Cultural competency with African-Canadian youth and families in child welfare

Cultural competency for African, African-Canadian, Caribbean and West Indian families is a critical piece of understanding which facilitates connection and understanding a unique and special group of people. Cultural competency is a phrase often utilized in facilities who work with individuals from varying ethnic groups. The dominant culture acknowledges that they in part reinforce privilege and power through their position and culture, and recognize that successful intervention is one that incorporates a person’s cultural and social dynamic. This cultural dynamic informs their world view, their perspective, their connections with others, their experiences both past and current and their context for their actions. By understanding this dynamic, the service provider can increase their success in supporting the service user to meet their outcomes. Operationalizing cultural competency is equally significant in child welfare considering the wealth of Black youth who are reported in the care of a Children’s Aid Society. Cultural competency is an education process which incorporates practice as well as training. There are distinct changes which need to occur to allow child welfare workers to truly understand how culture impacts their youth.

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Recently, I addressed with a child welfare worker that the youth placed in a different cultural home than her own, was having difficulties with the match. Immediately, the worker commented, that the cultural match was not the major issue. With a greater awareness of how culture impacts a youth’s position within their lives, child welfare workers can recognize that it is a central area and once the culture needs of the child is met, they will begin to achieve stability in their lives. This stability, is similar to cultural competency and is the point where the “work” can begin with therapeutic alliance, therapeutic relationship, and change.

To achieve cultural competency in a child welfare setting, I am suggesting the following interventions and recommendations:

