Cultural Considerations Working With Middle Eastern and North African Families, with Marina Bassili, PsyD

Season 5Episode 19November 23, 2023

What cultural factors may affect Middle Eastern and North African families when they come into contact with the U.S. child welfare system?

In the U.S., there are at least 1.2 million immigrants from Middle Eastern and North African countries, and close to 4 million descendants from prior waves of immigration. Yet there’s very little research on the experiences of those families with the U.S. child welfare system. What do we need to know to deliver relevant and culturally appropriate services? Are we affected by assumptions or stereotypes? Do we understand these families’ unique challenges and strengths? Dr. Marina Bassili joined us to help us explore the topic.

Topics in this episode:

  • Origin story (1:53)
  • What are MENA families? (4:25)
  • Families’ trauma history (9:15)
  • Myths, stereotypes, biases (12:31)
  • Cultural specifics to pay attention to (18:20)
  • Corporal punishment (20:42)
  • Advice for child abuse professionals (23:14)
  • A cup of tea (31:42)
  • Three takeaways (33:38)
  • Good intentions don’t stop racism (39:05)
  • For more information (40:46)


Marina Bassili, PsyD, licensed psychologist and adjunct faculty, Pepperdine University

Center of Excellence for Children in State Custody

Gimel Rogers, PsyD, ABPP

Cultural Considerations for Families Involved in the Child Welfare System: A Focus on Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) Families,” Marina Bassili, PsyD; Gimel Rogers, PsyD, ABPP; APSAC Advisor, 2023 Number 2

International Organization for Migration


For more information about National Children’s Alliance and the work of Children’s Advocacy Centers, visit our website at Or visit our podcast website at And join us on Facebook at One in Ten podcast.

Season 5, Episode 19

“Cultural Considerations Working With Middle Eastern and North African Families,” with Marina Bassili, PsyD

[Intro music begins]


[00:09] Teresa Huizar:
Hi, I’m Teresa Huizar, your host of One in Ten. In today’s episode, “Cultural Considerations Working With Middle Eastern and North African Families”—or MENA families—I speak with Dr. Marina Bassili, licensed psychologist and adjunct faculty at Pepperdine University.

While events in the Middle East and North Africa often are in the news, we know far less about immigrants and their descendants in MENA families right here in the U.S. There are now at least 1.2 million immigrants from MENA countries, and close to 4 million descendants from prior waves of immigration in the U.S. Yet this comprises less than 3% of the foreign-born U.S. population.

Now principally, these families have immigrated from Iraq and Egypt, often fleeing war or persecution—well, or frankly both—but they can be found from all MENA countries.

Have we paid enough attention to how we provide relevant and culturally appropriate services to MENA families? Have we been operating based on assumptions or ill- and pre-conceived notions—or worse, stereotypes—when working with families? And do we understand both the unique challenges they face here and the unique strengths that Middle Eastern families and North African families bring? Most of all, how do we learn more—and how—to provide better services for these families?

I was so delighted to see this study—one of the first of its kind—focused on MENA families. And I know you’ll learn as much as I did from our discussion. Please take a listen.

[Intro music begins to fade out]

[01:53] Teresa Huizar:
Dr. Bassili, welcome to One in Ten.

Marina Bassili:
Thank you for having me.

Teresa Huizar:
So I want to start a little bit at the beginning, I guess, with: How did you come to study and write about this intersection between Middle Eastern and North African families and the child welfare system?

Marina Bassili:
Yeah, so it’s kind of a long-winded story, and it has some to do with my personal background, and a big reason that I came into the field of psychology, in part to serve my community back. I’m of Coptic Egyptian heritage, so I’m part of that ethno-religious community that we reference in our article, Dr. Rogers and I. That’s kind of the personal part that my background played into my interest.

And then the other part of it is kind of where my clinical training took me. So, I always knew I wanted to work with children and adolescents from—probably since childhood, honestly. I didn’t know what capacity, but as I went further into my doctorate program, I was working in a variety of settings. I worked in community mental health, and that’s probably what initially sparked the interest. But I didn’t really know how to go about doing any type of research or what that looks like. And what I found, ultimately, is that there hasn’t been a lot of research in this area to begin with. A lot of the articles that are even referenced in our article are maybe close to 20 years old at this point. So that’s one thing that kind of played in as well.

