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'My foster father wiped down everything I touched': Call to tackle racism in social care

Ireland is repeating the mistakes of mother and baby homes, social workers have warned.

THE TREATMENT OF women and children in Mother and Baby Homes has long been known but – on foot of the publication in January of the final report of the Commission of Investigation – public awareness and outrage over what happened in these institutions has been at an all-time high in recent months.

One of the most common questions asked is, simply, how was this allowed to happen?

There is no simple answer to that question – the power of the Catholic Church on how the State was run, the ‘shame’ of being an unmarried mother and societal expectations all played a role.

Many survivors have criticised the Commission’s final report and, in their view, a failure to adequately examine and acknowledge issues such as forced incarceration, forced and illegal adoption, and racial discrimination.

conrad-bryan-amri Conrad Bryan, spokesperson for AMRI

Last week, The Journal broke the news that the Association of Mixed Race Irish (AMRI) has written to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) calling for the Expert Group on People of African Descent to visit Ireland and investigate institutional racism.

AMRI, a charity which advocates for people of mixed-race backgrounds and seeks recognition and justice for those who suffered racism as children in Irish institutions, invited the expert group to visit Ireland to carry out an independent investigation into systemic racism.

The organisation believes that until Ireland deals with the racism in its past, the issue will continue to exist in our present-day institutions and social care model. AMRI is working with the Irish Association of Social Workers (IASW) to ensure that its guidelines and approach deals with racial discrimination.

Dr Colletta Dalikeni, a lecturer in Social Care in Dundalk Institute of Technology (DKIT), is on the IASW board.

Ireland should welcome UN intervention on institutional racism in Ireland, Dalikeni told us, saying the country could learn from their expertise and use it to address long-existing problems.

Dalikeni spearheaded an initiative that resulted in the IASW Anti-Racism Strategy 2021-2023 being published in February.

Following on from the public outrage over the killing of George Floyd in the US in 2020, she felt compelled to act. Throughout her work she has experienced racism – from both clients and colleagues – and knew other black social workers were in the same position.

“We started the conversation and it turned out that, yes, there are social workers who experience racism at work, they experience it from their colleagues, they experience it from clients who say ‘I don’t want to be seen by a black social worker’, from managers who can’t manage the whole impact of racism on practitioners.

“[Clients] may not give a reason, they may just say that they would prefer not to have a black social worker. Or the family might say they don’t think that person will understand it that the social worker doesn’t understand English well, or whatever. They say they would prefer to be seen by somebody who’s like them,” she told The Journal.

“So we put together an anti-racism strategy and this is the first strategy of its kind in 50 years of the IASW.”

Dalikeni noted that a report published by the Ombudsman for Children’s Office last year found that children in Direct Provision regularly experience discrimination and racism. She said the same is often true for non-white children in the social care system.

Dalikeni said social workers are often on the frontline when it comes to vulnerable members of society – decades ago some of them raised concerns about conditions in mother and baby institutions, and today they raise concerns about Direct Provision.

“We were aware of the things happening in the mother and baby homes. The Commission’s final report mentioned social workers 600 times. We really have a voice and a role that sometimes we don’t use that well, we have power to push the government to change the policies that affect them most vulnerable in our society.

“History repeating itself today. We know it is happening, we’re just not dealing with it. Are we waiting for another inquiry, are we waiting for another apology? Why doesn’t the State deal with the issue?”

Dalikeni has done extensive research on Direct Provision and advocates for the regularisation of the status of children who live in DP centres or in foster care before they turn 18 and face possible deportation.

She said this situation “really needs to be addressed” and she has welcomed recent efforts to regularise undocumented migrants and a renewed conversation about repealing the 27th Amendment of the Constitution which was inserted after a 2004 referendum.

The amendment meant that the constitutional right to Irish citizenship of people born on the island of Ireland would now be limited to Irish citizens, meaning that children of non-Irish citizens would no longer be entitled to birthright citizenship.

It has come back into the spotlight in recent years due to high-profile cases of children facing deportation.

‘Ireland’s history of institutionalisation’

Dalikeni has also welcomed the government’s White Paper on abolishing Direct Provision. However, she is sceptical it will happen in the next three years and called for funding to be ring-fenced for the plan.

“Reading the White Paper, it seems to me that Direct Provision will just be called something else. Why do I say that?

It’s very much in line with previous institutionalisation of people in Ireland – be it in mental health settings, be it the mother and baby homes, be it the Magdalene laundries. Historically, anybody who is problematised is put in an institution.

Dalikeni said part of the reason it will be “difficult to dismantle” is because DP “has become a business” – the State has paid out over €1 billion to private companies who run the accommodation centres.

“The McMahon report [on improving Direct Provision] came out in 2015. Yes, we have to give credit where credit is due – some of those recommendations were implemented but not all of them. Now we have left McMahon, now we are on to the White Paper.

