Date: 7 October 2021

Within our sector there is renewed attention on the ways in which racism impacts on children, families, communities, practitioners, and our organisations. Many of our members are progressing work on holding ‘critical conversations’ about difference and power to help develop practitioner confidence in addressing inequalities and developing cultural sensitivity.

Racism is a structural phenomenon and requires us to engage directly with lived experience and organisational cultures in order to effect systems change. This paper details an example of work which seeks to effect systems change and to progress anti-racist practice in the family justice system.

Quality Circle was set-up by Nicola McGeown (Principal social worker for East Sussex) and Martin Downs (Barrister at 1 Crown Office Row) to address inequities in the family justice system through discussion, engagement with lived experience and the dissemination of evidence informed practice. The organising committee now includes a range of professionals from across Sussex and is supported by a Parent and Young Person Panel made up of people who have experienced the family justice system. Quality Circle also receive extensive assistance from the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory.

The first circle was held in November 2017 and has met every other month since then, moving successfully online during the pandemic. More than 150 practitioners, academics, lawyers, magistrates and judges regularly attend sessions. In July 2021, the session focused on developing anti-racist practice in the family courts. The session began with a conversation between Dad E (a father from Africa with recent experience of court proceedings) and Millie Kerr (lead practitioner for anti-racist practice in Brighton and Hove Council). The attendees then shared thoughts and feelings in a wider discussion.

I’m a black dad. This is just my experience and what I felt. At the beginning of the hearing, I had what I would call a poor engagement with how I was related to, as a black dad. I had issues in terms of clarity, in terms of communication and engagement with the lawyers, with the technologies and with the lack of time given to my perspectives. This is my thought. There was no time to think. At the end the outcome it was awesome. Because I was lucky. I was lucky to have my daughter with me.

We learnt about the many ways Dad E encountered and then had to counter racist assumptions about inherent black male violence, absent fathers and punitive African parenting. This was work he had to do before being treated as a fellow and equal human being in the courts.

There seemed to be a perception about Dads, they seemed to believe that Dads weren’t serious. They asked me are you sure you won’t be hitting your child? Africans hit their children a lot,how do we know you won’t hit your child? Lots of scenarios around immigration, too many, some of these scenarios were not appropriate they could make people give up. I felt the scenarios were not designed to keep you involved. The system seems to be prompting Dads to run away. It doesn’t seem to care about the Dads, how they feel about their children, what they think. Both parents should be spoken of equally.

Dad E spoke of his initial confusion at encountering assumptions that had no basis in his own life, culture and experiences. His was a story of intersecting discriminations across dimensions of race, ethnicity, social class and gender. Practitioners, academics, lawyers and judges were led through one man’s lived experience of the English family court system in 2021. As Lore Riedel (Partners in Change Manager for Brighton and Hove Children’s Services) commented ‘this was a hard listen’.

Dad E described his struggle to understand and be understood, his constant sense of there being ‘no time’. We heard about rushed encounters with counsel, with court officers and social workers; of appointments hastily arranged (which clashed with his work commitments), of having to make decisions quickly and without full understanding. We were gifted moments of breath-taking understatement as Dad E noted that, ‘it was quite challenging to be relaxed’. We were invited to engage with the psychological and relational impact of a system ‘under immense resource strains and a statutory requirement to make the most far-reaching and life-changing decisions in public law cases within 26 weeks’.

I was working at the time and my solicitor would ring me at 4pm in the evening and say we have a hearing tomorrow morning at 9am and a lawyer has been assigned to you. Then I would expect a call. The lawyer would not ring until 20 minutes before the hearing. I would just be listening attentively to try and work out what is happening.

In a passionate response, a senior judge expressed his anger at Dad E’s experiences and his fears about equitable access to justice in a besieged system. He noted the absence of basic and fundamental processes including a carefully planned meeting at the beginning of proceedings and 'ongoing and careful attention' to understanding throughout the process. Interlinking themes of time, attention and work emerged across the discussion. Attendees talked about what an anti-racist court would look like, and the work needed independently and collectively to drive forward progress. As one lawyer noted ‘We must pay attention through deep listening and curiosity, this is ongoing work’.

Dad E went on to describe how, although overall he was grateful for the care his daughter received in foster care, there were frustrations arising from his daughter moving from one set of family values to his own. He felt she was given too many gifts and material rewards and this had created difficulties. There was a strong sense that closer, careful attention must be paid to the granular detail of supporting a child to move from foster care to a parent. The importance of deep listening and curiosity was also highlighted by Dad E as he spoke about his attempts to connect with his daughter and the complexities of building a family across cultures.

African men talk loud. My daughter thought that I was shouting and she was frightened. I have had to work out the sensitivities she has and help her understand my culture. She points out when I’m too loud and I have to listen to her. But we have got to the point of awesome – I have my daughter.

We were challenged to pay close attention to ourselves and to each other. As one practitioner remarked in the chat function – the Quality Circle attendees experienced something akin to a master class in human endeavour. And in a timely reminder that this was a real and live situation, Dad E had to leave us before our discussion to collect his daughter.

Key themes and learning included:

  • Start with the person: We must pay attention to the individual experience through deep listening and curiosity. This takes time.
  • Importance of staying alert to the nuanced connections between race, class and gender.
  • Consider additional support for families from communities who experience racism.
  • The immigration story is important but should never be approached through a deficit lens.  
  • We need to directly challenge the term ‘absent father’ and to instead question how all men can be supported to engage.
  • The need for a carefully planned meeting at the beginning of proceedings and the need for ongoing and carefulattention to understanding throughout.
  • Planned appointments should always be made well in advance of hearings and for a sufficient duration to enable proper discussion.
  • Counsel should be carefully chosen and at an appropriate time in advance.
  • Informed action: Familiarity with the processes for challenging racism - overt racism is a hate incident and should be processed as such.

Quality Circle members are now working to develop a practice guide and a strategy towards anti-racist practice in the family court.

 

Dr Louise Sims, Kinship Care and Fostering consultant, CoramBAAF

 

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