But working with families that were immigrant families, second generation like myself, there were a lot of limitations where I was trying to translate materials myself to serve the clients that were given to me in my caseload, because I happen to be the only person who was Arabic speaking. And even at that, my Arabic is—I wouldn’t say I’m fluent. I can’t read, I can’t write. Conversationally, I’m good. I’m there. That’s kind of what led into the interest.

And then I found myself ultimately working with children who have interfaced with the child welfare system while I was on internship in Tennessee. In 2019-2020, I was working at the Center of Excellence for Children in State Custody, which is a center that came out of trying to kind of catch those children who were falling between the cracks. And so that’s kind of the intersect where I became more interested in working in dependency, even delinquency. And that’s kind of what I’ve been doing since.

[04:25] Teresa Huizar:
One of the things that you mentioned, and I think it was really interesting, is that when I saw your article, I was really excited to see it because I myself could not think of another piece of literature that I had read … maybe ever, because if the piece is 20 years old, you know, I probably haven’t read it. I mean, I just feel it identified a gap I had not really thought about in the literature, and I just appreciate the fact that this article in and of itself, hopefully, will be the start of others who decide to write on this population as well.

But I also want to do a little sort of level-setting here, because when people hear the term “Middle Eastern and North African family,” they may be thinking sort of: Who exactly are we talking about? Can you just talk a little bit about the diverse groups of people who make up that term?

Marina Bassili:
Absolutely. So it is a very diverse group of people that make up that term. Different people define this category differently. The International Organization for Migration defines the MENA—Middle Eastern/North African—region as including Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Western Sahara, occupied Palestinian territories, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, UAE the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. So it’s very, very expansive. And that’s not to mention, again, the different definitions that people self-identify with.

[06:00] Teresa Huizar:
I appreciated the fact that right almost at the outset of your paper, you pointed this out. Not only that there are sort of differences of opinions about how this should be defined but also that we can’t lump people together. That even though we’re going to talk using these broad terms that, in fact, every single cultural group has its own unique strengths, its own unique practices, its own unique views about things. And that that in and of itself is something that’s worth paying attention to so that we don’t overly generalize about any group.

However, there are some broad sort of contextual things—more about the environment, maybe, than even the groups themselves—that affect the families that you’re talking about. And can you talk a little bit about some of these, like immigration and language barriers that other groups themselves may experience but certainly impact Middle Eastern and North African families to some degree?

Marina Bassili:
Yeah, so there is a lot there, and I hope I can do it some justice. But some of the factors to take in historically, both for immigrant populations that have been—kind of like third, fourth generation, maybe even beyond that, in the United States. There’s a vast history of political instability that have accounted for different waves of immigration to the United States. And then above and beyond that, in maybe the last 20 years or so, I mean, there’s ongoing instability. We know right now what’s going on in Israel and Gaza. And that’s one example of something that has historically been ongoing. And that’s not the only region in the Middle East that has ongoing political instability and conflict, whether it’s due to religious, financial reasons, a variety of reasons.

So there’s the aspect of historical trauma for people who have recently immigrated or who are, you know, living in these countries. And then there’s the historical trauma that comes from living in the United States for multiple generations with some of these political issues that have been present for years and years.

So, within the United States, some of the things that I’m thinking about and referencing, like, for example, 9/11 plays a huge role in terms of how people from Middle Eastern, North African, Arab-identifying, Arab-speaking cultural groups are perceived in the United States. And even beyond that, there are multiple events. That’s just kind of a big salient one for people that you can kind of think about how that affected the societal perception of people from these backgrounds in the United States.

And then for those who are more recent immigrants, we have people coming from religious discrimination. My parents immigrated to the United States because we were a religious minority in Egypt and there is ongoing discrimination.

One of the factors that I reference in my article as well is that, for a lot of people who come from these different subgroups, religion precedes even ethnic identity. And so that’s another thing that is often overlooked, like the religious aspect and how that plays into historical trauma.

[09:15] Teresa Huizar:
You know, one of the things I was thinking about as you were talking—and I want to dive more into the religious piece in a bit—but one of the things I was thinking about is, I think sometimes when we are dealing with families who have immigrated to the U.S.—at whatever phase, whether it’s first generation, second, third, or fourth—we forget that the very reason that brought them here often was something traumatic to their family. Whether that’s political upheaval, or it could have been a natural disaster, or maybe they were an economic refugee. I think often just child abuse professionals generally, not just the child welfare system, don’t take enough note about the kind of trauma history that many of these families arrive with. And also that the process of immigrating itself can be traumatic, depending on what people experience along the way.

