Social work has often been reluctant to recognise the part we play in the sustaining of societal injustice. We have preferred to address racism and other discrimination at a practice level. Whilst this is important, we also need to address the systemic and institutional pathways within our profession. The responsibility for working to address the harms of racism within social work continues visibly to be held by Black leaders. Yet as Tedam states,
‘If anti-racism is concerned with identifying, challenging and changing the values, structures, and behaviours that perpetuate systemic racism, then It is crucial that all social workers show commitment and are involved in this process’ (2020: 104).
In Shattered Bonds, published in 2002, Professor Dorothy Roberts wrote specifically about black children in ‘care’ in the US and the experiences of their families. Shattered Bonds demonstrates how racism and poverty function to create a ‘child welfare’ system that can is harmful to individuals but moreover causes harm to whole groups. When, for example, every pregnancy in a family is scrutinised by professionals, every child grows up understanding their family, their community, themselves as fundamentally deficient. In this way group-based harms and injuries are sustained.
The analysis Dorothy offers can be seen to apply far beyond the African American experience. Dorothy engages at the end of Shattered Bonds with the Native American experience, and with the way that child removal very deliberately contributed to the piece-by-painful piece dismantling of indigenous Aboriginal communities and culture in Australia. The argument applies to many communities in the UK today. Including Roma and Gypsy communities in the UK who have been met and continue to be met with high levels of supervision, discipline and interference from the state. Black families in the UK have suffered from insensitive and inappropriate social work responses. As Professor Claudia Bernard and Professor Anna Gupta wrote over a decade ago, ‘the complex social circumstances experienced by many African families pose challenges for parents and children, as well as professionals working to safeguard and promote children’s welfare’ (2008: 486).
The catalyst for considering Shattered Bonds as the text for a possible reading group was an exchange on Twitter that evolved into a conversation between Dr Amanda Taylor-Beswick and Dr Ariane Critchley. This arose from the crossover between Professor Roberts’ work and that of Ruha Benjamin, Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. Professor Roberts and Professor Benjamin are both critical scholars engaged with the social dimension and foundation of aspects of society. Whereas Professor Benjamin has been lauded for her consideration of technology and AI in relation to race, Professor Roberts’s work has focused on how race is constructed and racism is perpetuated within medicine, reproduction, and child welfare. Both gave a talk for Haymarket Books in July 2020, which was of interest to the team who organised the Shattered Bonds book group, since it brought together all of our different specialisms.
Social Work Book Group was chosen as the most suitable mechanism for an event that would bring social work together to discuss this book, and the issues within it pertinent to UK Social Work Education and Practice. Social Work Book Group is a collective reading group, created and maintained by Queens University Belfast (QUB) Social Work academic Dr Amanda Taylor-Beswick. Amanda notes that the Shattered Bonds event is the largest book group event to date. Social Work Book Group was designed several years ago by Dr Taylor-Beswick to share and consolidate learning between students, practitioners, researchers and academics in social work and related disciplines. Laura Farling a Learning Technologist within QUB’s Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) provided the digital expertise necessary to host an event of this size and kind. Over 200 people signed up for the event, which was planned to occur simultaneously on an audio-video platform and the Social Work Book Group book Twitter feed. Laura provided book group participants with a virtual tour of QUB, whilst everyone settled into the virtual spaces before setting off on what was an explorative and grounding learning journey.
Shattered Bonds deals with issues of racism within the American child welfare and ‘care’ system. This topic provoked lively debate and discussion before, during and after the event, with social work practitioners, students, academics and people who have life story experience in diverse settings discussing the extent to which Professor Roberts’ analysis holds. You can catch some of the key points by clicking on this link #ShatteredBonds. Essentially what participants were grappling with is the central question: is social work complicit in sustaining racist practices within society? This naturally provoked a follow-up question: if so, what are we going to do about it? This question really is at the heart of this event and this subsequent blog.
