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From fleeing Pinochet to Children's Commissioner for Wales

Rocio Cifuentes speaks to PSW ahead of starting her new role

Rocio Cifuentes

Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 12 January, 2022

Rocio Cifuentes arrived in Wales as a baby, her parents having fled torture and repression in Chile. Her father, Jose, has written about that time, how he was imprisoned, beaten and electrocuted by soldiers after General Pinochet came to power in 1973.

"I came to Wales as a one-year-old with my parents,” Rocio says. “My Dad was tortured and imprisoned, and all of our lives were at risk.

“The regime was taking babies from non-supporters, and placing them with families who were more sympathetic, so we were all in danger.”

Rocio’s father and mother Maria Cristina had both studied to be social workers and under Salvador Allende, the country’s first socialist leader, their early careers were flourishing.

“Allende’s socialist government was very progressive, and my parents worked directly with communities, living alongside the people they helped in the slums.”

Then everything changed, and the young family became a target for Pinochet and his murderous regime, who persecuted those on the left. In the 17 years of dictatorship that followed, 3,000 people were killed or went missing.

The support given her parents after they fled was instrumental in shaping all of their futures.

“With help from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, my parents were given places in Swansea to continue their studies" Rocio continues. “I was very young so I don’t remember Chile, but I do remember growing up in Wales, in a very happy family. My parents were fortunate in that after they graduated they found employment.

“My father, who had started out in social work and then teaching, became an educational psychologist. And my mother also worked as a social worker and teacher. And so at home, these were the ideas and values and principles that were talked about. My early learnings in life were about solidarity, helping other people, treating people equally.”

Rocio has established a strong track record in working to protect the rights of children, young people and the wider Black, Asian, and minority ethnic community in Wales. She established the Ethnic Minorities and Youth Support Team Wales (EYST). Before that, she worked for the Council of Ethnic Minority Voluntary Organisations, Swansea Young Single Homelessness Project, Gower College and Swansea University.

She says: “I have spent the last seventeen years leading the EYST, which I built from scratch.

“We have 70 staff and a whole range of services supporting people from ethnic minority backgrounds, including refugees and asylum seekers, which is my own background. Our work entails supporting young people with a wide range of different needs, education, employment, some of them very vulnerable.”

The need to foster understanding among different communities has been at the core of her work: “We have been a bridge for people. In our line of work, we call it culturally sensitive support, and in real terms it means that we employ a diverse multi-ethnic team who bring their experience and expertise to roles, enabling them to support individuals, but also the professionals around children.”

Rocio is keen to address any fears that she is only concerned with issues facing ethnic minorities and won’t be championing white Welsh children in her new role.

“I’ve also worked in other settings as a teacher when I first graduated, and in youth homelessness. Some people may wonder if I understand the needs of white Welsh children, and I’m confident that I do. I worked with young people who were homeless and have set up projects to tackle racism and far right extremism. The root is poverty, vulnerability, and unmet needs - these are similar regardless of ethnicity.”

Child poverty will be the main focus for Rocio in her role as children’s commissioner.

“We need to urgently address the growing inequality gap - this will be my key overarching concern. It includes a lot of things - the worrying levels of child poverty - 31 per cent and rising - how the pandemic is impacting on children, how children who are already vulnerable are finding their situation is far worse.

“The pandemic didn’t create poverty, it exacerbated and worsened it, and it made us more aware of it. Every crisis brings opportunities, and it’s essential that we have a sense of urgency from politicians, policymakers and government.

"We must ensure that children’s lives aren’t detrimentally impacted, so the pandemic doesn’t adversely affect life outcomes. This is an opportunity to galvanise action.”

Rocio praised social workers and other key workers who have kept services running through the most challenging of times, and called for greater recognition of their work.

“Positive work is being done in schools, in the third sector, and in social work where people are working flat out in under-resourced conditions as they have done for decades. We need to see stronger recognition of the importance of frontline workers - anyone working with children and young people is an essential worker. We saw early acknowledgement of their work in the pandemic, but we need more consistent support.”

Placing children and young people at the heart of shaping services is also important to Rocio, who added: “I’d like their voices to be stronger. There is more we can do with children and young people to shape their futures - there are signs of greater involvement in shaping services but it shouldn’t be ad hoc or temporary.

“The risk is it isn’t meaningful because these inputs are isolated from the larger political framework.

“There is much more, for example, that schools and local government can do to progress the idea of children as young citizens. In Wales we have the Youth Parliament and the lowering of the voting age to 16, which is very progressive. The new curriculum is designed to empower young people as global citizens, but the resources haven’t always been there, and children in Wales have pressing day-to-day needs. They experience food poverty, they have mental health worries, might be looked-after children, or vulnerable in other ways.

“Their basic needs have to be fulfilled first and that is about tackling food poverty and the current crisis in the cost of living.”

When Rocio takes up her role in April, millions of families across the UK will be about to receive a hike in household bills that for many will be catastrophic. As food banks prepare for a dramatic increase in demand, Rocio says: “Politicians talk about child poverty and how to tackle it without talking about poverty per se.

“There are some levers at the disposal of the Welsh government in terms of mitigating the impact of the energy price rises and I would encourage the government to use every available lever at its disposal. There are various funds, such as the discretionary assistance fund (DAF), and we need to make sure that families know the funds are available and how to apply for them.

“We also need to support the third sector to reach these vulnerable groups, including social workers and all those who work with children and young people.”