And so I’m wondering, you know, as a clinician yourself, just sort of what have you seen in your practice that you think child abuse professionals should better understand about that? Because I just think there’s a lot of truly not knowing. You know, if you’re not a recent immigrant, or even a not recent immigrant yourself, you just may not be as tuned in. So you’re kind of going down a trauma symptom checklist and you’re thinking about child abuse that’s right in front of you or whatever, but you’re not sometimes thinking about these other things that are still very salient but may not be the presenting reason that a child got referred.

Marina Bassili:
Yeah. So often, in my training and education, and kind of to your point, we’re thinking about: Have you experienced physical abuse? Have you experienced child sexual abuse? Have you experienced whatever ACEs [adverse childhood experiences], right? We’re thinking about the ACEs. We’re thinking about emotional abuse. We’re thinking about neglect. We’re thinking about access to, like, medical resources. Are they getting checkups? We’re thinking about these things but what we’re not taking into account often is: Okay. Again, what were the reasons that they’re immigrating? Did their family have resources coming into the United States? Because that may account for a big proportion of people. And that narrative is going to be very, very different from somebody who’s fleeing with nothing.

If we’re not asking those questions, we don’t know what resources, what education level, and how those compound and layer onto whatever the referral may be. So things like: Do they have family here existing already? Do they have a social support system in the host country, or are they more isolated?

So people may come to Southern California, and they may have access to lots of community organizations, lots of religious organizations within like a 20-mile radius. Somebody moving to Arkansas may have to drive—and that’s if they have a car, right? Or if they have access to some sort of transportation. Those stories are going to look very different. And those families are going to have different struggles.

Same thing with: What is their level of education? Do they have formal education? We’re not starting at the same baseline if we’re looking at a family that is coming with resources versus a family that is seeking refuge in the United States and may have never had access to any sort of education. So those skills can generalize more easily, and we’re starting at very different levels.

So those are a few things that come to mind for me.

[12:31] Teresa Huizar:
It’s also probably the case that there may be myths or stereotypes or something, biases even, that we all—maybe they’re unconscious; we’re not even aware that we have them—but that we might have that may affect our work with families. And I’m just wondering if there are some sort of common myths that you would say: Let’s elevate our understanding of these families in such a way and dispel some of these myths so that we’re no longer relying on unconscious biases and stereotypes that we’ve seen in the media or other things.

Are there things that you just think, “Gosh, I’d really like child abuse professionals to think about or know this when they’re working with these families”?

Marina Bassili:
Yeah. There are a few that come to mind. But also I wanted to add to your point that sometimes it’s not even just conscious or unconscious. Some of these biases can be internalized by individuals within these subgroups themselves.

Teresa Huizar:

Marina Bassili:
So, even the idea of, like, rejecting their culture of origin, their background of origin, that can come into play. Cultural gaps can come into play within the family itself. But in terms of some of the stereotypes: religious fundamentalism. Not every family is going to—even if they may identify with a certain religious identity or certain religious group. And like I just mentioned a few minutes ago, for many people, religion may precede any other aspect of their cultural identity, that intersectionality aspect of things. But not every family who identifies as Muslim or practices Islam to the same degree. And so that’s something to keep in mind. We don’t want to assume like: Okay, I’m coming from a culturally responsive lens. So I’m going to ask about their religion and assume it comes first.

Also, things like patriarchal and authoritarian parenting, family dynamics, parenting styles. So, assuming that every family adheres to a patriarchal structure. Even though that’s kind of the predominant structure, that’s one thing that maybe people might make an assumption about, and they need to reel it back in before diving in too deep.

The other thing that I was thinking about, which plays out in not just MENA families but really a lot of ethnically diverse families, there’s kind of this, it’s not an assumption, but this underlying notion among a lot of—and I won’t say just professionals either, but societally—that people who are not fluent in English are automatically of lower intelligence or lower cognitive functioning. That’s something that is—it plays out. It’s real. And so kind of even taking a step back and challenging that and saying, “Okay, this is their second language. How many languages do I know? And am I fluent in, right? And can I navigate in.” Or even just thinking about how challenging that might be to be able to navigate resources when you don’t speak a lick of English.