“I can put money on it that this government is going to finish its term and nothing will have changed about Direct Provision, one or two things might have changed, but the majority will not. The next government will say, ‘Well, that’s not our baby’, and we’re back to the drawing board.

“This is the way it’s always been, this is the way it’s going to be, because there’s no political will to actually change it. However, I have to hand it to the current government, it’s the only government in 20 years that has actually said we’re going to end this.

“However, without a budget, without resources being invested, I’m sorry, I refuse to buy it. There has been too much outcry about Direct Provision, the government had to step in and say something, but I won’t believe it until I see the roadmap in terms of them putting their money where their mouth is.”

Dalikeni has lived in Ireland since 1988 and worked in social care for many years.

She noted that black children are much more likely to end up in State care and, as such, social workers need to be conscious of how to best support people from different backgrounds, and aware that they may have unconscious biases.

“I think there is an issue of lack of cultural competence, of lack of cultural sensitivity, in our services. I think that needs to be developed to be more responsive to issues of culture, issues of race.”

Picture3 Dr Colletta Dalikeni

Social work itself is a European concept, she added.

“Given that Ireland is now a multicultural society, we actually need a way of working that takes into consideration other worldviews, and another way of doing things.

“The way people parent in China, for example, or the way people parent in other parts of the world is very different from the way European parents parent. It is not necessarily always the case that people [not from Europe] parent badly, they parent differently and difference is not is not a deficit, it’s just different.”

Dalikeni said that when organisations have conversations about race, they often speak about equality and integration but are reluctant to actually mention the word racism.

“If you call it racism, then you have to name the perpetrator. It’s nice to talk about diversity and equality because they are fuzzy words. But if we talk about racism, then we must begin to look at it very closely, we must ask who is the perpetrator of racism. It is the elephant in the room, and there is a tendency not to want to talk about it,” she said.

A decade ago, during her early lecturing days, some students called her a “monkey” and other racial slurs online. In some ways, Ireland has come a long away. In others, not so much.

Dalikeni said the vast majority of students in her class are white. But, slowly, more non-white students have started to attend.

Dozens of black and other non-white social workers now work in Ireland, but more are needed, she said.

“There is now a big cohort of black social workers. We have some social workers now from the Muslim community but just a few, but we’re trying to address that. When you are the minority and all you see is the majority, it is really not always easy.

The students who are black, when they see a black lecturer, they think, ‘Oh my God, so it’s actually possible to be a lecturer and be black.’ It’s about representation, it’s really good for these students to see a black lecturer.

“I don’t know of other black lecturers who are teaching social work, I haven’t come across them. So, we have a long, long, long way to go in terms of making the space more equal and more equitable and more representative of the demographics of Irish society today.”

‘Oh my God, black lecturers exist’

Winiswa (Winnie) Nxele didn’t know Ireland had any black lecturers until she met Dalikeni.

That is no joke. I didn’t know Ireland even had black lecturers. It was one of my first lectures at DKIT. In walks this woman oozing confidence, that was Colletta. I was like, ‘Oh she must have walked into the wrong room. What is she doing here?’

“She said she was the lecturer. When I went home I Googled her. I thought, ‘Oh my God, so we do have black lecturers, it can happen, it is possible.’ That alone made me think, You’re going to do this, Winnie.’

“I remember ringing my friend and telling her, ‘There’s a black lecturer in DKIT.’ I was so excited. Maybe I’m living under a hole somewhere, but I’m yet to see many lecturers of colour – it could be black, it could be Indian, it could be Chinese. I haven’t seen that many and it would be nice to see them.”

Nxele moved from South Africa to Ireland in 2004. She initially stayed with her sister who already lived in Ireland. However, for personal reasons, her sister moved to England.

“That’s how I came to the attention of social workers, my sister had left me so I officially became an unaccompanied minor.”

‘He wiped down everything I touched’ 

Nxele was taken into foster care and throughout her teenage years lived in about 10 different foster homes in Dublin and Kildare. “I moved to so many of them I lost count,” she recalled.

For about half of her first year in the foster care system, Nxele was placed in a home that was particularly difficult for her. The couple were older and Nxele said the husband made it clear he didn’t want her there.

“Each time I touched anything, he would wipe it down. He would say ‘you’re just so disgusting’. I irritated him, for whatever reason.

“You know those Concern adverts on TV, the ones that show hungry people in Africa, every time he would see one of the ads he would say, ‘Oh so this is where you’d be from, all you disgusting people.’ I was nice to him, I failed to understand why he would do that.”

Nxele said this man regularly called her “coloured” – she would correct him and say she was African or “brown-skinned”.

On one occasion, when she was walking home from school, some local boys called her “a dirty n-word” and told her to “go back to your African country”.

