What are some of the strategies for government and social institutions to better support South udanese and other refugee families experiencing family conflict and violence? First, institutions need to recognize the cultural diversity of their clients and the importance of developing and delivering culturally appropriate interventions. One of the main difficulties reported by participants regarding their interactions with Australian government authorities and social services is the lack of cultural understanding on the part of the workers. Lack of cultural knowledge and the absence of a real dialogue between parents and authorities have constrained awareness among workers of how Sudanese parents can adapt to the laws and cultural norms of their resettlement country.
Other important microlevel reforms for fostering approved and more effective parenting practices among parents in newly arrived refugee communities are cultivating a culture of trust, respect, and communication, as well as finding shared understandings through open dialogues (J. Braithwaite 2011; V. Braithwaite 1995). Real dialogue between parents and care and protection authorities provides an opportunity for authorities to explain to parents their goals around keeping children safe.
One of the important findings of this research is that many Sudanese parents do not realize that the ultimate goal of government intervention is to build safety for children. Similarly, government institutions do not recognize that the main reason for South Sudanese families adhering resolutely to their long-standing heritage’s parenting norms and practices is to keep their children and families safe. Open conversations between parents and authorities have the potential to uncover that keeping children safe and supporting their development is a shared responsibility and goal for both South Sudanese parents and care and protection authorities.
Locating these shared understandings can be an important opening for care and protection workers, while acknowledging the motivation of parents wanting to raise their children to be responsible adults would inject trust and respect between parties. Once shared goals are established, it becomes easier to broach pathways and means to achieve them. For example, authorities should confer with parents, youth, and elders to ascertain what the cultural understandings of South Sudanese families regarding children’s safety and rights are. Discussions could compare the ways in which Sudanese and Australian families keep children safe, and uncover overlaps between the different cultural understandings. Such genuine dialogue between parents and care and protection authorities is also likely to contribute to identifying parenting practices aligned with Australian family law while responding to the cultural dimensions shaping the lives of South Sudanese families. For example, in the case of the cultural practice of physically disciplining children as a form of behavior management and Australian law prohibiting corporal punishment, the differences are irreconcilable. In such instances a dialogue leading to joint understanding is the only way forward despite this creating more work for authorities.
Government authorities and agencies working with the Sudanese community need to understand the personal psychology behind the resistance of the newly settled community to adopting alternative parenting practices. Parents need to be given the opportunity to explain the reasons for their unwillingness to adopt new practices. Giving an opportunity to people to explore and express their resistance by no means weakens the application of the law (V. Braithwaite 2009). Rather, engagement with the issues, such as how the application of Australian family law would play out in particular communities, would create an opportunity to provide relevant and appropriate skills and resources to steer parents towards approved parenting practices in a supportive, rather than a punitive manner.
Another potential source of support for families dealing with intergenerational conflict is community elders and leaders. Australian-based research emphasized the importance of considering youth with refugee backgrounds in terms of their communities because these culturally complex social relationships and obligations need to be acknowledged (Cassity and Gow 2005; Earnest et al. 2007). Also, South Sudanese families have a cultural disposition towards mediation via third parties, such as elders, who traditionally have an important role in the mentoring of young people. Their traditional role, however, is not supported by Australian governmental and social institutions.
A number of participants suggested that consulting with community elders and leaders could provide authorities with a more complete understanding of conflict and violence within South Sudanese families. Involvement of community elders also could inject some trust between parties and add legitimacy to the process of government intervention. Despite their declining effectiveness, community leaders are still influential in the South Sudanese-Australian community. One of the main reasons for their declining effectiveness is their tendency for maintaining the status quo. In some instances, this also may mean tolerating measures that are abusive towards children, youth, and women in their community.
This is also one of the main reasons why government agencies and service providers often refuse to acknowledge and support their role in the community. The argument here, however, is that this is even more reason to work closely with community leaders to ensure they provide more appropriate support to families and victims of violence in the future. Community leaders should be trained about Australian legal frameworks and policy to the point where their intent and benefits to families is clear to them. Diminishing or not supporting established courses of mediation and mentoring in migrant communities only leaves a vacuum in the space of conflict resolution.
Although families and their communities are a vital source of support for refugee youth, there are other alternative mechanisms to support their resettlement process, including schools and cultivation of social networks and experiences to connect young people to their new broader social environment. These support mechanisms can become especially important when conflict within families and communities becomes severe and children need to find other support mechanisms and communities to which they can safely belong and by which be supported.
Schools can be instrumental in supporting migrant youth. They also have the potential to become an important avenue for refugee children to find out about and connect with other social institutions and to cultivate formal and informal mentoring relationships with more experienced African and other young people. Schools also can offer an avenue for engagement with parents to provide orientation and education about the new culture and the lives of children and to help reduce the accultura- tive gap between parents and children (Earnest et al. 2007). Although there have been some local initiatives, schools in general tend to have limited contact with parents or guardians in spite of the recognition that engaging parents is very important (Cassity and Gow 2005; Earnest et al. 2007). Regrettably, most schools have limited resources for taking on these additional roles. In fact, the study by Cassity and Gow (2005) found that overall the Australian schooling system is not working well for South Sudanese students, leading to poor performance and chronic truancy. In such cases other social structures are needed to effectively connect refugee youth with their broader community and social institutions to support their learning of new cultural norms and social structures.
One framework to examine mobilization of resources to build intercommunity relationships is the social capital theory. The typologies of bridging and bonding social capital by Putnam (2000) are especially relevant. In the context of this study, bonding capital can be understood as strong ties within the South Sudanese community and among South Sudanese youth. This type of social capital is high in South Sudanese- Australian communities. Bridging social capital, on the other hand, arises when people from diverse backgrounds interact together, often through a network of weak ties. The ties provide a platform for broader social networking. The power of bridging social capital lies in introducing people to new norms, opportunities, and resources. This type of social capital is relatively low in South Sudanese communities.
Even though the importance and supportive effect of bonding social capital for refugee communities is unquestioned, it is not always a positive resource and highly dense bonding capital without bridging dynamics can create situations of greater isolation from broader society (Marlowe 2013; Portes and Landholdt 1996). One young South Sudanese youth worker thought that the biggest challenge in the first year for Sudanese youth migrating to Australia is gaining a more comprehensive understanding of the range of norms and values across Australian society. But the marginal position of refugee families place refugee youth at a disadvantage as they do not possess the social, cultural, and economic capital necessary for cultivating these connections. In summary, there is an obvious need for formal programs, such as social and sport activities, designed specifically for refugees and other migrant youth groups to acquire bridging social capital.