Research to disrupt anti-Black racism in Ontario’s child welfare system

Newsroom authorby Vitusha OberoiDec 1, 2022

As an assistant professor at the School of Child and Youth Care at the Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU), with an advanced diploma in Child and Youth Care from Sheridan and a bachelor’s and a master’s degree to his name – plus ongoing work on his PhD – Travonne Edwards (Child and Youth Care Worker ’14) has come a long way from a childhood marred by racial profiling, discrimination, and anti-Black racism.

Travonne Edwards

The once resistive youth, who recalls being bullied by some of his teachers, is now preparing the grounds for dismantling the structural racism which he encountered through most of his school years. As a PhD candidate, Edwards is researching the overrepresentation of Black families in the child welfare system. His program of research includes a project to map the disparities faced by them, and is in partnership with University of Toronto and One Vision, One Voice, an entity within the Ontario child welfare system that focuses on eliminating racial disparities for Black children.

“This project is different from any other because it is starting with an understanding that anti-Black racism is a factor in force, shaping the realities and decision-making practices of workers in the child welfare system. It is looking at ways in which anti-Black racism is occurring across the child welfare service continuum, starting with the intake and continuing all the way to a young person being placed in out-of-home care, such as group homes and foster homes,” Edwards says.

“Growing up, I loved school, but by Grade 3 my experiences weren't so pleasant. I often felt bullied and picked on by teachers. There was a day when a teacher put my desk in the hallway and told me to work there.”

Edwards is steering the project with his long experience as a critical youth worker and Research and Evaluation Specialist at York University’s Youth Research Evaluation and Exchange. Above all, what fuels his passion for the project are his love for his community and his own personal experiences as a Black child pushing against systemic racism.

“Growing up, I loved school, but by Grade 3 my experiences weren't so pleasant. I often felt bullied and picked on by teachers. There was a day when a teacher put my desk in the hallway and told me to work there,” Edwards recalls.

While he sat alone, practising cursive writing, his mother came by with his lunch and was appalled to find her eight-year-old son studying in the unsupervised hallway, isolated from his class. When she confronted the school principal about it, he said: “Travonne Edwards is a good kid because he does not sell drugs.”

Edwards says he can never forget that striking remark.

“I was not too sure of the connotation at the time, but for me now, what the principal said to my mom that day is emblematic of structural anti-Black racism many Black youth experience to this very day. This experience single-handedly shaped the ways in which I understood the system and moved forward,” says Edwards.

“What's clear is that Black families are facing extreme overrepresentation in the system, often driven by referrals that are not necessarily founded on maltreatment – they are driven by allegations.”

In Grade 10, Edwards was assigned to a Child and Youth Care worker who changed his life. Edwards wanted to be like him and help other youth who struggled against systemic inequities and institutional biases. “He inspired me to go to school to be able to do what he was doing, and that's why I decided to apply to Sheridan College, to pursue my education in Child and Youth Care,” he says.

Edwards’ first job after leaving Sheridan was with a local school board. “I went into the work super excited, wanting to make a change and I was given a lot of opportunities to do so. I loved what I did. I loved being able to work with young people, see the smiles on their faces, and to make those incremental changes,” he says.

However, as he moved to other jobs in the child welfare sector, he realized that what he was doing wasn’t enough. “I started to recognize that there are structural and institutional cultures that needed to be tackled before a meaningful practice could take place,” he says. The realization motivated him to pursue a career in community-based research, exploring the issues impacting Black youth on the frontlines.

“There's an appetite for change. Young people are speaking up and there’s an opportunity for us to really utilize this research as a knowledge base for structural change to move towards social justice.”

Edwards is hoping to see a positive change in how Black families experience and interact with systems. “What's clear is that Black families are facing extreme overrepresentation in the system, often driven by referrals that are not necessarily founded on maltreatment – they are driven by allegations. As a result of this overreporting, Black families encounter quite negative outcomes and experiences across the child welfare continuum,” he says.

Edwards is currently working as an assistant professor at TMU, but his first opportunity to teach came from his alma mater. In 2016, he was a part-time professor in the Child and Youth Care program at Sheridan. “It was very humbling for me to be able to come back to the very same home that I graduated from to inspire students and show them my trajectory, and how similar things can be true for them if they have a passion for this work,” he says.

“There's an appetite for change. Young people are speaking up and there’s an opportunity for us to really utilize this research as a knowledge base for structural change to move towards social justice.”

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