Review in Transnational Social Review

Stand Together or Fall Apart
Professionals Working with Immigrant Families

By Judith K.  Bernhard  

This short but very informative and insightful book authored by Dr. Judith Bernard is focused on immigrant families and particularly school-aged newcomer children. According to Bernhard, who is a specialist in early childhood education at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, the primary purpose of the book “is to provide information and practical suggestions for professionals who work directly with newcomers” (p. 14). The book is divided into three major sections. The first examines the modern day realities of international migration, including new migration patterns and how they are impacting North American society, how newcomer families are treated in their new environments, and what are their daily struggles. The second section focuses on the need to collaborate with newcomer families to ensure that children and parents feel included and valued within society. The final section of the book provides positive and negative examples of intervention programs for newcomer families as well as insights from Bernhard’s inclusive research with immigrant and refugee families.

Chapter 2 establishes a strong context for the rest of the book, with a detailed examination of immigration patterns in different parts of the world. There is a concentrated focus on statistical information related to Canada. For example, Bernhard noted, “n 2006, the proportion of foreign born residents was 20 percent in Canada” (p. 21). In her discussion on immigrant children, she stated, “mmigrant children already represent the majority in many metropolitan multicultural centres such as Toronto and Vancouver (OECD, 2008). Half of the children in Toronto come from families who speak languages other than English at home” (p. 23). Bernhard’s description of Canada’s changing and increasing diversity establishes her rationale for writing the volume.

The following chapter explores the treatment of newcomers by the social and legal systems. Initially, the chapter dwells on the myths associated with illegal immigrants. As part of this discussion, Bernhard first introduces the reader to temporary foreign workers in Canada who, in recent months, have been the subjects of newly introduced federal government legislation, and then to the plight of undocumented residents in the United States. The balance of the chapter provides brief discussions on the four major challenges encountered by newcomers when adapting to their new places of residence: lack of health care, the school system, lack of affordable housing, and family separation. These separated families are described by Bernhard as “transnational” families, or “families whose members are spread geographically over several nation states and whose lives cross national boundaries” (p. 38). Some commentary is provided related to the challenges that these families encountered. However more detail could have been provided.

The emphasis in Chapter 4 is on the daily struggles of newcomers. In particular, the author concentrates on a series of environmental factors that greatly impact family function. Indeed, the details provided on these factors are ones that professionals need to explore when working with immigrant families. Having a firm understanding of their impacts is vital when developing effective interventions.

In Chapter 5, Bernard presents four theories that can contribute individually and collectively to understanding the adaptation process for immigrant families, as well as to creating support programs. Given the overall emphasis of the book on practical aspects, it is easy to comprehend the brevity of the frameworks in this chapter. If readers require more thorough explanations, the citations in the text will be helpful.

A case study on the barriers encountered by newcomer children and their parents when navigating the education system forms the core of Chapter 6. The challenges that must be addressed are illustrated through the use of mini case examples, which could be useful teaching tools for students in the helping professions. The salient message stressed by Bernhard is the need for the development or adaptation of assessment models currently used in schools. Implied in her message is the fact that failure to move in this direction will result in the continued discrimination and labeling of migrant children by the education system.

The importance of professionals identifying existing and potential strengths of newcomer children and their families is stressed by Bernhard in Chapter 7. The most important contribution is the presentation and discussion of the Benson Assessment Framework, which contains a list of factors or “assets” required for healthy child development (p. 74). Two primary types of assets are described: external and detailed. The author maintains that it is imperative for professionals to work with immigrant families to facilitate the development and utilization of strengths as a way to enhance family well being.

The comparison between two types of intervention designed to address the challenges encountered by immigrant families is the focus of Chapter 8. This analysis has implications for human service professionals in thinking of ways to assist newcomers. The first type of intervention Bernhard presents is entitled “Parents on the Side,” which is characterized by the following attributes: (1) professionals who determine programs goals based on their expertise and (2) parents left on the sidelines with limited power and strengths that are not utilized. The second type of intervention, described as “Parents are Equals,” actively involves parents in the decision-making process of programs designed for their children and themselves. Bernhard maintains that these types of interventions utilize the strengths of newcomer parents, which in turn should facilitate their empowerment.

In Chapter 9, Bernhard chronicles some of the programs she has developed to enhance the integration of newcomers into Canadian society. The success of these initiatives is clearly articulated by the author in terms of the value and importance of genuine parental involvement in school-based programs with their children. The examples provided by Bernhard strongly reinforce the dominant theme of utilizing the strengths of immigrant families. Although not specifically addressed by Bernhard, professionals must also be aware of the particular strengths of transnational families. For example, the support that newcomers may receive from relatives living elsewhere could be integral during their settlement into and adaptation to Canadian society.

The concluding chapter provides a series of principles for service providers to consider as they conceptualize and develop interventions for immigrant families. This content is consistent with the author’s goal of providing practical information for practitioners who work with newcomer families in Canadian society.

Chapter 5, which contains a brief summary of four theoretical frameworks, could have developed these further. Given the increased interest in transnational families, this is another area in the book that could have been stronger. For example, more commentary on both the short and long term impacts of family separation could have been provided. However, in summary, I would definitely recommend this book for professionals who work with immigrant families, as well as for undergraduate students in professional schools such as psychology, social work, early childhood education, and public health nursing and who have aspirations to work with newcomer communities. The strategies and examples on how to work with immigrant families are based on practice knowledge and research. Hence, they serve as solid foundations from which practitioners can contribute to the health and well being of immigrant children and their families. - Reviewed by David Este (University of Calgary) for the Transnational Social Review

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