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Complex safeguarding – a model designed for white people

Social worker Auma Acellam’s time in a police-based complex safeguarding team led her to believe the current system is institutionally racist

Published by Professional Social Work, 5 November, 2021

Over the past year there has been much in the media about the impact of the murder of George Floyd. For me personally it led me to re-evaluate my own practice, and social work’s relationship with our safeguarding partners, the police.

 At the end of 2020 I left a complex safeguarding team due to my ongoing concerns about institutional racism in this area of practice, and the sector’s inability to meet the needs of diverse communities.

Like many complex safeguarding teams my old workplace was established following one of the grooming scandals that emerged in the 2010s, where groups of predominantly Asian men were found to have been exploiting white British girls.

This was the knowledge base the sector was built around: the victims were white, the villains were people of colour and the heroes who swooped in and saved these damsels in distress were the police.

As the amazing Professor Kehinde Andrews argues, when the foundations of our knowledge are racist, whatever comes next carries those same racist imprints. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s argument for peace through democracy and international cooperation (except for Black people, who should be brutalised to keep us in line) has echoed through time into the over-policing and disenfranchisement of Black communities that we see today.

Similarly, while complex safeguarding has grown and now includes criminal exploitation and attempts to work with more diverse groups of children, the foundations of practice and the assumptions that have been carried forward have remained the same.

Despite a lack of evidence, the stereotype of Asian grooming gangs has persisted. It is so deeply embedded that when the government failed to find evidence to support this stereotype, they vowed to “improve data collection” in order to confirm that it was Black and Asian people abusing children

Like the information gathered by the government, the team I worked in found that in most cases exploitation was perpetrated by white British men. This did not stop professionals making referrals on the basis that the young person had been seen with ‘Asian males’.

While there were occasional tuts and individual challenges around language, these referrals were generally accepted. The deeply-held racism that many people feel towards the travelling community was also in evidence with referrals being made including comments such as “mother is concerned that her daughter is associating with travellers”.

It seemed that in an emerging area of practice where people are asked to name what they consider to be social risks, the racialised ‘other’ was at the forefront of many professionals’ minds.      

Beyond these incidents of interpersonal prejudice there were also issues of structural racism. The team I worked in was based in a police station, a fact which is likely to be unproblematic to most white people but immediately creates a barrier for people from racialised communities to either work in or accept support from the team.

For many people from ethnic minorities the over-policing we have experienced in our lives is one of the most visible experiences of racism we have endured. My experience of being Black and British meant seeing my male friends and family start to be harassed once they reached puberty.

I would go to carnival and see police make a separate line for dark skinned men to be searched as they entered the underground while everyone else was waved through.

Black British contact with the police is so pervasive that over 30 per cent of Black British men are on the police’s DNA database, our community radio stations complete sessions to teach our boys how to manage the inevitable police questioning they will receive in their adult lives and before I left secondary school I was aware that the police would have coded my ethnicity as IC3 if I was a suspect or a victim.

Other ethnic groups will have their own tensions with the police, but for all of us the message is clear from when we reach adolescence: Don’t get ahead of yourselves. Know your place. You don’t belong here.

Being in the heart of Babylon was not an easy experience as a Black woman. For the first three years I was in the team I managed this internally, arguing with myself about my place there, debating whether these issues were still a concern or whether I was being disloyal to my loved ones by being there.

The officers I worked with were all lovely; they made me cups of tea and asked how I’d spent my weekends. Surely these were the good guys. Maybe things had changed. Without thinking about it I kept the dirty secret of where I worked from most of my friends and family. Scared of their potential judgment I prepared my answers in case one of them found out.

I delivered interventions that were alien to the world I had grown up in. The arch-whiteness of the space meant it never felt safe for me to raise my concerns about the police. I never shared my own family’s experiences with the police or mentioned the children I had known growing up who were now men in prison following years of exploitation. My internal battle became unsustainable, however, following the lynching of George Floyd in 2020.

A colleague had warned me in the days following Floyd’s murder that there had been some defensive comments by police officers in the team. Due to the pandemic we had been working from home, only going into the office on our duty days.

On my first day back in I was a ball of anxiety and couldn’t make it out of my house. I paced up and down my hallway making excuses to go back in the house for something I may have forgotten before finally finding the courage to get in my car and drive to work.

I felt tearful walking into the police station. I sat down at my desk and then… nothing happened. We all continued as though it was another day. Police officers made me cups of tea and asked how my weekend had been. The world was shifting under my feet and no one else noticed. I got on with my work and dashed out of the office as soon as I could.

