A study, published this week by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, has found that independent, community-based support groups offer victims of racism a sense of empowerment and a validation of their experience that they are not finding from other agencies, such as the police, housing departments or racial equality councils.
However, these support groups are struggling with constant funding crises and are unevenly spread across the country. The study calls for government recognition of the work of the racial harassment support sector, a long-term funding strategy and the introduction of national guidelines to enable caseworkers to receive accredited training.
Groups such as the Newham Monitoring Project (NMP), The Monitoring Group, Southall (TMG), Birmingham Racial Attacks Monitoring Unit (BRAMU), Support Against Racial Incidents, Bristol (SARI) and the Leeds Racial Harassment Project, strive to provide support and assistance to victims of racial harassment. Each organisation runs teams of caseworkers who advocate on behalf of victims and offer emotional and practical support. But their work is hampered by a perennial lack of resources.
Kusminder Chahal, who led the research, said that interviews with victims of racist harassment revealed that they felt disempowered, lacked knowledge of what could be done and were fatalistic about the chances of change. But, the intervention of a caseworker gave victims the confidence to make a stand. Victims feel that the caseworker is the first person to provide ‘an understanding, non-judgemental service that helps to validate their experiences. These projects offer assistance, knowledge, guidance, reassurance and representation that is very welcome.’ The relationship which the caseworker offers is more ‘compassionate’ and ‘human’ than that which resulted when reporting incidents directly to the police.
The result is that the victim is empowered. The feeling that their experience is being taken seriously helps victims overcome their sense of isolation. The knowledge that a dedicated service is available to them at any time helps them gain confidence. And the assistance of the caseworker, advocating on their behalf, leads other agencies to respond more effectively, as weight is added to the victim’s complaints.
“She knew how I felt, you know, what prejudice is like… how much it pains. It was the first time I felt somebody was listening…” – victim of racist harassment
But the demands put on caseworkers are currently overwhelming. They can often be managing eighty cases at any one time and there is little sense of professional development. Caseworkers themselves need recognition, argues Chahal, for what is an important and demanding job, which carries an inevitable emotional strain.
Most of the groups in this sector have long struggled with funding issues. NMP which, along with TMG, pioneered this kind of work in the 1980s, almost ceased to exist in the mid-1990s when Newham Council withdrew funding. The group now operates with two full-time caseworkers.
The Monitoring Group, which has six full-time workers, has recently had a large chunk of its funding cut, putting at risk one of its caseworker posts.
Earlier this week, the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) announced that it is withdrawing a funding package from the Liverpool 8 Law Centre, Britain’s only independent black law centre and a provider of support to victims of racial violence. The CRE had a deficit of £5.2m in its own funds last year and has received a warning from the Home Office about its financial management.
One group which is growing successfully is SARI, which has expanded rapidly over the last couple of years and now operates with eighteen staff members.
A number of groups believe that they have suffered funding cuts as a result of political criticisms they have made of local authorities, which have also been their funders. According to the Rowntree study, the withdrawal of funding by local authorities in this way ‘is essentially a strategy to close the project’.
Local authorities have also attempted to establish their own projects, accountable directly to the local authority. But, the research suggests that ‘mainstreaming’ the work in this way can jeopardise the independence of community-based projects, which is the basis for the unique service they provide. Although some of the projects studied in the research were based in a local authority, the reason why they are successful, according to Kusminder Chahal, is ‘because they also hold to a commitment that the victim comes first and that as victims they have a right to be offered appropriate and accurate information about their rights’.
Groups such as NMP, TMG and BRAMU have a history of combining casework with political campaigning on behalf of the communities from which they sprung. And it is the question of political campaigning which divides the groups currently working in the field. Some see ‘high-profile’ political campaigning as a distraction from casework, while for others it is an integral part of their organisation’s ethos.
NMP and TMG have also adopted clear principles about ‘partnership’ with other agencies. Both, for example, do not sit on panels with the police, as they feel this would compromise their ability to independently represent victims of police harassment.
The issue for the future will be whether the demand for professional recognition of the skills of caseworkers will lead to a loss of the very values which, the Rowntree research suggests, are crucial to the sector. The research recommends that as well as providing adequate funding streams, national guidelines for caseworkers should also be developed to identify good practice. And there should be a national accredited qualification for caseworkers.
But, the first step in developing the sector will be the creation of a national network of caseworkers. The study envisages that such a network could disseminate information, develop mutual support structures for caseworkers and provide a much-needed champion for the unique service that the sector provides.