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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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Rituals of Encounter that Guarantee Cultural Safety

Leon Fulcher

Conventional wisdom about the care and supervision of young people relies heavily on Western theories of child development and interpersonal relations. Much contemporary practice fails, however, to give central importance to the significance of culture in the delivery of human services. Rituals of encounter between peoples – and between carers and children of different cultures – are fundamental to the personal meanings ascribed to help-giving and help-seeking behaviours, and to the relational dynamics of Child and Youth Care practice. Cultural safety is essential if helping relationships are to be responsive to the needs of all children or young people in care.

Important concerns are commonly taken into account before any child or young person is admitted to care. Contemporary practices normally assume that all other options will have been considered before a care order is issued, or before mandatory sentences are handed down (Fulcher 2002a). In practical terms, it is still difficult to offer children, young people or their families a guarantee that – at the very least – family members’ lives and life chances will not be left worse off as the result of an admission to care. Sadly the facts show, however, that children and young people not part of the dominant culture are still over-represented in the caring systems of most Western countries (Fulcher 1998). This paper summarises arguments promoting the inclusion of cultural safety alongside minimum service guarantees offered to children, young people and their families in receipt of health and welfare services. Selected rituals of encounter are explored that are commonly ignored in early relations between workers and those with whom they work. Implications for strengthening relationships are highlighted, showing how guarantees of cultural safety require more than good intentions.

Cultural safety and minimum guarantees of caring
Cultural safety involves the state of being in which a child or young person experiences that her/his personal wellbeing, as well as their social and cultural frames of reference, are acknowledged – even when not fully understood by worker(s) assigned the tasks of helping them. Cultural safety requires that each child or young person will be provided with reasons for feeling hopeful that her/his needs will be attended to, in terms that she/he will understand. Cultural safety also means that family members and kin are accorded dignity and respect (Ramsden 1997), and are actively encouraged to participate in decision-making with service providers about the futures of their child(ren). Ainsworth (1997) as well as Burford & Hudson (2000) have clearly shown how family participation in decision-making results in better long-term outcomes for children placed in state-mandated care. However, as documented in Rangihau’s New Zealand study of child and family welfare services for Maori peoples, “at the heart of the matter was a profound misunderstanding or ignorance about the place of a child in Maori society and its relationship with whanau (family), hapu (sub-tribe), and iwi (tribal) structures” (1986, p. 7). In pursuing family-oriented policies and practices, New Zealand health and welfare workers and teachers of European ancestry had failed to take account of cultural influences that shape the development of Maori children.

Child and Youth Care Workers educated in the Western tradition of bio-psycho-social theories of child and adolescent development have been guided traditionally by values and customs founded in JudeoChristian traditions (Payne 1997, Fulcher 2003). However, when working with children or young people from cultures from different traditions, it is easy to make false interpretations of child or adolescent behaviour, personality development and family practices with substantially deleterious effects on the lives of vulnerable children (Fulcher 2002). As with First Nations, Hispanic and Afro-American children, New Zealand Maori children experienced extreme disadvantage from the application of Western psychological theories and methods used by social and behavioural scientists to investigate Maori character structure. Post-war research identified character deficits that informed government policies with negative impact on at least three generations of Maori (Stewart, 1997). When culture is viewed as reflecting intricate, highly patterned systems of social inheritance through which each group of people attains and maintains the separate version of the humanity of its members (Mead & Calas 1953), it is easy to see why cultural safety requires careful consideration. Child and Youth Care Workers need to acquire and maintain minimum competencies – building on personal sensitivity – actively learning about cultural practices and rituals of encounter that undermine cultural safety (Leigh 1998).

