Creative Interventions for African-Canadian Youth and Families Involved with Child Welfare
In Ontario, the statistics on African-Canadian youth and families involved with the child welfare system are similar to those experienced by Aboriginal families and youth. Most recently, greater attention has focused on the dis-proportionality and disparities experienced by African-Canadians within the child welfare system and advocacy for examining these experiences and creating interventions to address the needs adequately. The creation of an African-centered Children’s Aid Society would help to create a holistic and family centered agency geared to provide greater prevention and family-supported programs to enhance the outcomes for African-Canadian youth in care. Starting a new path by initiating an African-Canadian Child and Family Services may best meet the needs of African-Canadian youth, address oppression and barriers within child welfare, create better outcomes for families and youth, and create greater community capacity and development.
Children in care of the Children’s Aid Society in Ontario have reportedly the poorest quality of life, which includes poor outcomes in education and career attainment, mental health success, and involvement in the criminal justice system (Rankin, 2010). The current Ministry of Children and Youth Services is well aware of the challenges facing African-Canadian children and youth in care. The Ministry has created legislation to protect our children and enhance their outcomes in care with the creation of the Ontario Looking After Children (OnLAC) and modifying the Child and Family Services Act (CFSA) to include Family Group Conferencing and greater financial support for Kinship care (Child and Family Services Act, 2016). However, these measures have done nothing to address the disproportionality and disparities within child welfare, particularly experienced by Aboriginal and African-Canadian youth and their families.
According to statistics prepared by Toronto Children’s Aid Society, African Canadian youth represent approximately eight percent of their youth in care, but only two percent of the general population in Toronto (Rankin, 2010). Other statistics for African-Canadian youth include: they are more likely to become involved in other systems such as education and youth criminal justice system (Rankin). In Ontario, anti-Black racism appears central to the involvement of child welfare within the lives of African-Canadian families. The reports demonstrate that the majority of referrals from education and police sectors are racist and discriminatory (Bonnie and Pon, 2015). Further, when child welfare becomes involved with families, African-Canadian youth are less likely to return home than other population groups (Bonnie and Pon). These systemic issues fueled by Anti-Black Racism correlates with the development of mental health issues for young African-Canadian women, such as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem (Clarke, 2011).
Once in care, African-Canadian youth are often displaced from their communities, disconnected from religious and spiritual backgrounds, placed in foster and group homes outside of their culture, acculturalization to despise their families and backgrounds, and their educational and mental health treatment needs are not prioritized within their homes (Clarke, 2011). Mental health needs for African-Canadian youth in care are not always treated holistically. The creation of four African-centered Child and Family Services within Ontario spanning from Windsor and related communities, Ottawa region, Hamilton to Niagara regions and the Greater Toronto Region will provide a different model of interventions for families, as well as changes in child welfare legislation to focus more on preventative measures than apprehension and intervention.
Program Goals and Objectives
To address the needs of African-Canadian youth and families. The creation of an African-Canadian centered child and family services agency as an alternative to children’s aid societies would focus upon addressing the systemic barriers currently inherent within the system and create better outcomes for this community.
The goals and objective include:
- Create better outcomes for children and youth in care of African-descent by utilizing best practice interventions specific to this community.
- To reduce discrimination and eliminate anti-Black racism, examine whiteness in a race-based lens, and identify oppressive components of white privilege and patriarchal system.
- To review current legislation and create greater equality in risk assessment tools and family intervention models to create better outcomes.
- Align interventions with best practice for African-Canadian families, collectivist, family centered and focus, treating mental health and difficulties, developing communal needs, addressing barriers in access, ensuring basic needs are met, greater strength based interventions.
- Reduce systemic issues such as other systems which can create barriers and criminalized youth and families and/or create barriers to successful educational attainment.
- African centered child and family services would focus on principles inherent and similar to African, West Indian and native African Canadian beliefs and values, focus on preventative programs and institutions, meet the families’ basic needs for food and shelter
- Constant examination of practices in a race based lens and development of an external advisory council which provides advocacy for children and families to ensure the child and family services practices are in best keeping with better outcomes ((Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, 2016).