So things like that. Those are things that come to mind.

[15:36] Teresa Huizar:
That’s really helpful. And as you were talking about the English-speaking part of it, one of the things that I was thinking about was the fact that often we make wrong assumptions because a child may present whose English is pretty good. And we haven’t really thought about, well, first of all, the fact that a child picked up English very quickly and it’s very good doesn’t necessarily mean that their caregiver is going to understand materials that we give them in English to the same degree or are talking to them in that way.

But also, it’s kind of a role reversal in the family if you’re also sort of relaying information to a child that would normally be given to a caregiver because of your own comfort level with whatever the sort of language preference or first language of use is for a family. And being careful about that, too. Because we see that with other cultural groups that it’s—I mean, it’s not just a confidentiality and privacy issue. It’s also, I think, can be interpreted as a matter of respect and disrespect if you’re sending a child in to interpret things for an adult that really are intended for adult ears. And so I think that that’s something we have to think about too.

Marina Bassili:
Absolutely. And to add to that, in situations where it is the case that the child is the one who is more fluent, then, above and beyond the barriers of, like, just getting the information into the hands of the parent, it’s also looked at as parentification. Which that’s not really—there’s no intent of, uh, parentification of the child in that situation, but it’s kind of just, it is what it is. It’s the circumstances. And so that’s an added layer of this negative view of, like: They’re not doing their job as parents.

[17:17] Teresa Huizar:
You know, one of the things in the Children’s Advocacy Center world is, we’re very keen on the idea that, if someone does not speak English, then whatever language they do speak, there needs to be a professional person doing the interpretation of that. Not relying on a sibling, relying on a family member, this sort of thing.

But I think for other aspects of the child abuse prevention and intervention world, they may not have rules around that. I think it’s very easy to fall into, while I’m trying to communicate the only person I can communicate with seems to be the child, and just kind of almost accidentally falling into that. And I really appreciate you kind of highlighting the various problems with it. Not just the ones I identified, but the issue that it can sort of be counted against the parent that they put their child in a role. And frankly, the only reason they were put in that place is really because we didn’t have the services, you know, needed and available for this family. So I really appreciate you highlighting that.

If you don’t mind, I want to sort of pivot for a minute, because I appreciated so much in the paper how you laid out some of what you viewed as, I don’t know if it’s cultural differences, but things that are certainly culturally specific that are worth paying attention to. Not overgeneralizing, but paying attention to when working with families.

And you’ve already named a couple of them. One had to do with religious identity and its importance. And also, talking a little bit about parenting structures, which may in some cases be more patriarchal or authoritarian, I want to give you the opportunity to, first of all, say more if you want to about any of those but also, you noted some others that I think maybe are less easily seen by professionals but also important. Like the focus on sort of collective good and the family unit rather than maybe some more individualistic aspects of Western culture.

Even though again, we want to be careful to say every family’s different, you have to check in with all families. But can you talk a little bit about the way that we should shape our approach to families based on understanding that some of these things may very well, to some degree, impact the families in front of us?

Marina Bassili:
Yeah, so I think you just did a great job of giving a broad overview of some of the key points. But I think the main thing is understanding that shared goal of looking at convergences rather than divergences.

Teresa Huizar:
Mmm. Mmm.

Marina Bassili:
So what I mean by that is: Okay, so we all want the good of the child, right? What does that look like for this family? So how close are they with their parents? How closely tied are they with maybe their religious identity and organization in their community?

Hospitality is one of those highly emphasized values. Also, respect for authority, respect for elders. Those are highly emphasized values, often. And, taking a step back, it’s hard to know what you don’t know, so I appreciate you even just highlighting that. Like, where can we start in terms of awareness?

But coming in with that understanding that maybe somebody coming into your office has never interacted with a professional in this capacity. Maybe they didn’t even have professionals in this capacity in their country.

I think one thing that might be important to highlight is corporal punishment.

Teresa Huizar:
Oh, yeah. Please talk about that.

Marina Bassili:
So that’s an area where there are going to be divergences between Western ideals and, again, not to overgeneralize, but those more Eurocentric—where we’re coming from as professionals—our training, legal mandates, cultural and societal norms in the United States versus a lot of ethnically diverse groups utilize corporal punishment differently than what we’re thinking of when we think of corporal punishment as abusive. I do want to say this is not to at all minimize the effects of corporal punishment in terms of when it is abusive. But it calls into that question of: When is it actually abusive?