Simply trying to understand, as well as contemplate different relational starting points can present a major challenge. Each worker’s own personal experiences of acculturation and socialisation leaves them with taken-for-granted assumptions and a cognitive mindset that is not easily altered. The practical result is that some children with whom they work are treated as having cultural characteristics, whereas others are thought to be more socialised and adapted to the ways and expectations of the dominant culture. Compelling justifications are commonly put forward about the need to rescue children from bad or “dysfunctional” families, or to offer children enhanced prospects for happy family experiences. Such arguments are frequently put forward by those advocating international adoptions of children from developing countries by families living in developed countries. All too often, however, features of minority culture are tolerated as reflecting interesting exotica represented through esoteric, misguided beliefs and quaint behaviour. Through cultural assimilation, minority children have been taught historically to become more civilised beings (Simon & Smith 2001), more able to behave and function in the dominant culture.

It is important to realise that rituals of encounter between worker(s) and children or young people have developed through cultural protocols. This holds, whether one is contemplating a child’s cultural origins, a child rescued from rural poverty, a young person’s gang culture affiliation, associations with a drug culture, or their escape from a culture of violence. The place that a child learns to call home and my people has a particular history, with a political, economic and social legacy. The meaning a child or young person gives to culture is constantly evolving while seeking to understand their current predicament and adapting to any new home environment or experiences. It follows that each encounter with a child and her/his family requires that a cultural lens be included in one’s essential toolkit of professional praxis competencies. Rituals of encounter – like transitional objects – enhance the quality of service outcomes for those facing significant life-changing events. If rituals of encounter convey appropriate meanings they will strengthen purposeful communication. However, in pressurised and stressful work settings, it is all too easy to focus on biopsycho-social problems without seeing children or young people as cultural beings.

When workers of urban and European ancestry are not first aware of their own culture and attitudes about country folk, race, ethnicity or gender roles within cultures different from their own, then understandings of cross-cultural and rural-urban differences are likely to result in negative assessments of families and their children. Bi-cultural rituals of encounter that frame I-Thou relations form the basis for rhythmic interactions that are central to the core of care (Maier 1979). Rural and cultural differences – and the impact these have on each child’s life journey – are closely enmeshed with the meanings that children and young people give to their experiences with caregivers. It is only when a sense of cultural predictability is combined with feelings of personal dependability in caring relationships, that a child’s whole being is cared for pro-actively.

Rituals of encounter that engage pro-active expressions of caring while ensuring cultural safety are important if Child and Youth Care Workers are to break cycles of cultural racism that commonly disadvantage the wellbeing of some young people in care. Each worker must take responsibility for learning about the cultural practices of those living in their home region, or areas from which children or young people from different cultures come into care. It is insufficient to expect children and young people in care – or their families – to be the teachers of those employed to work with them. A key objective of cultural safety in professional education is to ensure that each worker will “examine their own cultural realities and the attitudes they bring to each new encounter in practice” (Ramsden & Spoonley 1993, p. 163).

Praxis knowledge and skills must extend beyond the limits of personal life experience if workers are to extend practice competencies beyond their own ethnocentric worlds of understanding. It is one thing to acquire an intellectualised understanding of culture and cultural differences. It is quite another exercise to learn hard lessons of life beyond our own personal comfort zones.

Lessons learned the hard way about rituals of encounter
In what follows, some personal lessons learned through the school of hard knocks are shared about basic cross-cultural competencies required in daily exchanges with new colleagues, clients and friends. These lessons were learned through the tutoring of friends and cikgu (teachers) who have taught elementary rituals of encounter required to keep this writer safe, and hopefully keep others safe as well.

Three decades of international travel and cross-cultural practice has taught that the more one learns about cross-cultural exchanges, the more one learns what one doesn’t know and may never fully understand. At a fundamental level, it is through language that different understandings and epistemologies (ways of knowing about the world) become known. This involves more than the mere translation of words, even in the English language – the writer’s native tongue – since it is necessary to differentiate between English languages spoken on both sides of the Atlantic as well as those spoken in the Southern Hemisphere and elsewhere. It has also been necessary to learn that one not only speaks with a funny accent but also hears with a funny accent, and gives meaning and accentuation to particular events, experiences and social rituals. Accounts from cross-cultural practice are used to highlight seven particular themes.