The protests started and there was a moment when I felt the weight lift off my chest. I felt hopeful and thought things might change. There was a moment when I felt heard. These feelings didn’t last long.

My colleagues all talked in the social workers’ team meeting about how wrong Floyd’s murder had been but how it was nothing like that over here. A team member referred to the peaceful protests as riots, not realising that it was exactly these stereotypes about us being violent that legitimised the state’s violence against us. I felt like a collaborator. The rest of Black Britain was out in the streets protesting against the police while I sat quietly in a police station.

I questioned whether I had been harsh and if there was actually lots of work going on in the police to address institutional racism in their ranks. But I found that not only were the officers in the team not aware of any work being done to address racism in the police, they didn’t even know who to ask.

I was advised to put in a Freedom of Information request as the quickest way to find out how the police were responding to the Black Lives Matter movement. The insanity of sitting in a police station while putting in a Freedom of Information request to find out police policies didn’t seem to register with my team.

The police took four months and an intervention from my MP to respond to my request at which point they refused to share any information. I raised my concerns with senior management. The director of children’s services contacted her counterpart in the police to ask the same question. He responded that this was an important subject and he would get back to her soon. Almost a year later he is yet to respond.

Following these experiences, it came as no surprise when a senior manager raised that they were having meetings to address the fact that “complex safeguarding simply isn’t reaching some communities”.

I pictured a room of white senior managers all scratching their heads wondering why Black people wanted nothing to do with this team, why people from ethnic minorities might be reluctant to engage with police or share their most difficult personal experiences with these social workers.

A colleague shared with me that the data analysis showed the cohort of young people we worked with were disproportionately white. This didn’t surprise me. While I was aware of some Black service users, I personally hadn’t worked with a single Black child in three years.

Articles appeared online about how ‘adultification’ of children from racialised communities was blinding professionals to Black victims of CSE and leading to Black and brown children receiving a criminal justice response, while white children received a safeguarding response when they were criminally exploited.

The serious case reviews of Child C and Chris highlighted how this lack of safeguarding response could be deadly for Black children.

What was the response in the team to these concerns? My manager emailed out the Serious Case Review for Child C and Chris and asked us to be aware. In a team meeting she committed to challenging racist language and reasserted her commitment to providing a service for all communities.

It all sounded nice but where was the action? At the same time research came from survivors of exploitation about how important professionals’ language was in understanding and recovering from their abuse. People such as Hope Daniels have implored professionals not to compound the abuse, shame and blame perpetrated by abusers by using blaming and judgemental language around the victims of exploitation.

Rightly, in response to this I was part of two training sessions in the team. Language guides were sent out and we were encouraged to share them with the statutory social work teams we worked alongside. The complex safeguarding team have since shared briefings throughout the local authority as well as offering further training sessions for professionals.

When we compare this robust response about language to how concerns about racism were managed in complex safeguarding we can see how empty these gestures really were.

During my three years in complex safeguarding practice, experience taught me that one of the biggest weapons we have against exploitation is showing people that they matter. When children feel heard, cared for and valued they feel able to trust others and feel worthy of having their needs met without gravitating back to abusive or exploitative relationships.

How can we expect children from ethnic minorities to trust professionals when their needs appear so low in our priorities? As social workers we regularly develop strategies for neglect, to support repeat birth parents or to address domestic abuse. Where are our anti-racist strategies?

I raised my concerns in team meetings. Some colleagues also wanted to address these concerns, some stayed quiet and shifted uncomfortably in their seats, a couple got their phones out and started texting.

Ultimately, however, institutionalised racism survives not just because individual workers are engaged or not, but because of how our services are designed. We can instinctively understand how a house designed for someone with mobility issues will meet their needs better than a Victorian terrace that has been adapted, yet we still expect people from ethnic minorities to engage with services which were never meant for them.

In England and Wales Black people are four times more likely to be reported missing than our white counterparts, and while these missing episodes are a key indicator of exploitation, I was not aware of any attempt to develop strategies to address these concerns while I worked in complex safeguarding.

A common feature of complex safeguarding teams is the outreach work they do in communities, inputs within schools with students, parents and with professionals to build their awareness of exploitation. I have never seen any inputs in community or faith organisations which serve minority ethic communities, and have never seen any evidence of translators being used in schools where there are a high percentage of families who speak English as a second language.

We should not be surprised then that these communities do not turn to complex safeguarding teams when they are in need. These separate sessions for people from ethnic minorities could be seen as divisive, but how else do we reach out to diverse communities?

During my time in social work, I have seen professionals who are keen to address racism as it makes sense to white people - in racial slurs and direct racist acts. What I am yet to see is an openness to addressing racism as it’s experienced by people from racialised communities.