  1. Cultural competence begins with a conversation. The conversation does not begin with, “what are your cultural practices?” This question alludes that the youth is knowledgeable about their practices and it assumes there are differences. It can be a defamatory separating the youth as the “other”. In dominant discourse, the dominant culture views the group from the different ethnic culture as the “other”. The other is the lesser, the uneducated, uninformed, and unworthy group in relation to the dominant culture. The question is not best served and reinforces stereotypes.
  2. Start the conversation with asking the youth to describe their days, what does their mornings look like, what kinds of food would they eat for breakfast, who would make their breakfast, who would be present in the morning to greet them. Then, focus upon other areas of their day. The goal is to develop a perspective on the informed practices which created their daily existence. At the same time, look for indicators of attachment capacity, support systems, resiliency, and strengths as well as areas for concern and follow up.
  3. Youth who lived with grandparents, especially grandmothers have a unique sense of belonging and nurturance which is not easily replicated in foster homes and in group residential homes. One girl I worked with boasted about her grandmother as though she was a treasured jewel. From the way her grandmother made the home smell with her cooking, to pressed shirts and linens, to carefully packaged lunches, and the warmth of her embrace, children who lived with grandmothers were always well blessed. In the years as a therapist, child welfare worker, and foster parent, grandmothers have consistently played a role in the lives of African-Canadian youth. While it is not always possible to re-create this connection for youth in their foster homes, it is essentially important to understand how this relationship was significant for young people and develop strategies to build gaps. For a foster parent from a different culture, this may entail making lunches which suit African-Canadian youth. This is not always sandwiches, but warm lunches as an example.
  4. Storytelling is a major part of African-Canadian youth and culture. Storytelling was the way for the elders to pass down language, traditions, moral values, and lessons to the younger generation. I remember many days sitting in between my mother’s legs as she combed by hair, and told me stories about her life, her experiences and people she knew, and belief systems she adopted. This has not changed for the past generations. Young people’s homes I visited which were led by grandmothers, also told me stories about their lives and their children’s lives. As foster caregivers, staff team members, and child welfare workers, learning the stories of the youth in your care is critical in being able to align with them and gain their connection with you.
  5. Acknowledging and understanding the history of oppression which exists for African-Canadian peoples. This history consists of slavery and genocide which originated from the 1400s, manifested in the 1600 and 1700s, and persisted until the 19oos. During this time, the cultural, social, and economic fabric of African people were disrupted, dismantled, terrorized, and discredited. However, this reality does not appear to be impactful for the dominant culture to fully grasp. Comments such as, “there is no racism” or “why don’t they get over it”, dehumanizes a large group of people who will continue to experience the impact of slavery for at least seven generations. As foster parents, caregivers and child welfare workers it is your responsibility to understand the context of the youth’s experience by researching history, the youth’s family history, and the factors which led them to their current place. This is adopting a new perspective and looking at the youth with a greater sense of compassion and empathy.
  6. My daughter recently had the privilege of visiting Masai people in Kenya, on the continent of Africa. During her time there, a video was posted where the youth from the village sang a welcome song for the youth who came from Canada. It was amazing! This 6th point is very simple, African culture is vibrant, it is exciting, it is rhythmic and it is healing. This is replicated in music, in festivals such as Caribana and Caribbean festivals, church events in African-Canadian churches, and more. To deny youth from African heritage this privilege of connecting with their inner soul which guides their healing.
  7. Respect is a significant piece of African- Canadian culture. Even before slavery, a hierarchy existed amongst people which helped to disseminate knowledge, language, culture, social norms, and more. The elders, both females and males were revered and treated with respect. They were referred to as, “elders”, “aunties” or “uncles”. When a child of African-Canadian heritage enters into a home, it is expected such respect is also paid to the adults within the home. Youth should not refer to adults by their first name, and to establish this practice is to degenerate the relationship between the elder and the youth. This disrupts African-Canadian culture. Youth continue respect in alternate ways such as:
    1. Greeting adults and others they see within the home and often times in the community
    2. Helping elders in the community, from opening doors for them to helping bring bags within the home.
    3. Young people should not be heard… is a common belief system that has been adopted over the years. Instead, youth are encouraged not to challenge their elders but rather engage them in discussion when appropriate. This can be in congruent for child welfare workers who encourage youth to speak their mind, even though it can be disrespectful.
    4. Not to swear to adults or raise their hand to an elder.
    5. Not to engage in negative behaviors in the presence of adults or have another adult tell your specific elder about your behavior.
  8. Physical discipline has commonly been believed as an integral part of raising African-Canadian children. There are many benefits and risks to incorporating physical discipline in parenting strategies. To make a blanket statement that physical discipline is effective or all African-Canadian households use physical discipline is inaccurate and inherently maintains the stereotype. Many non-African-Canadians use physical discipline with their children. Physical discipline is not illegal nor is it a reason for apprehension under the Child and Family Services Act. Intake child welfare workers who assess risk towards a child need to be discerning as to the “intentions” and “state of mind” of the adult parent or caregiver who used physical discipline with the child, instead of resorting to the mindset that this is abuse. After 400 years of slavery and such mentality, African people used physical discipline as a way to reinforce the need for their children to comply with structure and order which consisted in the unfair system of slavery. It was a way elders taught children and youth how to survive slavery. Similarly, white slave owners, abused their power to use physical force to subjugate and control African people in slavery. While we know this, this “slave mentality” continues to exist. Education and knowledge has informed better parenting practices for African –Canadian families, but some families continue to use physical discipline. It is important for workers, foster parents and staff members not to transfer their own ideals about physical discipline and its effect upon African-Canadian youth without truly making an unbiased assessment on how this impacted youth. For myself, and youth I have known, they did not see this as abuse and rather learned to demonstrate respect for their caregivers. Some youth have used the foster care system to retreat from the possibility of punishment by their parents, and it is important for workers to take this in within their assessment. Teaching parents how to use differing approaches to parenting, besides physical discipline is much more effective than apprehending children from their families or unnecessarily involving police in a non-criminal act because the worker has transferred their own feelings onto the situation.
  9. Systematic oppression occurs when the systems that help to develop culture, education and more within society has created inequities for groups of people. African-Canadian youth experience systematic oppression and inequities in the system. As foster parents, child welfare workers and staff team members it is critical that this lived experience is acknowledge and critically analyzed throughout involvement with the youth. It is important to advocate for youth in systems where there is significant inequality such as the educational system, criminal justice, child welfare, employment equity and mental health services. It is insufficient and negligent to assume these services are always working in the best interest of the youth. I ask this question every time I engage with a service provider for my youth I work with and those I service. Child welfare workers can become quick to take a professionals opinion without understanding their context for their position and not critically analyzing the information within their assessment. As an African-Canadian parent if a professional is stating that my child has an Anxiety Disorder and I do not believe this is the case, I will go to another professional for a second opinion. I am mistrustful of professionals because I know that professionals are privileged, they are in a position of power, and they may not have a full contextual understanding of race and culture and how that impacts my child. Expect that the African-Canadian parent also feels the same way and will question the child welfare workers intention in treating their child. The child welfare worker needs to become cultural competent in that they do not engage in a battle with the parent, but follow their instructions and seek an alternative opinion. It is a form of disrespect to dismiss this experience to the African-Canadian parent, individual, and even foster parent caregiver and only increases the disconnection with the service provider. If they do not agree with the assessment or recommendations, trust their gut and follow up with an alternative plan.

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