Nxele was scared and upset, but didn’t react. “I was told by my sister if somebody is racially abusing you, don’t say anything. By saying something to them, you’re encouraging them to continue and they might hit you or hurt you. So I stayed quiet.”

When she got home she told her foster parents what happened and said the husband asked her, ‘Why are you upset? You’re meant to be used to it at this point.’

She said this was the final straw and she contacted her social worker, asking to be moved to a different home. This was her worst experience in the system, she said, noting that other families were welcoming and supportive.

Nxele said the vetting foster parents needs to be more rigorous. She believes the vetting process has improved in the 17 years since then.

Nxele said some of the social workers she dealt with were not particularly helpful, but others seemed to genuinely care.

One woman in particular supported her throughout her teenage years and into adulthood.

“Ruth Coakley was the one who was really amazing. I used to do musicals and other things in school. Other kids would have their mums and dads and sisters and cousins there. Obviously a lone child here, I didn’t have anybody, so Ruth would leave her family at eight o’clock at night to come and watch me. She knew the importance of moral support.”

Nxele turned 18 before she was due to sit the Leaving Certificate, meaning she would no longer be entitled to State care and accommodation.

Coakley helped her secure self-contained homeless accommodation in Dublin, to ensure she could complete her exams. Nxele did well in her Leaving Cert and wanted to go to college but this wasn’t an option for her

“I was very depressed when everybody was making college applications. As much as I wanted to fill them out, I knew I was just wasting time.”

When she finished her Leaving Cert she had to move into Direct Provision and was sent to a centre in Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo.

She said alcoholism, sex work and violence were common in the centre, telling us: “People did what they had to to survive. You would see all the trucks parked outside.” Nxele never engaged in sex work but said she was propositioned.

“My roommate had severe mental illness problems and alcoholism issues. I didn’t understand why the system was set up like this. The system is not set out to help people to be successful, it’s set up to destroy you.

“During the time I spent in Ballyhaunis, I think there were three suicides.”

She stayed there for almost a year before running away.

“I ran for my life. I ran away because if I didn’t run away I was probably going to end up dead or addicted to something,” she recalled.

Nxele lived with friends in Dublin, minding their children and cleaning in exchange for a place to stay.

She had assumed she would be deported but, in 2009, received a call telling her she had been granted humanitarian leave-to-remain status.

Nxele said this was a huge relief and allowed her to find a job and moved into her own rented accommodation.

‘I want better for my daughters’

Nxele now has two daughters of her own, aged 10 and eight, and is studying to be a social worker.

She completed a healthcare course in Fingal Education Centre before being accepted into college courses in Maynooth and Dundalk. She was able to find housing in Dundalk and moved her family there.

“I’ve always wanted to do better, and to break the family pathology that I would come from in South Africa. None of my sisters got to a point of finishing their [school exams] and going to college. I wanted it to be different for me and for my daughters.”

Nxele said Coakley inspired her to become a social worker so she could help children who often have nobody else.

“Social work or social care is a craft that I know I’m good at. In my placement I’ve seen the positive impact I’ve had on the young people and on the people that I work with at my regular job, they would have intellectual and mental illnesses. I see the positive impact I have on them.

“This is a big achievement for me. It’s nothing like, ‘Oh look at me, I’m doing great work.’ It’s just a way of me giving back because I remember how I was helped. I’m always closing my eyes and thinking how I felt when nobody was listening to me. Now I can be that person for someone else.”

WhatsApp Image 2021-04-23 at 11.41.31 Winiswa Xnele Source: Winiswa Xnele

Nxele’s day job is in healthcare and she is doing her placement at Crannóg Nua – a State-run high support unit run for troubled children. Nxele said Crannóg Nua does not tolerate racial discrimination and has taken incidents of racial bullying very seriously.

“They just do not tolerate any element of racism – that mentality is something I’ve never seen before,” she said.

Nxele said she is determined to become a social worker to show her daughters that they can do anything they set their minds to.

“That is very, very important, important to me. Especially for my daughters, who are living in a predominantly white country, it’s very important for them to see, ‘Mommy does this, I can do it too.’”

Nxele said some things have improved in the 17 years she has lived in Ireland, but racism is still very common – both in obvious and subtle ways.

Nxele said Dundalk is “a very integrated” but she and her family still face almost daily acts of racism.

Her daughters were born and raised here but are regularly told their English is good – something she was also told as a child. She has been labelled “an angry black woman” more than once if she goes into certain supermarkets she is followed by a staff member.

“It is a very well integrated neighbourhood. All the kids play with each other, black, green, yellow, purple, they all play with each other. If a child is having a birthday party, each child is invited, no child is left out,” she said of Dundalk.

However, she said she still has to deal with “so many microaggressions”. She said some people assume, “because I’m brown-skinned, even though I’m minding my own business, I must definitely be some illegal alien roaming the streets of Dundalk”.

