It’s Black History month and National Adoption Week – this week’s guest blog is from Esi Cathline a member of our Expert by Experience board. Esi reflects on her experience as an adopter and a foster carer and her reflections on the race disparities roundtables she sits on as part of the care review.
I came to the Expert by Experience board as a proud and fatigued Black adopter and foster carer, grandmother and teacher. And while I know the experience of the Black community should not crowd out the experiences of other minority groups, the data on the experience of Black families is clear and I want to use my voice to demand better.
My experiences as an adoptive parent are very mixed. I went from reading a headline on the front page of The Voice newspaper to embarking on one of the most life-changing and rewarding journeys of my life.
Step one was meeting an enthusiastic ‘family finding’ social worker who spent as much time as possible getting to know me and my family, and friends on a mission to complete the much-heralded Form F, to confirm my status as a good enough prospective adopter. I was then presented to the panel where I was finally approved to adopt. One of the things I remember at panel was the report of the entrusted medical adviser who thought that my weight would be a stumbling block to me wanting to become a parent again. I managed to convince the panel that I would manage my weight and be the best parent I could be and that any child coming into our ‘loving’ family would be well cared for and loved.
After what seemed a lifetime, I received the phone call from my family finding social worker – I had been approved. Then began the very long and painstaking search for our new addition.
Eventually after trawling through many Be My Parent catalogues, an Argos catalogue full of children waiting to be adopted, finally we met our daughter. She was almost two. The local authority was so keen for her to be adopted that within a fortnight of her meeting us and multiple meetings, our latest addition had moved in. Bringing with her of course all the exhaustion that comes with the toddler package – the long tiring days in the park and months of sleepless nights with hours of endless shrieking. Until one night the crying stopped – relationships were being made and trust was being established.
Fast forward to three years later and in my wish to extend our family even further I ventured into the realm of becoming a foster carer. It was not long before I was approved as a carer and introduced to a sibling group from ‘Africa’. The social worker advised that the siblings would be with me temporarily as they were going to be reunited with their birth family eventually. We’re now several years down the line and I have earned my title of Aunty.
Although the children did speak English there were a lot of vague prejudices about what they could and could not understand. I was told by their first social worker that they were not allowed to speak in any other language other than English and that I was to log and report anything ‘suspicious’ to the local authority.
The second social worker of the children was equally as vague about the needs of the children who as far as my social workers were concerned, had been placed with a black African family and therefore all their needs were being met. The fact that the local authority could not source an interpreter in the whole of the UK to facilitate contact between the siblings and their foster family did not seem to be a priority. My supervising social worker was always complimentary of the children frequently enquiring on who had done their hair and how come their hair was always so well maintained.
Once we were able to establish where the children had come from, their second language and their basic needs which largely came from information gathered from our many conversations over mealtimes or during the school runs, I was able to begin to address their individual cultural needs and interests. For example we enrolled them in an African drumming and dance group which they loved and excelled in. Offering the foster children a connection to their heritage may seem like a small thing but it has ensured they settled well and they have enhanced our family life in many ways.
It is with these life experiences that I find myself on the Experts by Experience board and volunteering to join the regular roundtables the team are convening to discuss the race disparities we see in children’s social care today.
We can name the problem because local authorities gather data on the ethnicity of children in care. Comparing this to the population of the local authorities we can see that in England, Black Caribbean and children from some Mixed ethnic groups are overrepresented among children in care and children of South Asian heritage are underrepresented. But the data doesn’t get us to the root causes and it doesn’t even start to unpick the overlap with poverty, experience of the criminal justice system, family and religious culture, or the systemic biases and prejudices that Black and ethnic minority families face.
A big challenge to surface is around the role of poverty and discrimination – is this even an issue for children’s social care or do the solutions lie in tackling these much bigger problems? But this is a review of children’s social care, so regardless of the root cause it’s important we don’t pass the buck and instead try to find solutions.
Among many things, our roundtables have considered the role local authorities play in addressing these inequalities, because we do see a variety of experiences in different parts of the country. We are considering how we ensure the voice of ethnic minorities are represented throughout the system including at all levels of social work, on fostering/adoption panels and as carers/care workers.
As the review progresses, we have been hearing from many experts in this field from academia, to professional bodies and charities as well as from ethnic minority young people, families, carers and professionals. But if you are reading this and want to contribute your experience please get in touch. As I have learned as an adoptive parent and foster carer – it’s good to talk and we can always learn more.