Around ten years ago, I read Alice Walker’s novel Meridan (1976). I was so absorbed by her description of the eponymous heroine that I would read it on the bus and be unable to put it down. I would continue to read it as I walked down the street, oblivious to other pedestrians and only missing lamp posts by chance. I was engrossed by the idea of Meridan becoming paralyzed with exhaustion every time she challenged the racist mob, how others had to carry her away and leave her quietly to lie until she had recovered. It wasn’t until last year that I understood this as more than fiction. It was the level of emotional energy required to challenge a system that many continue to deny exists.
At the end of 2020, I left a complex safeguarding team in the north of England due to my ongoing concerns about institutional racism in this area of practice and the sector’s inability to meet the needs of diverse communities. My old workplace was a multi-disciplinary team of police, social workers, parenting workers, and health practitioners. Like many complex safeguarding teams, it was established following one of the grooming scandals that emerged post-2012, where groups of predominantly Asian men were found to have been exploiting White British girls. This was the knowledge base that the sector was built around: the victims were White, the villains were People of Color, and the heroes who swooped in to save these damsels in distress were the police. As the amazing Professor Kehinde Andrews argues, when the foundations of our knowledge are racist, whatever comes next carries those same racist imprints. Kant’s argument for peace through democracy and international cooperation (except for Black people, who should be brutalized to keep us in line) has echoed through time into the over-policing and disenfranchisement of Black communities that we see today (Andrews, 2021). Similarly, while complex safeguarding has grown, and now includes criminal exploitation and attempts to work with more diverse groups of children, the foundations of practice and the assumptions that have been carried forward have remained the same.
Despite a lack of evidence, the stereotype of Asian grooming gangs has persisted. It is so deeply embedded that when the government failed to find evidence to support this stereotype, they vowed to “improve data collection” to confirm that it was Black and Asian people abusing children (Home Office, 2020). Like the information gathered by the government, the team I worked in found that in most cases the exploitation was perpetrated by White British men. This did not stop professionals from making referrals on the basis that the young person had been seen with “Asian males.” While there were occasional tuts and individual challenges around language, these referrals were generally accepted. The deeply held racism that many people feel towards the traveling community was also evident with referrals being made including comments such as “mother is concerned that her daughter is associating with travelers.” It seemed that in an emerging area of practice where people are asked to name what they consider to be social risks, the racialized “other” was at the forefront of many professionals’ minds.
Beyond these incidents of interpersonal prejudice, there were also issues of structural racism. The team I worked in was based in a police station, a fact which is likely to be unproblematic to most White people but immediately creates a barrier for people from racialized communities to either work in or accept support from the team. For many people from ethnic minorities, the over-policing we have experienced in our lives is one of the most visible experiences of racism we have endured. My experience of being Black and British meant seeing my male friends and family start to be harassed once they reached puberty. I would go to carnival and see police make a separate line for dark-skinned men to be searched as they entered the underground while everyone else was waved through. Black British contact with the police is so pervasive that over 30% of Black British men are on the police’s DNA database (Sviensson, 2012), our community radio stations complete sessions to teach our boys how to manage the inevitable police questioning they will receive in their adult lives and I was aware that I was categorized as IC3 (IC is police speak for identifying the ethnicity of a person) before I left secondary school. Other ethnic groups will have their tensions with the police. Still, the message is clear for all of us when we reach adolescence: Don’t get ahead of yourself. Know your place. You don’t belong here.
Being in the heart of Babylon was not an easy experience as a Black woman. For the first three years working in the team, I managed this internally, arguing with myself about my place there, debating whether these issues were still a concern or whether I was being disloyal to my loved ones by being there. The officers I worked with were all lovely; they made me cups of tea and asked how I’d spent my weekends. Surely these were the good people. Maybe things had changed. Without thinking about it I kept the dirty secret of where I worked from most of my friends and family. Scared of their potential judgment, I prepared my answers in case one of them found out. I delivered interventions that were alien to the world I had known growing up in Longsight during the moral panic about “Gunchester” in the 1990s (Wikipedia, 2021). The arch-Whiteness of the space meant it never felt safe for me to raise my concerns. I never shared my family’s experiences with the police or mentioned the children I had known growing up who were now men in prison following years of exploitation. My internal battle became unsustainable, however, following the lynching of George Floyd in 2020.
A colleague had warned me in the days following Floyd’s murder that there had been some defensive comments by police officers in the team. Due to the pandemic, we worked from home, only going into the office on our duty days. On my first day back in, I was a ball of anxiety and couldn’t make it out of my house. I paced up and down my hallway making excuses to go back in the house for something I may have forgotten before finally finding the courage to get in my car and drive to work. I felt tearful walking into the police station. I sat down at my desk, and then… nothing happened. We all continued as though it was another day. Police officers made me cups of tea and asked how my weekend had been. The world was shifting under my feet, and no one else noticed. I got on with my work and dashed out of the office as soon as I could.
