Donna Alexander works as a social worker at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), and specializes in addiction and mental health, primarily working with Black families and youth through the Substance Abuse Program for African Canadian and Caribbean Youth.
In 2007, encouraged by one of YSM’s volunteers, Donna brought her services to our Evergreen Centre. She began working in YSM’s drop-in area, connecting with youth and building relationships with them. Soon a collaboration was formed between YSM and CAMH and Donna started spending every Thursday afternoon serving in the Evergreen Health Centre, and supporting the volunteer psychiatrist with the case-load. “My job was to do triage and see new clients, talk to them about what kind of support they needed – counselling, psychotherapy . . . Sometimes they just needed someone to talk to. I could talk to them and at least they wouldn’t leave without receiving some support.”
It was through the Evergreen Centre that Donna initially met Marcia, YSM’s Director of Family Services and lead of our Diversity and Inclusion Committee. When, years ago, Marcia moved from Evergreen to Cornerstone Family Services, they kept in touch, referring clients back and forth between their programs and serving together for years on the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto (CAS of Toronto) Advisory Board.
“We share some clients and work together in order to meet the clients’ needs. [A key part of our work] is to provide care that is culturally safe for our [Black or racialized] clients. The importance of the cultural piece in care is grossly underestimated. It’s the most important part of service provision. If people don’t feel understood, it affects their engagement. Without it, we won’t see the treatment outcomes we hope for.”
Donna’s uniquely positioned viewpoint has also given her insight into YSM’s partnership with CAS of Toronto. The partnership is focused on the disproportionate number of Black children in care, and shifting the child welfare model from reactive protection, such as taking children into foster care, to proactive prevention. The Cornerstone Partnership works to strengthen families in order to better keep them together, and to minimize family disruption and distress, while mitigating potential poor outcomes experienced by children relegated to the child welfare system.
“I think when we talk about keeping families together, all the pieces are really important. From a euro-centric perspective, people look at Black families and don’t see their strength and resourcefulness, they misunderstand the culture. We have to re-imagine how we provide child welfare services. The view is deficit-centred instead of asset-focused, ‘these are the reasons to keep them apart’ rather than ‘the reasons to keep them together’. This is why we keep ending up with separated families.
“I was excited about the [YSM and CAS of Toronto] partnership because I know the work [of YSM]. I know first-hand because I’ve worked with the staff and I see the dedication. My expectation from this partnership is that more families will continue to benefit as they navigate their way moving forward, out of the system and to build new lives for themselves.”
Learn more about YSM’s partnership with CAS of Toronto at ysm.ca/cornerstone-partnership