I have worked with families where parents’ life course trajectory has been deeply impacted through the trauma of racist abuse, whether in the community or from professionals. I have worked with Black mothers who have risked having their children removed because of concerns about their aggression despite there being no concerns about the welfare of their children.

Yet unlike other forms of trauma there has been no challenge towards the perpetrators whether they are professionals or in the community, no source of therapy available for the victims and no recognition of the toll that this has taken on their lives.

Social work being entwined with our safeguarding partner, the police, remains highly problematic. I have worked with a domestic abuse victim who was unable to report their abuser as they were too traumatised to speak to the police following a direct experience of their brutality and a family from the travelling community who refused to report their child missing to police having experienced racist responses from them in the past.

This alone highlights the limitations of having social work processes linked to a law enforcement agency that perpetrates racist abuse. The social work responses to these families, however, should horrify us all the more. In both cases the parents were told they were failing to protect their children and the cases were escalated by the allocated social workers.

As social workers we would never create safety plans which pushed victims to rely on individuals who had perpetrated physical and emotional abuse against multiple generations of their family, but we routinely push service users into accepting safety plans which rely on an agency which has done just that.

It should be noted that all of the abuses that I have detailed above have been perpetrated by people who felt they were not racist and who deeply believed in our profession’s anti-oppressive values.

This, however, is the reality of institutional racism: there were no racial slurs, no hatred, no white hoods or burning crosses. There were just relatively homogenous teams who hadn’t considered that other people’s experiences didn’t match their own.      

The question then is what can we do to address these concerns? If you believe the current system can be reformed there are a number of steps you could take. Amongst other initiatives you could work to diversify complex safeguarding teams, ensuring that they have not just social workers, but also police officers from a range of ethnic and religious backgrounds and invest heavily in compulsory training to build workers’ understanding of racism and the needs of Britain’s diverse communities.

If we wanted to address bias around whether children receive a safeguarding or a criminal justice response we could complete the same proactive work sharing our understanding of adultification across local authorities and with partner agencies.

We could amalgamate the referral process for complex safeguarding and youth justice teams so that a panel who were trained in these issues could assess which was the better service for each child. If this wasn’t enough, the referrals could be seen with identifying information such as name, neighbourhood and any local gang they are associated with stripped to reduce the likelihood that a child’s racial or ethnic background could influence the response they receive.

I would go further however. Since last summer I have shared my concerns with white colleagues and acquaintances. They have frequently responded by saying they would have done more if they weren’t so busy or if they didn’t have problems of their own, that they haven’t felt able to comment as they don’t know enough about the subject and anyway some white people are poor while some people from ethnic minorities have good jobs.

The energy these conversations took was immense. I often sat quietly to regroup after team meetings or cried in my car between visits. There were nights when I was too stressed to play with my son. I went to bed early and declined video calls with loved ones as I tried to repair from the horrible realisation of just how little most white people care about Black people.

All of this has led me to the conclusion that if after everything that has happened in the past year so many white people still can’t bring themselves to engage in this topic then let them have complex safeguarding to themselves, they’ve worked hard at it and it works well for their community. Let us have a safe space for our communities, to put all of this energy into meeting our own needs and building our own teams to address exploitation.

In Greater Manchester they already have the highly regarded ACT model, a strengths-based approach to exploitation which could be used in just such a team. ACT was designed by a diverse team of social workers, focuses on the young person’s ambitions, explicitly views their communities as a strength and does not rely on partnership with the police.

Social work is a field with a high percentage of workers from ethnic minorities with almost 30 per cent of the workforce identifying as from a minority ethnic background in 2021, compared with 21.5 per cent of the UK population.

While it is conjecture at this point, I would expect many of these workers would relish the opportunity to work in a team where they can enjoy the same privileges their white counterparts take for granted such as being called by their own name and being able to get on with casework without having to first justify their presence in that space or argue for the needs of their community.

For those who feel uncomfortable with segregated services the double standard needs to be highlighted. The current complex safeguarding model has been designed for white people, by white people and far from being criticised as being divisive is being held up as an innovative area of practice.

In this context why shouldn’t Black and brown people enjoy the same right to develop services solely for their own communities, just as white people have? If these ideas feel divisive then the answer is simple. White leaders and their majority white teams need to do better. We only need safe spaces because the world can be so hostile.

The work has already been done and is waiting to be implemented. BASW have published their guide to being an anti-racist organisation, the internet is awash with guides on how to be an ally, and there are numerous webinars, books and consultancies all available to support you on your journey.

See interview with Wayne Reid, BASW's anti-racism visionary

See also Why anti-racism is needed in social work education