Professor Roberts opened book group with a short reading from her opening chapter; a reading that despite our physical distance, created a powerful and emotive atmosphere in the shared space. This space allowed for free discussion of the potential harms created by social work for families who are marginalised.
There are so many moving parts here in the UK, in terms of child poverty, white privilege, the past and ongoing harms of the concept of ‘Empire’ and our difficulties in facing up to these. So, the task we have in addressing the deep-set problems within social work, and especially in the child protection and criminal justice systems, can feel overwhelming. However, it is open to us to acknowledge and build on the work of Black scholars across the world, to better understand how racism, and other inequalities, are creating problems for the families we serve. As Wayne Reid has highlighted, ‘social work must continue to promote anti-racism long after the media focus on Black Lives Matter has gone.’
Black families, minority ethnic communities, and the individuals within them need and deserve safety and freedom in our society and are simply not experiencing those basic rights in relation to child welfare and criminal justice in particular, but also in relation to their access to culturally sensitive social care support when needed. No amount of anti-oppressive training of White social workers who benefit from White privilege will address this unless we are also prepared to begin to dismantle the manifestations of that privilege at a structural level. Responsibilising individual practitioners and Black leaders covers up the continuing harms of the system, and also harms them.
Given that White leadership and influence continue to dominate in social work, despite the diversity of our profession at the ‘frontline’ level, and naturally the diversity of the communities we serve, we believe this requires us to stand together. It requires us to be willing to analyse and change racist aspects of our institutions, systems, services and training. It is important to emphasise that Social Work Book Group has no political or activist agenda, beyond upholding the social work values and social justice aims defined by the International Federation of Social Workers.
Following the main Social Work Book Group event, and Dorothy’s readings, three small discussion groups were hosted to allow for reflection. The following is a snapshot of the views that emerged – which highlighted a number of significant issues and gaps research data. The argument for action is as follows:
- There is sufficient data to demonstrate clear inequalities in the UK system, and researchers in this field, most prominently the research group led by Professor Paul Bywaters are continuing to make the most of the aggregate data available to demonstrate trends in social work intervention.
- Useful comparisons are possible with the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand where further good quality research has shown inequalities in social work intervention, decision-making, and differential outcomes. Calls for change have been evident in all these contexts.
- A body of work by Black scholars, including Professor Claudia Bernard, has demonstrated how race and social class intersect in the UK social work context, showing how the structures of power operate within systems.
- Links between poverty and inequality are well established by research. In the UK we are facing major recession and the impact of this on poor families is already being felt.
- Alternative ways of approaching social work that engage with and recognise the problem of poverty and inequality have already been offered in the UK, for example within child welfare the ‘Social Model’ advocated for by a group of academics including Professor Anna Gupta and Professor Brid Featherstone is well-known within the field.
- Research funding is itself highly politicised and continues to operate in ways that side-line Black and minority academics and their work. Furthermore, much research knowledge created within the academy continues to sit behind a paywall, and is under-democratised. The research we do need is co-created research from the perspective of people experiencing social work services.
- There continue to be tangible harms involved in growing up and being Black in the UK; the harms of racism and also the harms of dealing with racism. Research into these harms is much less audible in the current practice and policy landscape.
Whilst Social Work Book Group offered a hugely valuable opportunity to connect and join together in reflection, we also shared our collective responsibility to act. Our perspective is that we have sufficient evidence to demonstrate a need for change and to provide directions for change. Certainly, we need better data, but waiting for more data only allows the problems we know exist to be sustained. We need change.
Please make a start by purchasing Professor Roberts’ book Shattered Bonds.
Social Work Academics it seems remiss of us not to have Professor Roberts’ book on every reading list across the five nations of the UK & Ireland.
We are interested to continue the conversation and welcome ideas about how we might. We are also keen to think about how as a collective we can work together better towards the changes we need to make.
Dr Ariane Critchley, Dr Amanda Taylor-Beswick, and Beverly Barnett-Jones, MBE.