This is part 2/2 of “On complex safeguarding’s problem with race” by Auma Acellam. You can find part 1 “a Black woman in Babylon” here.
My three years of experience in complex safeguarding practice has taught me that one of the biggest weapons we have against exploitation is showing people that they matter. When children feel heard, cared for, and valued, they feel able to trust others and feel worthy of having their needs met without gravitating back to abusive or exploitative relationships. How can we expect children from ethnic minorities to trust professionals when their needs are so low in our priorities? As social workers, we regularly develop strategies for neglect, support repeat birth parents, or address domestic abuse. Where are our anti-racist strategies?
I raised my concerns in team meetings. Some colleagues also wanted to address these concerns; some stayed quiet and shifted uncomfortably in their seats, and a couple got their phones out and started texting. Ultimately, however, institutionalized racism survives not just because individual workers are engaged or not but because of how our services are designed. We can instinctively understand how a house designed for someone with mobility issues will meet their needs better than a Victorian terrace that has been adapted. Yet, we still expect people from ethnic minorities to engage with services never meant for them. Nationally, Black people are four times more likely to be reported missing than their White counterparts (White, 2021). While these missing episodes are a key indicator of exploitation, I was unaware of any attempt to develop strategies to address these concerns while I worked in complex safeguarding. A common feature of complex safeguarding teams is the outreach work they do in communities, doing inputs within schools with students, parents, and professionals to build their awareness of exploitation. However, I have never seen any inputs in community or faith organizations that serve minority ethnic communities and have never seen any evidence of translators being used in schools where there is a high percentage of families who speak English as a second language. We should not be surprised then that these communities do not turn to complex safeguarding teams when needed.
During my time in social work, I have seen professionals keen to address racism as it makes sense to White people – in racial slurs and direct racist acts. I am yet to see an openness to addressing racism as people from racialized communities experience it. I have worked with families where parents’ life course trajectory has been deeply impacted through the trauma of racist abuse, whether in the community or from professionals. I have worked with Black mothers who have risked having their children removed because of concerns about their aggression despite there being no concerns about the welfare of their children. Yet, unlike other forms of trauma, there has been no challenge towards the perpetrators, no source of therapy available for the victims, and no recognition of the toll that this has taken on their lives. Social work being entwined with our safeguarding partner, the police, remains highly problematic. I have worked with a domestic abuse victim who was unable to report their abuser as they were too traumatized to speak to the police following a direct experience of their brutality and a family from the traveling community who refused to report their child missing to police having experienced racist responses from them in the past. This alone highlights the limitations of social work processes that rely on an agency that perpetuates racist abuse. Still, the social work responses to these families should horrify us all the more. In both cases, the parents were told they were failing to protect their children and the cases were escalated by the allocated social workers. As social workers, we would never create safety plans which pushed victims to rely on individuals who had perpetrated physical and emotional abuse against multiple generations of their family. Still, we routinely push service users into accepting safety plans which rely on an agency that has done just that.
It should be noted that all of the abuses that I have detailed have been perpetrated by people who felt they were not racist and who deeply believed in our profession’s anti-oppressive values. This, however, is the reality of institutional racism. There were no racial slurs, no hatred, no White hoods or burning crosses. There were just relatively homogenous teams who hadn’t considered that other people’s experiences didn’t match their own.
The question then is what can we do to address these concerns? If you believe the current system can be reformed, there are a number of steps you could take. Amongst other initiatives you could work to diversify complex safeguarding teams, ensuring that they have not just social workers, but also police officers from a range of ethnic and religious backgrounds and invest heavily in compulsory training to build workers’ understanding of racism and the needs of Britain’s diverse communities. Suppose we wanted to address bias around whether children receive a safeguarding or a criminal justice response. In that case, we could complete the same proactive work sharing our understanding of adultification across local authorities and with partner agencies. We could amalgamate the referral process for complex safeguarding and youth justice teams so that a panel trained in these issues could assess which was the better service for each child. If this wasn’t enough, the referrals could be seen with identifying information such as name, neighborhood and gang stripped to reduce the likelihood that a child’s racial or ethnic background could influence the response they receive.
I would go further, however. Since last summer, I have shared my concerns with White colleagues and acquaintances. They have frequently responded by saying they would have done more if they weren’t so busy or if they didn’t have problems of their own, that they haven’t felt able to comment as they don’t know enough about the subject and anyway some White people are poor while some people from ethnic minorities have good jobs. The energy these conversations took was immense. I often sat quietly to regroup after team meetings or cried in my car between visits. There were nights when I was too stressed to play with my son. I went to bed early and declined video calls with loved ones as I tried to repair from the horrible realization of just how little most White people care about Black people. Despite this, the team continued to win awards and my manager got promoted. They were excelling in all the areas in which they were assessed. Yet no one had thought to include in their evaluation whether the team was exclusionary to Black people or seemed to feel it was a problem.
All of this has led me to the conclusion that if after everything that has happened in the past year so many White people still can’t bring themselves to engage in this topic, then let them have complex safeguarding to themselves, they’ve worked hard at it, and it works well for their community. Let us have safe spaces for our communities in order to put all of this energy into meeting our own needs and building our own teams to address exploitation. In Greater Manchester, they already have the highly regarded ACT model, a strengths-based approach to exploitation that could be used in just such a team. ACT was designed by a diverse team of social workers, focuses on the young person’s ambitions, explicitly views their communities as a strength, and does not rely on a partnership with the police (It’s not okay, 2021). Social work is a field with a high percentage of workers from ethnic minorities, with almost 30% of the workforce identifying as from a minority ethnic background in 2021, compared with 21.5% of the UK population (HM Government, 2021). While it is conjecture at this point, I would expect many of these workers would relish the opportunity to work in a team where they can enjoy the same privileges their White counterparts take for granted, such as being called by their own name and being able to get on with casework without having first to justify their presence in that space or argue for the needs of their community.
For those who feel uncomfortable with segregated services, the double standard needs to be highlighted. The current complex safeguarding model has been designed for White people, by White people, and far from being criticized as being divisive is being held up as an innovative area of practice. In this context, why shouldn’t Black and Brown people enjoy the same right to develop services solely for their communities, just as White people have? If these ideas feel divisive, then the answer is simple: White leaders and their majority White teams need to do better. We only need safe spaces because the world can be so hostile.
The work has already been done and is waiting to be implemented. Wayne Reid with BASW have published their guide to being an anti-racist organization, the internet is awash with guides on how to be an ally, and there are numerous webinars, books, and consultancies all available to support you on your journey. Wayne has also written some more practical ideas for social work organizations to consider in an article published by Make it Plain, “Social work is institutionally racist – here’s how we fix it.”