Leadership in Child Welfare

Addressing sexual violence requires social change. Change is a leadership issue and leadership sits at all levels of the system. 

To reduce the risks of sexual violence for vulnerable youth, we need to create safe and supportive environments in the homes where they live, the communities where they build relationships and in the agencies that support them.

Many young people in care are experiencing, and have experienced, different forms of violence that is rooted in social injustice. The World Health Organization says that to be effective in addressing social injustice, an “ecological approach” is needed.[World Health Organization WHO]  This means that prejudice and intolerance are not just individual issues but are understood as being part of a whole eco-system of laws, beliefs, policies, and practices. Individuals are always responsible and accountable for their actions and the socio-cultural environment creates or reduces the conditions for discrimination and hate. 

Provincial and federal governments are investing in health equity as a way forward. The key elements are:

  • Trauma and violence informed care
  • Cultural safety 
  • Harm Reduction

Listen to Colleen Varcoe talk about the promise of health equity to build on strengths and good work already happening that can energize a tired system.

As well, both provincial and federal governnments are committed to addressing gender-based violence.  Gender inequality is a health equity issue that needs an intersectional lens to include discrimination as another form of violence. Anti-racism anti-oppression training and education complements a heath equity curriculum. Now is the time to call on leaders at all levels of the system to incorporate health equity into agencies, policies and practices. 

The Public Health Agency of Canada has funded the development of free online training modules on health equity by Equip Health Care: 

  • .Module 1: What is Equity-Oriented Health Care & Why Should I Care?
  • Module 2: The Key Dimensions of Equity-Oriented Health Care
  • Module 3: Trauma-and-violence-informed care (TVIC): Making care safe for all
  • Module 4: Counteract racism: practicing in a culturally safe way
  • Module 5: Bring Harm Reduction into Practice
  • Module 6: Plan ahead: Disruption can be good
  • Module 7: Measuring Equity: Know who you serve and capture progress
  • Module 8: “Making the case” for equity

The Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) offers a 4 part free webinar series on anti-racism - anti-oppression.

The ecology of sexual violence: rooting out oppression

The World Health Organization says that an 'ecological approach' is needed to end sexual violence. Through an ecological lens you can see that oppression operates on multiple levels:

  • Individual – attitudes and actions that reflect prejudice against a social group
  • Institutional – polices, laws, rules, norms and customs in organizations and social institutions that disadvantage some social groups and advantage others.
  • Societal / Cultural – social norms, roles, rituals, language, music and art that reflect and reinforce the belief that one social group is superior to another

Discrimination is the practice of oppression against a group of people based on stereotypes. Discrimination means that individuals and social groups do not have equal or equitable access to resources and opportunities to fully participate in society. They are disadvantaged in ways that often reinforce the underlying rationale of stereotypes that they are less deserving and less valuable members of society because they do not contribute the same as more privileged people.

Policies and training in child welfare need to be based on anti-oppression anti-racism principles and values and grounded in non-discrimination practices. Everyone involved in the sector should be able to recognize how power and privilege works - for and against - themselves and others.

Create a Culture of Open Communication

Organizational leaders create the conditions that allow for ongoing and constructive system critique and change. The starting assumption is that discrimination against diverse children and youth is a fact in all agencies and in all parts of the system. LGBTQ, indigenous and racialized young people face multiple forms of oppression that further disadvantage them. The mechanics of oppression and discrimination often operate in the background, invisible to those who are not disadvantaged.

Political correctness results when people are shamed for making mistakes.  Zero tolerance can be a ‘smug’ policy that acts as if discrimination is an individual issue in an agency.

How can we create the conditions where we can all acknowledge that no one is free from stereotypes and prejudices that are oppressive? There is no outside ‘pure’ place to stand in judgment of others.

If we can accept that we are all part of the problem – we automatically become part of the solution. We need to be fearless and support one another in rooting out inequality and to face our own complicity in oppressive practices.

The existence of oppression can be seen most clearly in the negative outcomes that are concentrated in diverse social groups that can be seen in their over-representation in the child welfare system. People most impacted and disadvantaged by prejudice and stereotypes can offer the most precise insights into how the system is and isn’t working. To contribute to organizational change, they need opportunity to talk about their experiences, to be believed when they do, and to see positive results that come from speaking up.

Leadership can be cultivated at all levels of the system. Everyone involved in the child welfare system should be encouraged to bring forward concerns and to speak openly without fear of reprisal. Formal leaders actively create the organizational environment that is committed to ongoing learning, opportunities for critical reflection, dialogue, adaptation and evolution.

See also: 

Further Reading & Resources