By DEBORAH GOODMAN
As the largest Children’s Aid Service in Ontario, with approximately 40 per cent of the youth in care identifying as Black, the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto has for 20 years been on a journey of learning and listening to our stakeholders regarding what culturally specific services are appropriate, meaningful and sustainable. These stakeholders include Black youth in care, their families, CAS staff, our foster and kinship parents, Toronto’s Black leaders, our community partners and the Black community – all have helped guide the services we have developed to date. They also have informed us on what culturally specific services should, could and must be offered going forward. The initiatives listed below represent the start of our journey into providing culturally specific programs and services to the Black community. More can and should be done and we ask Toronto’s Black community to join us in this planning.
As Maya Angelou wisely noted, “when you know better, you do better”.
Cultural Programs for Black Children & Youth In Care:
- Nine times over the past 15 summers, 25-30 Black youth in care have had an opportunity to go on a fully funded week-long expedition to sites that have historical, academic and cultural significance to the Black experience. These trips dubbed SoulJourney, have travelled to the Underground Railroad, Africville in Nova Scotia, Detroit, Washington DC, New York City and just this past summer – Alabama. The youths’ evaluations of these experiences have been overwhelmingly positive about the impact of these trips on their lives.
- Black History Month Celebration: a range of activities takes place throughout February, including an annual celebration of the Black culture, food, music and dance with 250-300 participants. Each year two Black youth in care receive a special Achievement Award for effecting positive change in their lives.
- Kwanzaa Celebration: involves 75 youth in care, foster parents and staff honouring African cultural traditions, food and beliefs.
- Caribbean/African Cultural Cooking Workshops are offered frequently throughout the year to youth in care, ages 13-17, to learn cooking skills specific to their culture.
- Youth Dance Program: is a program specifically for Black youth in care.
Beautiful Hair, Beautiful Me: is a program that provides hair care services and Black hair care products to many Black youth in care from across the GTA, as many are placed with caregivers who are not familiar with the hair needs of Black youth.
Cultural Services for Black Families:
- Resource Fair for Black Families: annually offered and aimed at attracting 300 families across the three Toronto CAS branches, the fair details the services and supports available in their respective communities.
- Ujima House: this service is only for families that identify as Afro-diasporic (e.g. African, Caribbean) and are involved with Toronto CAS where the father of the child is involved in access with their child. Evaluation findings show the fathers’ report an improved understanding of how to best communicate with their child(ren) and how to be a better co-parent, resulting in improved confidence in their parenting abilities.
- African-Caribbean Canadian Enrichment Program: Millan & Associates provides parenting and family support to Toronto CAS involved Black families living in Toronto. First-year results show promising findings such as improved communications between parent and child; as one youth noted, “we learned to be a family again”.
- Community Consultations: In 2014 and 2015, Toronto CAS management participated in a series of consultations with Black African-Caribbean community members to hear about their experiences and issues with child welfare, with a plan to make decisive changes in the way the Black community is served.
- Committees: Toronto CAS has created a number of cultural committees that have been tenacious advocates and effective leaders in continually moving us forward in our thinking, practices and policies: the Black Education Awareness Committee , the Black African-Caribbean Canadian Committee , the Anti-Oppression, Anti-Racism Steering Committee, and the Bridging Diversity Committee.
- Training: Mandatory anti-oppression/anti-racism training for all staff resource workers, kin workers, foster parents and any other service provider involved with Black youth.
- Diversity Manager: in 2015, Toronto CAS hired its first full time, dedicated person in the role of Diversity Manager.
Can the Toronto CAS offer meaningful and effective culturally relevant services to our Black youth and families? The short answer is “Yes we can,…and we’ve been doing so for over 20 years”. We may not have always got it right, but we’ve never stopped trying to get better at it. I readily agree with an elder from the Black community who recently critiqued the work CASs have traditionally done. He said: “Real change will require each CAS to build trust and goodwill with their Black communities through recognizing the assets, resiliency and strengths of the individuals, families and communities who identify as Black.”
By continuing to evolve culturally specific child welfare services that are informed, effective and supported by the respective communities, we hope that this will help build better relationships with our Black communities, which in turn will contribute to better outcomes for the Black children, youth and their families we serve.
Deborah Goodman, MSW, PhD is the Director of the Child Welfare Institute, Children’s Aid Society of Toronto.
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