African-Canadians have a history of slavery and displacement due to forced migration which effectively eroded communal living and societies and the structure of the family. In Aboriginal culture, it is suggested that their similar history would require seven generations to pass before these experiences have healed completely. The same is true for this population group. The experiences of African-Canadians are maintained by racism, white privilege and discrimination which create disparities, inequity and structural barriers inherent in policies and procedures. Some of these beliefs are centered around slavery discourse which believed that African people were limited in skills and strengths, were violent, and essentially lesser than European and white people. Furthermore, the migration of West Indian and African individuals from their home country to Canada led to further experiences of poverty impacted by racism and oppression and displacement of family structures by migration. Child welfare workers currently require an advance degree in history to fully appreciate and understand these dynamics and the intersectionality of race, gender, mental health, and sexual identity of African-Canadians. For example, an issue of contention and referral to child welfare is physical punishment sometimes used by some African-Canadian families. Many individuals are not aware that physical punishment of children began in the 1400s, was a way for parents to encourage their children not to “get out of line” in a quick way to avoid brutality by their slave owners. These belief systems have maintained because brutality against Black children have persisted, particularly now with the police. However, African-Canadian parents are misjudged for their use of physical punishment and the underlying fear and worry for their children are never addressed (West, 2008).
In Texas, the government passed a bill specifically focused upon addressing the disproportionality within child welfare. Such measures to address included: cultural competency for staff and other direct service providers, targeted recruiting of diverse staff and service providers, and greater partnership with community agencies (James, Green, Rodriquez and Fong, 2008). With the intervention of a child and family services, the focus of intervention may have similarities with the Texas model and how they were able to address disproportionality on a state-wide initiative. Initially, the focus would begin with changes in legislature and leading to changes in theory and operation through policy development.
The changes in the Child and Family Services Act (Child and Family Services Act, 2016) would recognize and acknowledge that the current Act does not create better outcomes for African-Canadian youth and families and a differential, mandated response is required to reduce dis-proportionality and disparities for this community. The change would also direct funding away from current children’s aid society in regions such as the Greater Toronto Area, Ottawa, and Windsor directly to child and family services who provide services to the African-Canadian youth and families to build community capacity and development. The legislation change would also alter the current funding formula and open cases with Children’s Aid Societies to funding prevention programs, interventions for families, and crown wards. Finally, legislation would also initiate the development of an equity office designed to monitor children’s aid societies interventions and advocate for families involved in child welfare. Once legislation permits the establishment of an African-Centered child and family services agency, the program would begin to achieve some of the goals developed above to reduce disparities within the child welfare system.
Community Mobilization: Assets & Agency Resources
Developing a child and family services agency of this magnitude and caliber to negotiate and collaborate with multi-millionaire corporations as Children’s Aid Society and the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, would undertake a large scale community mobilization which would include community initiatives such as collaborations, programs, leadership capacity, funding sources, potential partnerships, human resources and organizations.
This is discussed further below, but initially the leadership would work together to develop values and principles. These founding principles are based upon an anti-oppressive framework practice and anti-Black feminist racism and anti-Black racism. It is important to address that oppressive and racist practices which support white privilege contributed to the current human rights issue for the African-Canadian community. By acknowledging and recognizing these factors led to the issues, we can create a culture that is focused on professional practice which is ethical (McIntosh, 2016). There is an understanding that a hierarchical relationship is developed between the service user and the service provider, as defined within Mullaly’s explanation of structural social work (Mullaly, 2010). However, while we can accept this power imbalance exist, we can address the disparities by developing practices which are focused upon reducing barriers for families and their children. Anti-black feminist racism is critical to leadership development as we seek to acknowledge the intersectionality between multiple oppressions for African-Canadian men and women (hooks, 1989). Our leaders can focus on developing better assessment tools and interventions which can take this experience into account when understanding and treating the dynamics within the family unit.
As addressed in the following section under indirect intervention, the child and family services agency would focus upon developing collaborations to enhance their practice and effectiveness in the community, using a community economic development model. This would include negotiating and collaborating with leadership in other children’s aid societies across the province, with Ministry officials, and the Program Supervisor from the Ministry. The collaboration would help to improve leadership practice across the agency as a whole, as well as promote the need for and effectiveness of an African-Centered child welfare agency. There is also a collaboration with community agencies, particularly those who provide services to the African-Canadian community in various degrees from social justice programs, youth programs, health and health promotion programs, criminal justice programs, educational programs and more. This collaboration would include increasing capacity for these agencies as well as outsourcing support to assist families already involved within child welfare. This collaboration connects well with the Human Development Index which is responsible to create and support community’s healthy development (Shagged & Toye, 2006). If there is greater community collaboration, there is an expectation that the quality of life for African-Canadian families and children would also improve on a greater scale.
