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Social care as activism?: Decolonising Child Protection

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To celebrate World Social Work Day 2021, and in recognition of the Zulu philosophy ‘Ubuntu’ this year’s WSWD theme, Vanessa Bradbury explores social care as activism; challenging and opening reflection for what decolonising social care can mean. Situating our current system within the wider backdrop of colonial legacies, this piece invites critical reflexivity, consciousness, and an energy towards intersectional and collective solidarity.

Vanessa Bradbury is a Research Assistant with the Contextual Safeguarding Team at the University of Bedfordshire, currently working across the National Scale Up Project and Beyond Referrals. Her background and research focus has centred largely around exploring 'well-being' in policy and practice, research ethics, decolonisation, and Indigenous rights.

As a Filipina/English woman with a background in anti-colonial and Indigenous rights, I think a lot about how decolonisation can translate to social care and child protection. Working in the context of England – the epi-centre of the Empire – these questions become even more pertinent. If decolonisation is the repatriation of Indigenous land and life (Tuck and Yang, 2012), and the shift to celebrating a plurality of knowing and being, what would that mean in the UK? I start from a reflective point to urge a consciousness of how the colonial past is embedded in the present - woven into the fabric of today's institutions, politics/policy, seeping into practice.

It’s important to first look at the impact of colonial legacies in social care systems in British post-colonial settler nation states. In what is now known as Canada and Australia, for example, the “stolen generation” and the “sixties scoop” represent the thousands of Indigenous children who were forcefully removed from their families and communities, and placed to live with white settler foster families. This was under the guise that Indigenous youth would be separated from their culture, and assimilate into the dominant settler society. Underlying that, were assumptions around the inferiority of Indigenous culture and knowledge; that Indigenous families were not able to take adequate care of their children, leading to the attempted erasure of culture for assimilation into white European ideals. Indeed, there is still evidence that such harmful underlying assumptions continue today, with New Zealand’s (another subject of British rule) children’s agency ‘uplifting’ babies from their Māori mothers at birth. Over a century since ‘post’-colonialism, and Indigenous youth, amongst Black and other minoritised ethnic young people, continue to be disproportionately and over-represented in child welfare systems (see for example, Cenat et al, 2020; Ontario’s Human Rights commission report; the Family Matters report regarding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people; and the Māori Inquiry into Oranga Tamariki).

What does that tell us about the deep-rooted nature of colonial legacies? Whilst these ‘post’-colonial nations have diverse experiences, they share the similar constraining force of systems built on Eurocentric values and service delivery. A heady mix of individualism, universalism for one-size-fits-all interventions; the perpetuation of deficit narratives; and a seemingly punitive system that intervenes in the lives of individuals, rather than the social-structural conditions of harm.

Similarly, the over-representation of Black, disabled and minoritised ethnic young people in the British social care system prompts the need for critical systemic introspection. What threads these similar numbers together across these diverse contexts – numbers that represent real, meaningful consequences to the lives of young people, their families and communities – is the profound and ongoing legacy of Britain’s colonial past.

How exactly do these legacies shape the power dynamics intrinsic to - and subsequent perceptions of - race, (dis)ability, gender, sexual identity, age, wealth/poverty/class, and well-being related to our practice in the UK? ‘Self-care’ and keeping ‘yourself’ safe from harm remains the dominant narrative over collective care. Trauma-informed responses continue to centre individuals, rather than holistic notions grounded in community. On a systemic level, addressing harm seems to focus more on punishment, rather than healing and restitution. What are the consequences of a system set up to seek out “troubled families” rather than the wider social and structural circumstances that lead to harm? Though our system is built to protect, are tones of assimilation (towards White British norms and values) reflected in regulations, policies, practice? Is the information we collect about young people proportionate, or about “watching over”, or even maintaining control?

When we say we are creating safety, safety for whom/from whom?

Is it for, for example, residents who hold harmful perceptions of teenagers, of

racialised young people, or of both? How do we understand this in the

context of young people’s rights and needs?

Are we, as practitioners, given permission to name and challenge the underlying social conditions of abuse?

If not, why not?

Do we feel uncomfortable to voice and challenge these inequities?

If so, why so?

Unpacking the layers of complexity is uncomfortable work, especially when well-meaning interventions have unintended consequences. But, let our discomfort be a call to action. When we feel constrained from achieving anti-oppressive practice, let that be a sign of the power dynamics that underlie and sustain the “colonial order of things”.

Against the wider backdrop of these colonial legacies, it is possible to challenge how merely recognising social care’s complicity, and including culturally responsive and ‘alternative’ approaches, is not enough to address the fundamental power dynamics that lead to harm. Such a response only continues to centre the dominant system. We need to learn, unlearn and re-imagine what the future of social care can look like. It is therefore vital that we feel we can both name, challenge and intervene with the social-structural conditions of abuse; and listen and learn from the young people, families and communities impacted.

My own experience of learning from Indigenous communities has highlighted that a fierce resistance to the harmful nature of Eurocentrism can be met with an ethics of care – holistic, reciprocal, culturally connected, collaborative (see for example, antidotes to white supremacy, and principles of Kaupapa Māori). Indeed, we can see how Contextual Safeguarding leans toward similar values, challenging the interconnections and interactions of not just individuals, families, and communities; but the ‘voice’ of more-than-human space and place, too. (How does a stairwell, a park, a hallway, embody its own agency? How do we understand and intervene with this in our practice?).

Decolonizing social care is more than just anti-racist practice. It necessitates an understanding of how systems of oppression (capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy) have their roots in colonialism, intersect and form the basis of contemporary institutions and professions; including social work. It necessitates a willingness to re-energise, dismantle, and re-build our current system. As well as a continuous curiosity to question, and reflect, how one has come to know, and practice in the world. We must “look back to walk forward”. As social care practitioners, students, and academics we embody the possibility for transformative justice. On World Social Work Day, we must accelerate social work’s advocacy on social justice, but see this as part of a wider project of intersectional solidarity.

Posted: 24 Feb 2021

Author: Lauren Wroe

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