is now living in a hostel for young adults which has one member of staff there for 8 hours a day. I think he needs more than this. Postscript It’s not to my credit that I lost touch with Ben when he left the hostel to stay in a flat in another area, but I hope that my rather meek essay does get over a message that we should not deny the problematic issues that arise for children who are placed with adults of a different ethnicity and culture whether that placement is a children’s home a foster family or an adoptive family.


n1. Sigmund Freud cited in Emotional Growth and Learning by Greenhalgh (1997) defines ‘introjection’ as an unconscious process by which a person takes in attributes of other people into him/herself and that these attributes become installed as a part of his or her inner world. This is an important mechanism for growth since it is through the introjection of good objects such as the capacity to make a loving relationship that the person can develop as sense of being a lovable and loving person.

n2. Sigmund Freud cited inEssential Psychology by Davenport (1998) introduced the concept of ‘identification’ as the unconscious process by which a child takes on the attitudes and ideas of his or her parents. In this case John had no role model, his father was absent and his mother seemed unstructured and ineffectual and it may have been that he ‘identified’ with the control which the young man who bullied him seemed to have.


Davenport, G. (1998), Essential Psychology, 2nd edition, London, Collins,

Dwivedi, K. (1995) ‘Stress in children from ethnic minorities’ in V. Parma (ed) Coping with Stress in Children, Aldershot, Athena

Greenhalgh, P. (1994) Emotional Growth and Learning, London, Routledge

Watt, N. (2012) ‘Adoption of children from different races to be made easier’ in The Guardian, 23rd February 2012