1. Dress and public behaviour
More than thirty years ago, four “maladjusted” teenagers in Scotland taught a formative lesson that stimulated a steep cross-cultural learning curve, mostly obtained through the medium of English. After nearly a year of relationship building, the four young men invited the writer to go “Yankee watching” in Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens during the annual International Festival of the Arts. Three conditions were laid down as a condition of this initiation into “Yankee watching”. First, there was instruction about which clothes to wear. Second, the ground rules prevented the carrying of a camera. And finally, but most important, one could not speak without permission. These so-called “maladjusted” teenagers didn’t want their school friends – also “Yankee watching” – to know that they had a Yank with them! From that day forward, it has been easy to “spot” Americans, first by the clothes they wear, by their propensity to carry cameras, and by the fact that one can hear Americans speaking more loudly than any others. A common response from Americans has been expressions of surprise about being “outed” by their accents! There is much to be learned about selecting proper clothes for different occasions and cross-cultural encounters. This includes working out when – or if – shorts and t-shirts are ever appropriate, regardless of the weather. Public behaviour sanctioned in some places is simply not appropriate in other places. Cultural safety can be undermined before any words are spoken.

2. Greetings and Initiation of Exchanges
Rituals of encounter associated with interpersonal greetings are fraught with potential misunderstanding. Whereas the shaking of hands or kissing may be common expressions of greeting in most Western countries, this is not the case elsewhere. Malay cikgu (teachers) instruct that when shaking hands with a Malay of the same gender, it is customary to do so only with the right hand and then follow the hand shaking by placing one’s hand on the heart to signify the sharing of peace between the two people. However, it is not so appropriate for a male to shake hands with a Malay woman unless she herself initiates it. Then it is carried out with both of her hands touching only the tips of the male’s hand. Islamic teachings restrict personal contact between males and females so that many Moslem women will quite appropriately resist hand shaking, choosing to place their hands to their heart and share the peace of exchange without touching. Indeed, in the new era of SARS, there has been a resurgence of traditional greetings and sharing of the peace through placing the right hand to the heart without resorting to the Western practice of hand shaking. The sharing of business cards with Chinese peoples involves presenting the card with both hands with a modest bow and expression of humility. Rituals of initial encounter are even more elaborate amongst the Maori peoples of New Zealand. The ritual hongi or touching of noses to share the breath of life between two people, occurs only after other rituals of encounter have been fulfilled. These include the welcoming of visitors, exchanging of credentials, clarifying the purpose of meeting, and giving reassurances of peacefulness and friendship. Even though there is an extensive literature about particular rituals of encounter with different cultures and peoples, professional education and training quite often make little use of it meaning workers are left commonly to learn cross-cultural lessons on their own.

3. Dialogue and inter-personal communications
A Scottish colleague, after her first visit to America some years ago, offered the observation that communication with Americans seemed to require learning the subtle art of interruption. For the first time, this colleague was immersed in a new cross-cross-cultural environment with different protocols of communication that was hard to follow and didn’t seem to build from listening, observing and processing the rhythmic exchange of dialogue. It came as a surprise to learn that accents can be quickly recognised by Scottish children, even at preschool age. By school age, Scottish children readily distinguish between locals and “come-from-aways”, whether referring to foreigners’ accents or those from less than 50 miles away on the other side of the country. This heightened capacity for listening and auditory discernment amongst children was well beyond this writer’s cultural “ken” or experience. Cultural upbringing in some parts of the world places greater emphasis on talking rather than listening as the central feature of personal communication. Experiences in China taught about important differences between auditory and visual syntax. In practical terms, it may be worth considering how Western children learn more commonly through auditory processes that lead to concepts and models of understanding. By contrast, Chinese children learn through a visual syntax, meaning they create specific word pictures for names, values and ideas taught by parents and other adults in their lives. This is illustrated when attending international gatherings of Child and Youth Care Workers. Delegates from Western countries can be almost guaranteed to talk about models and theoretical constructs that shape their practices with children and families whereas those from Asian countries are more likely to speak of their experiences and how these inform their work. Both groups may be highly educated but use distinctively different starting points in professional dialogue.