When developing collaborations, we are seeking to develop new partnerships which include: supporting youth-led projects and initiatives, connecting with private practitioners who specialize and treat trauma and have a core awareness of anti-Black racism, as well as the intervention would include supporting focus groups and research development. These initiatives would not only help to provide support to the community but continue to enhance efficacy and development within the agency itself (Shagged & Toye, 2006). An evidence-supported initiative currently is a strength-based youth engagement model. This model focuses upon increasing engagement with youth in hopes to build upon their competency, encourage them towards social entrepreneurship, and increase their financial and career resources (Wheeler, 2009).
Collaboration appears to connect well with program development. Through community collaboration, we can develop a well sufficient program that meets the needs of the community, is evidence-supported and based, and is evaluated. In addition to the Human Development index the community plays a critical role in developing research and programs that support and sustain African communities, as well as integrates a holistic and communal approach to interventions. We also need to evaluate the success of current programs, and continue to provide funding to these programs. Such successful programs include: Father-Mentor programs, rites of passage, drumming circles, youth-led initiatives, gender specific programs such as Nia Gwenda, Family Group Conferencing, LGTBQ2s specific groups, and HIV/Sexual Health programs geared particularly for African-Canadian youth. Other successful evidence supported programs include: narrative and storytelling, particularly for trauma-interventions, group counselling, recreational programs, mentorship programs, and after-school programs (Sutherland, 2011).
We addressed below the importance of funding to help develop and sustain the child and family services agency as well as the communities which service the agency. This is one of the indirect goals in service delivery. Another key area for community mobilization is learning from other agencies on how they manage their large budgets from the Ministry and understanding other sources of funding which may come in the form of grants and loans. Some agencies have “rented” out employees from other large corporations to come and provide on-site training and guidance for a long period of time to help build their agency’s financial department. This may be one of the strategies which would help develop this agencies assets so they can provide greater resources to the community (Shagged & Toye, 2006).
Another goal within indirect community development is building a strong workforce through anti-Black racism training and self-reflective practice. The intervention would also adopt successful models such as the Texas Model as a guide to achieve this objective. Leadership would focus upon a values-based approach from managerial to supervisors. This environment would help to create a positive, healthy learning organization where workers are provided the tools to excel in their service to community. Workers would also receive daily indirect supervision and direct supervision at minimal bi-weekly to sustain their practice in the field. In addition, workers would have the ability to collaborate and develop partnerships with other child welfare workers, lead experts within the field, and participate in training worldwide. By creating a rich environment for their workforce, the Texas child welfare system saw success with the community’s overall outcomes. These goals would connect significantly with the overall goals for reducing the amount of African-Canadian families involved in child welfare (James, et., al, 2008).
Throughout our intervention, we speak to key goals in community mobilization. In summary the organization focuses upon:
- Creating a culture that is focused on building strength and capacity within the African-Canadian community,
- Observing the family as part of a larger network which includes kin, extended family, extended community members, school, work, and more which focuses towards communal practice and a holistic focus,
- A shift away from language discourses which focus upon the families’ deficits and risks, and closer towards preventative and supportive style interventions,
- A greater awareness of and respect for the impact of mental health upon the families’ functioning and dynamics and the desire to address mental health and improve the families’ management of their health and well being
- A learning organization which emerges as international leaders in child welfare for African-Canadian communities and similar communities which experiences disproportionality
The development of an African-centered child and family services will serve as a unique model in Ontario, which hopefully encourage all children’s aid societies to shift their practice from a disciplinary agent of control to a supportive organization truly committed to enhancing safety and wellness for children and families.
Indirect Intervention: Strategies & Capacity Building Techniques
Developing a comprehensive and well-structured Child and Family Services requires time and specialized training designed for leaders within the community, as well as capacity building within the smaller agencies that provide services to the vulnerable population. With this in mind, this program would focus upon addressing barriers such as funding, capacity building and resource development (James, et.al, 2008). The first goal is addressing funding. The goal of funding is to provide access to government funds and resources to create a well-funded agency. In addition, by providing training to specific leaders in human resources and funding departments, they can build capacity for the agency to develop a comprehensive grant department and fundraising. In this way, the focus remains on government capital but also by developing assets from the community. One author writes asset building or community capital, “can directly aid local government and economic development officials as well as leading to training of community leaders in methods shown to enhance community well-being” (Crowe, 2012, p.1959). As the African-Canadian community is growing in financial and economic wealth, the agency can also build upon their resources to help fund the programs and services. A very similar capacity development is further observed with the Black Church. The Black churches in Canada and the United States has developed in a way that was able to provide social and community support to their parishioners and the community to build their economic viability (Lloyd, 1993).
