Celebrating Soul Workers
The 1980s saw the start of significant developments in family finding for black children in public care in England. Following the publication of John Simmonds’ discussion paper on the importance of identity, it seemed timely to catch up with some of the pioneering social workers who identified and championed new approaches, revisit the work they did and consider what we can learn for work today. This article, written by Savita de Sousa, is based on interviews with black social workers involved in these developments over the years.
During the 1980s black social workers in England were inspired by the Soul Kids Campaign to connect with black communities to explore whether there were families who could become carers for black children in public care. These workers played a crucial role in recruitment initiatives, laid the foundations for promoting the racial identities of black children and influenced positive changes in family placement policy.
“When I worked in Hackney I soon began to notice the numbers of black children in foster care in rural areas like Oxfordshire who identified as white when they came to London. I would ask myself, what can I do to support these children?” (Jean)
Searching for a family can be a challenging and frustrating task - the kind of task that can make some professionals wonder whether they should just take a child home to live with them. After weeks of searching for a family for 12-year-old Naomi, social worker Rose happened to take Naomi to visit Jean, her manager who was at home recovering from an operation. There and then Naomi decided Jean and her husband Elridge would be her new parents.
“I think it is really nice here. I want you to be my mummy and daddy.” (Naomi)
Jean lay in her bed counting her blessings. Her operation had been successful; she had a husband, three daughters, a cat and a job that she loved. ‘We have achieved a lot as a black family and now it is time to find families for black children,’ she thought. Little did she expect that her mission to find black families for black children would bring another daughter into their lives.
“Naomi sat on the edge of my bed, she looked at me, then she disappeared with Rose to look round my house and when she came back she said I am coming to live with you. I said, who told you that. She said, ‘I did’. Naomi wasn’t going anywhere. She claimed one of the rooms in our house. So, we adopted her.” (Jean)
Jean and Elridge’s story shows how they embraced family finding at a very personal level. It represents the kind of informal networking strategies within black communities that can lead to formal fostering and adoption placements for some black children.
With so many black families successfully parenting their children, black communities were puzzled why there were large numbers of black children in public care. They also could not understand why they were not being approached to offer care for these children – historically, informal fostering within black communities was an accepted childcare service used by many. But the formality of the social work process made black people feel nervous about coming forward to foster and adopt. Their experience over many years had led to a long history of suspicion, fear and distrust of organisations. ‘Will they judge me negatively? Will my background matter? What if I don’t have a spare room? What if I don’t earn enough?’
“It is imperative that we find more black families. As a manager at Lambeth Council (in 1980), I set up a specialist unit to recruit black families – not just based on skin colour but on ethnicity. We needed more than the individual efforts of black and white workers – we needed to engage with the black communities.” (Pennie)
“The Association of Black Social Workers and Allied Professions (ABSWAP, 1983) learned that for recruitment strategies to work we must build relationships with black communities. We began at the grassroots. We went to black churches. We asked what’s on people’s minds, what kinds of help they wanted from the council before we would talk to them about the needs of black children. We organised information meetings in black churches after the Sunday service and created a network to communicate information amongst the congregations.” (Pennie)
“And, we set up a stall in Brixton market. The community would come in and be fascinated by what was on offer and were surprised to find that there were black social work assessors. We built up their confidence and ended up with many applicants.” (Aminah)
”And in the 1990s we followed in the footsteps of the ABSWAP and organised an Adoption Summit that focused on the adoption of black boys and for the first time drew together social workers, health professionals, faith communities and professional organisations to address how we could both re-reach and increase the number of black families coming forward for black boys.” (Cecile)
As a result, black churches and markets became effective in finding black foster carers and adoptive parents for black children in public care. Becoming a learning hub of black culture – of black parenting and nurturing practices - they taught black children to be proud of their heritage and how to protect themselves against discrimination.
“Knowing the Windrush generation’s history of broken attachments better and understanding black children today as part of a longer story of separation, loss and reunion is one of the ways in which foster carers and adoptive parents can help black children in care to move forward in today’s multi-racial society.” (Elaine)
“As Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) said, a people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” (Aminah)
Black social workers wanted black children in public care to have a secure forever family, but they also wanted them to be aware of what it is like to be black in a multi-racial society.
“We became social workers, foster carers and adoptive parents because we wanted to do more, especially with the black communities because it isn’t just a question for black children but for black communities as a whole. How do we help black children in public care to develop their racial, cultural, religious identities?” (Jean and Elridge)
“Time and time again I have seen black children placed with families of different racial backgrounds. Generally, these families have good intentions, but black children enter care with so much loss that puts them at a greater disadvantage. Placing black children with parents who share some, if not all, of their racial, cultural, religious heritage is one less loss that they may have to endure.” (Pennie)
“Our daughter is mixed race and so we made contact with her Italian and Guyanese birth family so that she could learn more about her racial identities.” (Elridge)
Assuming professional responsibility for the protection of the racial identity of the black child in care, black social workers devoted their professional and personal lives to the black family finding cause. They saw themselves as change agents. Across approximately seven local authorities the Association of Black Social Workers and Allied Professionals came together to lobby the government on including ‘ethnicity’ in family placement policy and practice guidance. As a social movement, they were not always unified on issues of strategy and tactics, but much of the credit for matching black children to adopters and foster carers is owed to black social workers promoting the identity needs of black children.
The 1980s was a period when black communities began to assert their rights and identities. One of the ways in which black social workers reclaimed their identities was by attempting to provide black families for black children in public care and asserting the black child’s right to a racial identity. Working to create a web of support for the black child in public care is what sustained black social workers. Their narratives reflect the networks and connections that can give rise to black communities’ involvement in family finding initiatives and show that social ties are critical for black communities and black children. They know black children depend on them. They know that black foster carers and adoptive parents need support to survive and succeed. For black social workers then, the professional is both personal and political.
“We drew strength from the strength of black communities and churches, leaning on the shoulders of our colleagues, relying on our faith and spirituality, self-help, valuing ourselves, standing up and challenging the source of the problems.” (Elaine)
Today these black social workers believe agencies should focus not only on finding families for black, Asian and mixed ethnicity children in public care, but also on preventative care. Removing ‘ethnicity’ from the current Adoption Law in England might have minimised the importance of racial, cultural and religious identities and contributed to confusion and low self-esteem for children, but “it has reinforced our resolve to provide black, Asian and mixed ethnicity children in public care with the opportunities to learn about their birth heritages with the support of their communities.” (Aminah)
“Understanding the journeys of Muslim children in the Care System in England in 2018 is a good example of a project that worked in partnership with mosques, Muslim foster carers, adoptive parents and social workers to provide an evidence base for practitioners, policy makers and communities to draw upon to improve outcomes for these children, their families and society as a whole.” (Sariya)
So what have we learned from the work over the last 30-40 years? Black and minority ethnic children are still disproportionately overrepresented within the care system. Foster carers and adoptive parents from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds are certainly able to provide secure and loving homes, but this should not devalue the special qualities of well-matched carers who also share aspects of a child’s racial, cultural and religious heritage.
The workers featured here remind us of the importance of black workers continuing to reach out into local communities, making connections, and acting as powerful advocates for children. Their hope is that organisations will review their family finding approaches in partnership with black workers groups, foster carers, adoptive parents and community representatives.