On declining parental agency and institutionalized forms of parentification: narratives of changing parenthood among refugee families and social workers in collective reception centres

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Kaat Van Acker Odisee University of Applied Sciences and KU Leuven, Belgium

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Katja Fournier Odisee University of Applied Sciences, Belgium

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Dirk Geldof Odisee University of Applied Sciences and University of Antwerp, Belgium

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Over recent years, the number of refugee families with children fleeing to Europe has increased. Although reception centres in Europe are not equipped to host families with children, families nevertheless remain for extensive periods in these collective centres, where they lack autonomy, privacy, certainty and often even a sense of security. Drawing on 123 interviews with parents (58), children (38) and social workers (38) in nine collective reception centres in Belgium, we analyse how the Belgian asylum regime impacts refugee parents’ capacity to fulfil parental roles and responsibilities and social workers’ relationships with refugee parents. Our analysis points to a complex combination of declining parental agency yet increasing responsibility on behalf of refugee parents across different parental roles and responsibilities. This in turn leads children to take on what are typically considered ‘adult roles’, raising concerns about parentification among social workers. By introducing the term ‘institutionalized forms of parentification’, we call for a re-politicization of social work with refugee families. Moving away from common approaches to family relationships that focus primarily on the individual or the family system, our findings draw attention to the impact of social spaces, policies and cultural value systems.

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Kaat Van Acker Odisee University of Applied Sciences and KU Leuven, Belgium

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Katja Fournier Odisee University of Applied Sciences, Belgium

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Dirk Geldof Odisee University of Applied Sciences and University of Antwerp, Belgium

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