The second goal is to address capacity building, particularly around developing strong leadership and enhancing training and education to focus upon historical context of the African-Canadian experiences and using a race-based lens. Leadership development in the African-Canadian community would look at cultural and historical references. The leadership would consist of individuals who hold knowledge of child welfare but who have demonstrated excellency in other areas such as economic development, business and marketing, and social development. Initially, leadership would focus upon creating and developing strong social and child welfare policies which would best service the African-Canadian community and build capacity as well as maintain a healthy workforce and create financial sustainability and growth. A value-based leadership will be effective in defining clear values and vision for the agency, as well as focus on empowerment and building capacity within community (James, et., al, 2008). In the Texas model developed by their child protection services, a value based leadership approach was effective. This approach began with defining goals and values focused upon the respect for African- American culture, creating an inclusive environment for children, provision of integrity in decision-making, compassion and empathy towards families, and commitment to identifying and reducing disproportionality within their system (James et. al, 2008). Another key area within leadership development is collaboration with community leaders to help build their capacities to address and service needs (James et. al). As an example, child and family services trainers can provide training and education to community partners on their vision and values so they can have a better understanding of how the agency conducts their activities.
In Texas, community engagement consisted of 4 structures which included: community awareness and engagement (engaging leaders, sharing information, and developing an interdependent process), community leadership (development of advisory committees, sharing information for systems improvement, and greater community partnerships), community organization (valuing and supporting collaboration between the community and child welfare), and finally community accountability (involving investment in and accountability between the community and child welfare to develop desired outcomes for families and youth) (James, et. al, 2008).
The third goal is research development, which seeks to address program development, research and evidence based best practices and program evaluation. This area speaks to changing risk assessment models that are patriarchal based to focus more on strengths and needs, to change the current language of “apprehension” to strength-based language, and to seek interventions that mitigate the need for court involvement. For example, New Zealand has developed a child welfare model similar to values of African-Canadian culture to ensure service delivery is: child centered, family-led and culturally responsive with an emphasis on strengths and evidence-based research and principles which fit with this model (Connolly, 2007). This approach focuses upon a community development model, which remains true to the holistic values and principles and utilizing the community’s current capacities.
There are barriers which may exist within the development of the African-Canadian child and family services. When Toronto developed the first Afro-Centric school, there were and continues to remain barriers to their success which include thoughts on the school promotes segregation, limited resources, availability to meet the larger community member’s needs, and negativity from community members (Reisling, 2014). Similarly, the child and family services agency will also experience negativity from community members within and outside of the African-Canadian community who do not believe a project of this caliber will become successful. There may not be legislative reform within a timely basis and/or the governments would change due to elections and policy direction change. There may not have sufficient community resources currently available to meet the community member’s needs. Training and educational development programs may be insufficient to channel change and reform within a system ingrained with anti-Black racist thoughts and belief systems. There are also limitations around training professionals in other positions such as outside child welfare agencies (such as foster care placements and organizations), police and legal services, educational professionals such as teachers and social workers, and prison guards and probation staff.
The benefits for Ontario, would lead to the development of a culturally and socially rich social fabric and greater community engagement and capacity building. This would lead to reduced numbers of youth in foster care and criminal justice systems. The reduced youth out of school and increase the rates of their educational attainment. The current rates of educational attainment are well below the national average, but compared to U.S. data it is a gross representation of the abilities and capacities of young Black men and women. In the U.S, it is reported that African-American women are the highest educated groups in their nation (Helm, 2016). Successes also include other services and programs such as: greater diversion offered to African-Canadian youth, reduction of days spent on per diem for group care facilities, reduction in days’ youth spent in hospitals and facilities with the creation of successfully and evidence-supported programs and collaborations. In addition, legislative changes would lead to macro level changes by creating more holistic focus in the CFSA legislation.
Building community collaboration, partnerships, and capacity also includes understanding what the current assets are in the community, their strengths, their service delivery and population, their funding sources, and their vision for the community. This would include sending out invitations to “Town Hall” meetings on regular basis, meeting with executive directors and leadership within community agencies, and developing written contracts and collaborative partnerships. Other initiatives to engage the community would include: sending out a “call for proposals” to encourage private and public agencies to present their agencies specific services which may support the community, connecting with spiritual leaders and business owners to offer more services and employment opportunities to community members in need, and developing a crisis line for community members to provide support on an individual basis (Mullaly, 2010).
This intervention is almost like a dream of community mobilization to create macro-level change across Ontario. But I remember that Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, and many of my mentors and leaders had similar dreams of equity for their children and future generations. Here I am with my own accomplishments built from a dream that was also instilled in generations before me.
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