The protests started and there was a moment when I felt the weight lift off my chest. I felt hopeful and thought things might change. There was a moment when I felt heard. These feelings didn’t last long. In the social workers’ team meeting, my colleagues all talked about how wrong Floyd’s murder had been but how it was nothing like that over here. A team member referred to the peaceful protests as riots, not realizing that it was exactly these stereotypes about us being violent that legitimized the state’s violence against us. I felt like a collaborator. The rest of Black Britain was out in the streets protesting against the police while I sat quietly in a police station.
I came out as being Black at work in June 2020. I shared with my team that I had been out protesting so that we could look at how to manage the risk of the infection. This immediately drew the ire of a colleague who insulted me in front of the team. When she was pulled up on this, instead of making a meaningful apology, she told me about how my behavior would impact her family’s ability to meet up and the impact on her husband’s earnings if there was a second wave. She helpfully informed me of how I should have managed the situation better. I knew better than to raise this with my White manager. However, she later told me that while it had been wrong for the colleague to insult me, the incident had nothing to do with race, and I needed to understand my colleague cared about her family. My manager looked surprised that I seemed hurt by her comment. You could argue that she didn’t know about my family situation, except she did. Everyone knows, thanks to the roughly annual government reports that are released and then swiftly ignored. The differential treatment through education, health, employment, and the criminal justice system that my loved ones have experienced is public knowledge. Me being a social worker hasn’t insulated us from any of this well-documented harm. While I don’t believe that anyone involved in this incident felt any animosity towards Black people, I do feel that these responses spoke to deeply embedded cultural understandings about our places in society, whose voice should be heard, and whose welfare should be prioritized.
I pushed on for another two months, grateful that I rarely had to go to the office. Then I overheard senior police officers joking defensively about how it was all the rage to complain about police brutality while another angrily asserted that it was nothing to do with them. I went home and cried, asking myself what I had been doing for the last three years. I questioned how our team could say we were against racism while not challenging the police to address evident racial disparities in their work. When I raised it with my manager the next time we were together, she again looked surprised. She told me that no one in the team was racist, but if I wasn’t comfortable working with police, they could find me an alternative working space. There was no suggestion of addressing the team’s complacency about racist outcomes or making it an inclusive space. So often when Black people raise concerns about racism we are accused of being divisive and yet here was my manager suggesting that we segregate the team on racial lines. It seemed that Black people could be on the team, if not the building.
I questioned whether I had been harsh and if there was actually lots of work going on in the police to address institutional racism in their ranks. We found that not only were the officers in the team not aware of any work being done to address racism in the police, but they also didn’t even know who to ask. My manager told me with a weary, knowing smile that I needed to understand what the police were like. I nodded quietly while the voice in my head screamed that Black people know all about the police, we know what they do, it wasn’t us that needed to understand. I was advised to put in a Freedom of Information request as the quickest way to find out how the police were responding to the Black Lives Matter movement. The insanity of sitting in a police station while putting in a Freedom of Information request to find out police policies didn’t seem to register with my team. The police took four months and an intervention from my MP to respond to my request, at which point they refused to share any information. I raised my concerns with senior management. The Director of Children’s Services contacted her counterpart in the police to ask the same question. He responded that this was an important subject and he would get back to her soon. Almost a year later, he is yet to respond.
Following these experiences, it came as no surprise when a senior manager raised that they were having meetings to address the fact that “complex safeguarding simply isn’t reaching some communities.” I pictured a room of White senior managers all scratching their heads, wondering why Black people wanted nothing to do with this team, why people from ethnic minorities might be reluctant to engage with police or share their most difficult personal experiences with these social workers. A colleague shared that the data analysis showed that the cohort of young people we worked with was disproportionately White. This didn’t surprise me. While I was aware of some Black service users, I personally hadn’t worked with a single Black child in three years. Articles appeared online about how “adultification” of children from racialized communities was blinding professionals to Black victims of child sexual exploitation (CSE) (Davis, 2019). This led to Black and Brown children receiving a criminal justice response, while White children received a safeguarding response when they were all criminally exploited (Davis & Marsh 2020). The serious case reviews of Child C and Chris highlighted how this lack of safeguarding response could be deadly for Black children (College of Policing, 2020).
What was the response in the team to these concerns? My manager emailed out the Serious Case Review for Child C and Chris and asked us to be aware. In a team meeting, she committed to challenging racist language and reasserted her commitment to providing a service for all communities. It all sounded nice but where was the action? At the same time, research came from survivors of exploitation about how important professionals’ language usage was in understanding and recovering from their abuse. People such as Hope Daniels (2014) have implored professionals not to compound the abuse, shame and blame perpetrated by abusers by using blaming and judgemental language around the victims of exploitation. Rightly, in response to this, I was part of two training sessions in the team. Language guides were sent out and we were encouraged to share them with the statutory social teams we worked alongside. The complex safeguarding team has since shared briefings throughout the local authority and offered further training sessions for professionals. When we compare this robust response about language to how concerns about racism were managed in complex safeguarding, we can see how empty these gestures really were.
This is part 1 of 2 of “On complex safeguarding’s problem with race.”