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“I am tired of defending my Africanness, my Irish. Because apparently I shouldn’t even have this passport, despite the fact I am a citizen contributing to society, doing a difficult job.”

How Ireland has changed, and not, since the 1980s

Dalikeni said non-white people have to deal with racial discrimination and microaggressions every day, including at work. One more than one occasion, someone has mistaken Dalikeni as the client, not the social worker.

“People make a lot of assumptions. A lot of things happen, sometimes covertly not overtly. People experience racism in different ways. When it happens, you just know, you could be in a room and people are talking and when you arrive there is silence.

“That happens a lot, you are made to feel that just know that you don’t belong there and you don’t fit in there. But you survived because it’s the work that you want to do. You have to keep going, but it’s not easy.”

She said a large part of the reason her children, who were born and raised in Ireland, moved to the UK was because they grew tired of being asked questions about where they were from.

From when they started school, they were asked where they were from. “They’d say Cork, but then they would be asked where they really were from.

“When they were in primary school, they loved school, it was great. I think it’s very rare to find racism happening in primary schools, the children want to play with each other. My children integrated very well, but as they got to secondary school the issue started to come up, including from teachers. I actually didn’t expect that.

“They had it in their heads that the minute they finished the Leaving Cert, they were out of here. They love to come home – well they did before the pandemic – but they don’t want to live here.

“They would say, ‘I am not staying here, because if I stay here I have to answer about my blackness. In England, yes, there’s racism too, but I don’t have to answer about my blackness every day, every single day.’ The multiculturalism there is at a different level,” she said.

“When I first came here in the 1980s, people had a genuine interest to know more about you because there were no black people here. I would go into the hairdressers, and people would look at each other as to say, ‘Oh my god, what are we going to do with this hair.’

“I knew that that was not out of malice, that was not out of badness, but it was just because they had never seen hair like mine.

“Back in the day people would also ask me where I was from, they were genuinely interested and would kick up a conversation. But, now I’ve lived here for over 30 years, I don’t want to answer that question anymore, because that question to me implies that I don’t belong here.

“I’ve been here long enough, I’ve got my Irish citizenship, and I am black, I can’t wish or wash the blackness away from myself. It’s always going to be part of me, it’s always there.

“People ask where I’m from and I say, ‘I’ve told you, I’m from Dundalk, I’m Irish’, but no, that’s not enough, then they ask ‘Where are you really from?. So that’s insinuating that I’m not allowed to be an Irish citizen, that I’m not allowed to claim to Irishness, that I have to claim something else.

“To me, that’s how systemic racism shows itself. It’s like when AMRI talks about people in mother and baby homes suffering just because of the colour of your skin or being treated differently because of the colour of your skin. History is repeating itself.”

‘Hatred and division’

The Government intends to dismantle Direct Provision and establish a new international protection support service by 2024.

The system, set up as a temporary solution 21 years ago, provides accommodation centres for asylum seekers and is run by for-profit companies.

Phase One of the plan involves identifying locations for new State-run reception and integration centres made up of own-door accommodation which will be spread throughout the country.

Wraparound services should be in place from when a person makes their application for international protection with specific vulnerabilities identified throughout.

Under Phase Two of the plan, all accommodation will be own-door, self-contained houses or apartments for families.

The emphasis, according to the Government’s plan, is on a person-centred approach to support people to integrate into local communities.

Speaking in the Dáil on Thursday, Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman reiterated the Government’s commitment to end DP. He also warned of groups which exploit genuine concerns about Direct Provision to “peddle racism and discrimination”.

“At a time when politics is mired in anti-migrant and xenophobic dogma, in our country the push to end Direct Provision has become louder,” O’Gorman said.

These groups use information and they play on people’s well-meaning concerns to peddle racism and peddle discrimination. They seek to play marginalised groups off each other and it’s a mean-minded argument. It is one that is closed, it is unfriendly and is one that is filled with suspicion.

When asked for comment by The Journal about calls for the UN to investigate institutional racism here, a spokesperson for the Department of Children said O’Gorman met with representatives of AMRI last month “to discuss their concerns and the government’s response to the Commission’s report”.

They said AMRI also met with the Anti-Racism Committee in November 2019, ahead of the publication of its interim report, which will be going to the government shortly.

The spokesperson added: “The Minister understands and acknowledges the disappointment expressed by AMRI and others in response to some elements of the Commission’s report. The Minister reiterates that he does not consider the Commission’s report as a conclusion to our focus on these matters.

“Minister O’Gorman believes it is imperative to build on the spirit in which the apology was made and to make appropriate reparation. The Minister recognises that through our laws, policies and services we must always seek to create a more just society, grounded in respect, diversity, tolerance and equality.”

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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