So something interesting that I want to bring attention to is that most allegations coming into the child welfare hotlines are for neglect. And those are most of the cases that are substantiated. In terms of the most prevalent allegation in a lot of ethnically diverse groups—and that’s ranging from Black, Latinx, and then a lot of the subgroups that we’ve been talking about that are less widely represented—the most prevalent all allegation is corporal punishment. But when we look at the actual rates of substantiation, we’re not seeing that those are substantiated at a higher rate.

And so again, it calls into question like: Okay, so, if we’re seeing that there’s maybe more of a prevalence—or we’re looking for it more; that’s another question—are we looking for it more in these, these ethnically diverse groups? There may be some evidence to support that, those stereotypes that we’re talking about, we are looking for it more. Because the numbers don’t add up in terms of representation.

Teresa Huizar:
Like looking for or expecting to find more harsh parenting, basically.

Marina Bassili:

Teresa Huizar:
Yes. Interesting. That’s very interesting, and I think something for us all to be thoughtful about as I think, you know, a field we’ve been paying much more attention to—and need to pay even more to—the issue of disproportionality in child welfare. I think that that is something that’s of concern to us all. And very interesting that—and I didn’t even realize—that the number one referral for MENA families is for physical abuse. But not the substantiation, right? That’s just … interesting and disturbing.

Marina Bassili:

Teresa Huizar:

Marina Bassili:
Yeah, MENA families along with other ethnically diverse families that come into contact. Yeah.

[23:14] Teresa Huizar:
You know, a moment ago you were talking about some of these things that may be culturally specific in terms of things child abuse professionals should be thinking more about. You know, we talked about religion, we talked a little bit about sort of ideas of collectivism versus individuality, the way families are sort of constructed, those kinds of things.

And one of the things I really appreciated you kind of turning to is the fact that we should look for convergence rather than divergence, you know, looking at the common good and common goal we’re trying to achieve with kids. And it seems to me that a lot of what you’re talking about is also how you take some of these things and how might a professional work with a family in a way that leverages these as strengths. Or some aspect of them as something that can be used as a social support, or as something that may provide for additional family stability, that might allow a child to remain in the home.

Because a lot of the focus of your paper was about ensuring that we’re not just snatching kids out of families. For all the reasons we know that that can be very—not only difficult for families but ultimately harmful in many cases to them.

So could you talk a little bit, like using an example? So let’s say that we knew that a family had a particular religious affiliation. Is there a way in which one could use that knowledge to the benefit of the family in one’s work with them in order to help sort of bolster the family? Or pick any one of the others. But I’m just thinking, like, sometimes it’s helpful for people to hear an example. You had a great case study in the paper, but we, you know, probably can’t go through the whole case study. But can you just give an example? Because I think it’s helpful for people to hear, yes, this might be unique, but it can also be uniquely leveraged—

Marina Bassili:

Teresa Huizar:
—in a way that’s beneficial.

Marina Bassili:
Yes. So faith can serve as a protective factor, above and beyond the specific situations that we’re talking about. But for a lot of these families, they may hold a very high value. And so it can play into perceptions of even health, well-being, mental illness, free will, choice, why things happen the way that they do. So if you’re bringing religion into the conversation, you can gain insight as to what is their understanding of why certain things have happened the way they’ve happened.

Is it because they truly have a belief that everything happens the way that it should? And that there’s kind of this sovereign being that is acting as being in control of all of the factors that have played out to date to bring them to where they’re at then? Or do they see it as more of autonomous and I play into us ending up in this situation?

So that can give insight. So going off of that, depending on—it kind of ties into almost like a locus of control, where you’re gauging their belief on “how much of this is beyond my control” versus “how much of this is in my control,” then you can leverage that. Either to promote more autonomy, to promote, even maybe leveraging in religious figures in the community who can kind of speak to them about how much of it may be due to God’s will, for example, and how much of it may be something that we can do something about.

Those are a couple of ways. So bringing in, like, their beliefs, asking about their beliefs, getting an understanding, rather, again, than making an assumption about everybody kind of looking at things from this individualistic, like, “this is my will, my choice” type of thing. And then also bringing in community figures. That’s a big, big one, because they may be able to level with the people coming into your office better than you can and they can also give you additional insight into the family.