4. The preparation and taking of food and drink
I remember my first day of European Child and Youth Care duties when having prepared sweet French Toast for breakfast, it was served with condiments of syrup and jam. Such a cultural practice, so common in North America, was totally new for the young people who turned up for breakfast that day. Their expectations of French toast was that of a savoury dish, served with tomato sauce or ketchup, or perhaps tinned spaghetti, but not as a sweet dish. Similarly, the requirements of Kosher or Halal food and food preparation virtually eluded this writer while growing up in America’s Pacific Northwest. These terms were known to have something to do with blessings given to some foods, but it was much later before the writer learned why or how some food is blessed while other food is not, or why it is important not to prepare Kosher or Halal foods in the same kitchen or appliances as other foods. Recently, while hosting Malaysian colleagues for a study tour of Child and Youth Care services in New Zealand, this issue was further highlighted while ordering breakfast at a five star hotel. One colleague ordered French Toast, having noted that all the other breakfast dishes on the menu included pork. When the meals were served, it was immediately apparent that between each slice of French toast there was a helping of bacon. Out of politeness, and not wishing to draw attention to his mistake in ordering breakfast, this colleague picked at the salad leaves and banana slices before pushing his plate aside. It was not simply a matter of removing the bacon since it had already “contaminated” the French Toast. Apologising to my friend, the writer removed his plate discreetly to the back of the dining area, explained the predicament to staff, and within a short time, a new plate was prepared and presented without bacon. Whereas this colleague was embarrassed about not fitting in to the New Zealand context, this host felt embarrassed for not helping to ensure that a visitor’s food was not contaminated by pork. Nor is it simply a matter of which foods can and cannot be eaten. The giving and taking of food is framed by cultural protocols in almost every culture. While visiting a youth centre in the Middle East recently, a kind Yemeni servant quietly coached this writer on how to drink coffee – as well as take any food – only with my right hand, since the left hand is used for toileting! This experience highlighted – yet again – how the taking of food is a social experience requiring vigilance if Child and Youth Care workers are to avoid treating mealtimes merely as the ingestion of food.

5. Hygiene and Personal Space
Through introductions to Maori and Polynesian cultures one learns about the importance of not sitting on tables. It was well into this writer’s fortieth year before learning cultural taboos that separate everything associated with excrement and faeces from anything associated with food. Sitting on or putting feet on pillows are also prohibited since a person’s head is sacred and must not be contaminated through association with non-sacred parts of the body. Stepping over someone who is sitting or lying on the floor is also offensive for similar reasons and because it is disrespectful. One needs to be thoughtful about where one washes their hands or clothes, to ensure it does not happen in the same basin or sink as dishes. In this regard, food health and safety legislation commonly requires that sinks used for dish washing should never be used for food preparation. Personal spaces in some cultures require that men and women do not share toileting nor ablution facilities, even as Western cultures remove barriers with respect to women and men. Those enrolled in the only Arabic university for women wear black “school uniforms” covering them from head to foot, with many also covering their faces. While Westerners may find this a peculiar practice and assign negative judgements about the oppression of women, they do so ignoring norms of cultural safety for girls while outside their homes and supervision within extended family kinship networks.

Each country and cultural region endorses its own protocols for rituals of exchange expected for girls and their families as they progress through rites de passage towards womanhood. It is necessary to examine what cultural safety may mean.

Debate about when physical chastisement – especially the beating variety – crosses a legal threshold when the state (through its agents) has a duty to exercise mandated authority to care and protect children from neglect and abuse. The debates about mandatory reporting of child abuse yield a kaleidoscope of policy arguments, each giving moral and cultural justifications for “the best approach”!

