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2002 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 7, No. 3
June 2002

Working with First Generation Latino Families


Editor’s Note: Special thanks to Union County DSS for sharing the information and providing direction for the development of this article and this issue of Practice Notes.

As stated earlier in this issue, nearly two-thirds of the current North Carolina Hispanic population is foreign born. Given this fact, it is highly likely that many of the Latino parents you will be interacting with as a child welfare worker will be first generation.

To enhance your ability to support these families and protect their children, this article will explore common first generation Latino attitudes about authority, discuss issues that may come up in your work with them, and offer suggestions that will help you build trusting, constructive relationships with Latino families.

Views of Authority

First generation Latinos’ views of authority are influenced by their experiences in their countries of origin, by Latino cultural norms, and by their experiences here in America.

Although conditions differ among and even within countries, authorities in many Latinos’ home countries can be extremely punitive and corrupt. Because attracting the attention of the authorities can have such negative consequences, people learn not to seek official help, even if they have been victimized or are in need. This tendency is further reinforced by the Latino cultural norm of familismo which, because of its emphasis on ties to and reliance on relatives and friends, makes people reluctant to go outside their family or community for help.

Some Latinos have also had negative experiences of authority here in the U.S. If they or a family member are here illegally, Latinos may shun authorities because they fear deportation. There also have been reports of Hispanics who have been arrested for minor offenses but spent days or weeks in jail due to the lack of translators or attorneys who speak Spanish.

Latinos may also have negative encounters with their employers or landlords. Many of North Carolina’s Spanish-speaking immigrants come as agricultural workers, and in that capacity are subject to low wages, unsanitary conditions, toxic chemicals (herbicides, pesticides), and fraud on the part of employers. If they are undocumented, speak no English, or are simply unaware of their rights, Latinos can exploited by landlords and other businesses.

All these things, taken together, can cause Latinos to fear and distrust authorities and to assume that people in positions of power do not respect them or their culture. This attitude towards authority may be responsible for missed court appearances or other appointments.

Overcoming Common Barriers to Intervention

Distrust of Authority. Distrust of authority figures is a significant barrier to child welfare intervention with Latino families. Yet it is not a concern unique to Latinos, since most families involved with DSS are distrustful and resentful of initial attempts at intervention. Workers can overcome this barrier the same way they overcome it with other families—by being open, warm, and clear about their objectives. Knowledge of and comfort with Latino culture are also tremendously helpful in overcoming this barrier.

Lack of Cultural Awareness. A worker’s ignorance of Latino cultural norms and values can be a serious obstacle to child welfare intervention. For example, personal rapport and relationship to others—especially family members—is cherished among Latinos. Yet someone unfamiliar with Latino culture might look at Hispanic families and label their relationships as codepedent or enmeshed (Grayson, 2001). Similarly, a worker might see reluctance to discuss family matters with an outsider as guilt or resistance rather than as an expression of familismo. If one is unfamiliar with a culture, there are limitless opportunities for miscommunication and misunderstanding.

The key to overcoming this barrier is self-education. To familiarize themselves with Latino culture, workers should ask Hispanic coworkers, friends, and clients to help them learn about Hispanic culture. As a secondary approach, they should seek out books, music, movies, and cultural and community events.


Language is another significant hurdle for child welfare agencies. To overcome this barrier, they need certain resources, including:

  • Translators. These professionals translate documents, write client materials in Spanish, and read materials from different countries. Translators must be well-trained in the nuances of the language, culture, particular Hispanic country, etc.

  • Interpreters. These individuals communicate verbally with clients. Their job is to convey information without changing what the interviewer says. Interpreters unfamiliar with the discipline of interpreting or with child welfare work may interfere by interjecting their own biases and observations into discussions.

  • Bilingual staff. If they are fluent, bilingual staff have a clear advantage over interpreters in that they have a much better understanding of child welfare work and the agency’s role in the family’s life.

  • Bicultural staff. These are agency employees of Spanish-speaking heritage, individuals who bring with them an understanding of the homes of the Latinos in the community—what their experiences are, what they feel when DSS knocks on their door.

Many believe that an agency cannot adequately address the issues of the Latino population by simply translating forms and hiring interpreters. To do this, agencies must employ bicultural staff. As one CPS supervisor explained: “I don’t know what it feels like to be first, second, or third generation Latino. You can employ people to translate and to be interpreters, but you have to have at least one person who is almost an in-house consultant to help you with that.”

Family Hierarchy and Gender Issues. In traditional Latino families there is usually a clear hierarchy where the head of the household is the oldest male. This person ultimately makes all important decisions for the family. Especially during the initial contact, if it is appropriate and consistent with agency policy, child welfare workers should ask to speak first with the head of the household. Explain your role and the purpose of your visit to this person and, if you wish to speak with other members of the household, ask this person’s permission to do so.

If the child welfare worker is a woman, she may have a great deal more success in her interactions with the male head of the household if she treats him deferentially—for example, by letting him ask many of the questions. At issue here is the head of the household’s dignity and, by extension, the dignity of the entire family.

If a child welfare worker disregards hierarchy she may experience delays or difficulty working with the family. For example, the mother may say, “I have to talk to my husband about this.” This is not a stalling tactic, she really must consult her husband. Or the mother may fall silent, stymied by the social worker’s failure to involve the father.

Joining with the Family

  • Avoid assumptions. Take the time to find out about each family’s beliefs and values.

  • Show respect. Try and talk to the male head of household first. Obtain permission from him to speak to other family members. Be particularly respectful of the elderly.

  • Actively engage the father/head of household by asking for his opinion/decision. You may wish to say, “Senor, we need a decision from you, we need your help.”

  • Be clear and be yourself. Be genuine, frank, firm, and polite.

  • Learn Spanish. Simply making an effort is a sign of respect. A good beginning would be to learn to say "Hola, como está? Me llamo . . ." ("Hello, how are you? My name is . . .").

  • Speak clearly, but not loudly (Latinos speak Spanish, they are not deaf).

  • Recognize the importance of family. Devote the time and energy necessary to meet as many members of the family as you can. Be ready to help families maintain their traditional family system, even in the face of great obstacles.

  • Don’t let language or cultural differences throw you off from what you know about helping people.