Beyond freshly baked cookies: Using One Vision One Voice to reflect on social work practice

by Jana Vinsky, MSW, RSW, Social Worker, Psychotherapist

When you have worked in child welfare there are some memories that stay with you. For me there is one that endures…an apprehension of two children that occurred suddenly and went late into the night. We called the foster parents, while the children clutched tightly to what little belongings they had brought with them. Soon, we were standing patiently on a porch, the night air moving gently around us, and then, an open door, a smile, outstretched hands, ready to take in two frightened and vulnerable children. The warmth that enveloped the children as they entered the foster family’s home gave me hope. The foster mother had baked cookies, the smell filled the house and I left feeling sure that this loving family, spurred to foster by their Christian values, would be a safe and caring environment for the children.

I was confident that this is what good social work practice looks like. I thought I was doing the right thing for these children. I saw their race as inconsequential. It didn’t matter that they were Black and the foster family was White. Why would it? What mattered was the home was safe and the family was kind.    Although I knew race mattered, in this situation I thought about “safety first”. I believed this would be a short stay and I didn’t think identity mattered in my decision making.

I was wrong.

When I look back, I did not see Black reality reflected in the home for these children during their time with the family. There were no Black dolls, pictures, books. Nothing in the home validated the identity of these children and the lives they led.

Having had the opportunity to build my social work knowledge over the last 15+ years, and in understanding the Race Equity Practices outlined in the One Vision One Voice Practice Framework, I now look back at that scene and wonder more deeply what it was like for the children after I left.

Yes, the foster parents’ commitment was to be loving and kind. But what must it have been like for the children? How did they feel being left at the home of not only strangers, but with a White family that had no understanding of their internal or lived reality?

Recently, I had the opportunity to take a five-day online training course on Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT). It was an amazing and insightful experience.

DBT is a practice that focuses a lot on validation.

In DBT training we learn to heavily validate people in their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Although good social work would include validation, such as normalizing behavioural responses to “abnormal situations”, DBT brings it to a whole other level by really centring on it.

While reflecting on validation in social work practice, my mind immediately went to Black children and youth in care, especially those that may not have other Black people within their immediate neighbourhood or community. I wondered how they were doing in terms of being validated/invalidated in their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.

I know the importance of Black children being raised in Black identity affirming homes, receiving Black identity responsive services, and learning racial survival skills. I did not think about how living within a home and community that invalidates your take on the world and your direct experience might cause emotional/behavioural dysregulation. In DBT, emotional dysregulation refers to limitations in controlling one’s emotions which can lead to behavioural difficulty. Now that I have learned about DBT, I have a whole new lens on reactivity from invalidation.

I have since been thinking a lot about the natural and repetitive affirmation that happens consistently and daily in Black homes. I remember a phrase I once heard that a Black mother does not tell a child about being Black, but shows her being Black.

We as social workers understand the importance of attachment for children. In DBT I learned that validation means providing attunement and connection in a way that the child experiences being understood and seen, and is therefore left feeling valued and safe – all of what our attachment theories tell us is so important. What does this mean for Black children we place in predominately White environments?

I wonder how much of the emotional and behavioural dysregulation we sometimes see in children and youth in care is a result of not getting their attachment needs met in terms of validation. For Black children and youth, I wonder how invalidation might impact attachment and also cultural attachment.  Things like hair-care, connection to their community, histories and traditions, hearing and seeing positive things about their community, help in dealing with racist experiences, learning how to survive everyday racism and the subtle forms it can take. I no longer see this as outside of “safety first”.

In my role with One Vision One Voice, I am privileged to be tasked with the implementation of the OVOV Race Equity Practice Framework.  For Phase II, this means laying the foundation for sector change by

  • Development and administering of an organizational anti-Black racism needs assessment which each society will complete
  • Developing society report cards based on the results of the needs assessment
  • Development of society implementation plans to address the findings from the organizational needs assessment
  • Creating a provincial African Canadian Service Directory
  • Development of tools and templates for practice enhancement

As we look forward to embedding the Race Equity Practices in the work that we all do, it’s also a time of reflection.  What is good social work practice when taking children out of harmful situations?  How do we ensure that we do no harm in our interventions? What does “safety first” mean? How might our work unintentionally invalidate who children are and what they are experiencing, and perhaps cause other harm, when we think we are being kind and loving or doing good social work practice?

Reflecting on my social work practice from an OVOV lens, I realize that the benefit of One Vision One Voice is its ability to challenge definitions of good practice – no matter how cherished – including the promise of freshly baked cookies.