6. Status hierarchies and junior-senior relations
Those who have grown up with a Declaration of Independence – claiming that all men and women are created equal – may find it difficult accepting or even understanding cultural differences that reinforce status hierarchies and shape junior/senior relations. In Hindu culture, very clear distinctions are made between five different castes with different social expectations for each caste. Without wishing to advocate either for or against the continuation of such practices, direct experience has shown how males born of the Brahman caste have been commonly socialised with mannerisms befitting of that caste. During social exchanges, female workers may react to what they perceive as sexist and arrogant behaviour displayed by such workers. In one sense this may be a correct perception of affairs while in another, they may have no awareness whatsoever about the cultural origins of such behaviour. In Maori culture, distinctive roles are assigned to tuakana-teina (senior-junior) relations. Order of birthright, from oldest to youngest is accorded special meaning, first in respect of all children born to parents, and then within male and female lines of siblings. Normally, the tuakana or older brother carries obligations for speaking on behalf of the whanau (family), whereas the teina or younger brother(s) cannot speak in the presence of older male siblings. Special provisions must be made within the culture before these protocols can be altered. Unless these factors are taken into account when planning and executing family group conferences, for example, then any outcomes may be questioned and undermined within the wider whanau or family. When working with young people and families from cultures that ascribe status through birth order and gender, Child and Youth Care Workers can find themselves in the uncomfortable position of trying to facilitate more openly democratic decision-making while encountering resistance from those who defer to decisions made by family elders. A key question in practice involves grappling with and trying to understand what status hierarchies may influence family decision-making and what potential cultural, religious or gendered reasons might account for these. It is insufficient to label these practices as “bad”, “sexist”, “authoritarian” or “dysfunctional”, even when viewed through different eyes they may be all of these! Instead, one must explore what cultural influences may have shaped and reinforced these practices across generations.

7. Religious, ethnic and social differences within the same cultural groups
Finally, one must avoid making generalisations about peoples within the same religious, ethnic or cultural groups. This is immediately apparent amongst adherents of Christianity ranging from conservative fundamentalists, New Age evangelicals to old country reformationists – all within the Protestant tradition. There is an equally diverse spectrum of perspectives operating within the Holy Catholic church. An array of beliefs and practices may be found within the Jewish tradition, with European and North African Jews sharing unique cultural differences while sharing common religious beliefs and practices. Islam, too, represents anything but a uniform body of religious beliefs and practices. While all Muslims adhere to the 5 pillars of Islam, one must not ignore the ways in which social protocols with adherents of Islam from Malaysia, Indonesia or the Philippines present differently in social exchanges from Middle East adherents. A common mistake encountered in New Zealand is to group Maori peoples together as one culture with the same practices. This ignores, however, the way that Maori are tribal peoples with each tribe tracing their origins to different migrations and ancestors. Rituals of encounter amongst the Te Arawa peoples rely on different ground rules or kawa from, say, the Ngai Tuhoe peoples. While both tribes – once labelled “loyalist” and “terrorist” by early colonial governments – share a relatively common language, there are different words and concepts as well as different epistemologies and lore. The same issue is highlighted as one moves across Canada, from Labrador to British Columbia. First Nations peoples living in Eastern provinces have different languages and cultural traditions from those living in the Prairies or in the West. Unless these differences are taken into account in the rituals of encounter with children, young people and their families, then Child and Youth Care Workers may undermine guarantees of cultural safety in day to day practice with different children, young people and families.

To summarise, rituals of encounter that guarantee cultural safety for children and young people in care require more than a checklist of prescriptions about what or what not to do in given situations. Such rituals involve more than interpretations of eye contact, facial and hand gestures, or body language. Indeed, it is important to avoid making interpretations since these are commonly derived from a person’s own cultural traditions, regardless of beliefs or theories used to interpret them. Cultural safety begins with a state of mind. It involves a commitment to entering into rhythmic interactions that engage – where possible – at a pace determined by children, young people and their family members. Cultural safety requires a bi-cultural exchange – between my culture and yours. Multi-cultural practices provide little guidance for direct action other than to offer a general list of principles, or so-called unit standard of competence. If action is required to ensure that a child or young person is made safe or because they are a threat to others, it is still essential that they are helped to process and make sense of information pertaining to their circumstances, and the meaning of events occurring beyond their control. In helping young people to make sense of what is happening in their lives, this has to be done in terms that have meaning for them, using words and a language they understand. Otherwise, Child and Youth Care Workers remain open to accusations of cultural racism. Guarantees of cultural safety go beyond good intentions, too often informed through ethnocentrism and untested assumptions.


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