Black children in Care: Health, hair and skin

Over the years as a social worker, I noticed that some white foster carers, who have cross-cultural placements, lack the information and support they need to truly help their black child flourish whilst embracing their identity.

So, ‘is it okay, if I use cooking oil on her hair and skin?’ whispered an embarrassed middle aged white foster carer. I was her then social worker, who mentioned the importance of using ‘oil’ to moisturize’ her mixed heritage foster child’s hair and skin. I was stunned…literally!

This was my call into action. How many other white foster carers committed to providing the best care to black children had similar questions, the same angst, and embarrassment? What other questions did she not have the answers to? How were the children, already traumatized by bad circumstance and removal from the familiar, feeling?

The book Black Children In Care: Health, Hair and Skin is written by Denise Lewis and Flora Awolaja. It has positive images of children, who appear happy and confident. It is divided into two main themes, hair and skin, with health running as a golden theme throughout.

In relation to hair the readers are taken on a journey which includes the science of hair, the history of cornrow, hair care, as well as a step by step of how to cornrow.

The advice on skin care sensibly promotes a holistic approach, with guidance on appropriate natural skin care products that are effective for black and mixed heritage skins.

Sickle cell anaemia as a health issue, which disproportionately affects people of African and Caribbean heritage, is also given some focus within the book; this is a very serious illness, and without the correct care and attention, it can be fatal. The book also contains pages on traditional African/Caribbean recipes, e.g. Jollof Rice, Rice and Peas, Jerk Chicken.

Many probably assume that in the 21st century we would not be dealing with these issues in the care sector, unfortunately we are. White foster carers need to be empowered by having more information about caring for black children. Black children need to be empowered to enable them to become confident, capable, well rounded adults. Especially when living away from home in a cross-cultural placement. Identity, culture, and heritage help to form this sense of empowerment. All of it needs to be acknowledged and actioned.

We gave the book to a focus group of black care experienced children and young people (from the young Lambeth children’s rights my voice project), to preview. All of the comments and feedback were very positive and inspiring. These are the lived experience of black children who have experienced care in a cross-cultural placement:

“Having come from a transracial placement myself, this book would have been great for me some years ago in my teenage years as my foster family was mainly white so there are some things they would not know or be familiar with”.

At a conference a young black women saw the book, and burst into tears. She explained that she grew up in a children’s home, hated her skin, and hair as a child. She stated that the book would have been of great benefit to her, and given her a strong sense of self.

With perseverance, determination and a chance meeting at the Cutty Sark, we were lucky enough to get Lemn Sissay to write the prologue for our book. Lemn Sissay, himself a young black child fostered into a white family from birth, where he remained until he was 12 years old, after his white foster carers decided they did not want him anymore, Lemn understood the need for this book. Quote from Lemn Sissay in the prologue:

“In the world we live in today, self-image is important, it is amour and wings” What a gift to give your foster child, amour and wings to travel.”

Black Children in Care is written by Denise Lewis and Flora Awolaja. A version of this blog, written by Denise Lewis, previously appeared on the Guardian Social Care Network social life blog.

What experiences do you have of care in a cross-racial placement?

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One response to “Black children in Care: Health, hair and skin”

  1. Jacqui says:

    Excellent to see information for white foster carers of Mixed race children. Mixed race children in care in what was called a Subnormailty hospital early 70’s had awful hair.It was the policy to cut all the children’s hair very short. However some Jamaican nurses did do the hair of one teenager living there and the difference was noticed.They did this after their shift finished. She was a weekly placement going home at weekends and mother supplied the right hair creams and also a skin cream. We had no idea of her personal needs.

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