Because another aspect of that is that, when people are maybe coming into our offices or coming into contact with agencies, they may have this perception that, we don’t question what the professional is saying, or even if we may disagree with it, this is not the place to say it because they are the professional. So even those values, those views, if they’re coming up, we may not know as the professional. And so again, for your example about religion, we can bring in religious figures and get an understanding from them. Like, how is treatment going? How are they engaging? Do you feel like they are engaging? Do you feel like they agree at all? So it’s a really good example, the religious aspect.

[27:49] Teresa Huizar:
It’s interesting because I think with many cultural groups, there are cultural brokers that are so helpful in helping us think about and navigate many of these things. I’m thinking about different conversations I’ve had in different episodes about the use of elders and others, which may have a real resonance depending on, as you say, sort of people’s belief in, you know, the place of community leaders, right? That’s essentially it. They’re informal community leaders, but they have such an important role.

One of the other things I’m thinking about is, most of the listeners that we have are going to be working cross culturally a lot of the time, right?, when they’re working with Middle Eastern and North African families. Often people, in their efforts to be respectful, sometimes worry about “should I bring these issues up?” or “how do I bring them up respectfully and don’t say something that’s going to be offensive?” So do you have any advice about that or guidance? Because I think this is what holds clinicians and child abuse professionals back from having some conversations they may need to have.

Marina Bassili:
I do. I do. I have a lot of thoughts about this. So one thing is, rapport is incredibly important. If you can establish a good rapport by being authentic, genuine, present, showing up, like you actually care. Which can be tough. There are a lot of constraints. I’m not saying it’s easy. There are a lot of pulls on time, resources. Workers are overburdened. They have huge caseloads. It can be really hard to even just be present. But it’s mor—it’s even more important and critical to the work with families that may have a different background.

And more often than not, that’s going to be the case, because there’s disparity in representation with the professionals. Even the research. I mean, that’s probably something that contributes to the fact that you’ve never seen an article like this. So people are looking into, in academia, the topics that they’re interested in. And so, as there’s more representation within professionals, some of these things may be mitigated. But as it stands right now, like you said, you’re going to have this incongruence, oftentimes, between the professionals working and the stakeholders and the families that are coming into contact.

So building rapport is incredibly important. Just take the time to really show that you’re with them, that you’re trying to understand. Because that can make it a lot easier to come back from an incorrect assumption. You know, do your due diligence to get information as to an understanding of what may be norms within that community. And then come in and ask, “What does it look like for your family? This is what I understand. I’m trying to get an understanding. But what does it look like for your family?”

So don’t shy away from the conversations because you could be missing something that’s hugely important or would be critical to continued engagement, for example. And by shying away, because we’re afraid we could be doing a lot more harm than good, that may come off as “I’m not putting in an effort to understand you.”

So, cultural humility is a big one. Even having an understanding of culture that spans beyond language and ethnic racial identity. What else plays into who these people are?

So, I’m going to leave it at rapport because that can give you a reserve. It’s like a piggy bank of relationship that, if and when—and we all mess up. If and when we do mess up, there is something there that we can build on and even provide a corrective experience as professionals, like, “Help us understand. Help us understand better.”

[31:42] Teresa Huizar:
One of the things that you noted earlier was about sort of values around hospitality. And I’m wondering how you think about when a child abuse professional or clinician is first interacting with the family. Is there something that they should be thinking about in regard to that value around hospitality that may show respect right from the outset? Or show an understanding of that cultural value right from the outset?

Marina Bassili:
Yeah. An example that comes up in the article is offering tea. Tea, coffee—especially tea—is essential. People get bad news, they gather around tea. People have something to celebrate, they might gather around tea. You’re invited over to somebody’s home, or you’re gathering after church, there may be tea or coffee. Just even having it available and offering it can be a really quick way to kind of lower defenses, because this is something that is comfortable. It’s familiar.

So something as simple as that. I wouldn’t say, saying anything in a language that you’re not comfortable in or anything like that. But something as simple as that, just offering shows an understanding of, like, you’re trying to make this a safe place.

It can really make it more of a familiar place, and it’s something easy to do. And it’s not really a huge, potential ethical—you’re not offering anything of significant monetary value or anything like that. So.

[33:14] Teresa Huizar:
Right. You’re not offering a gift. You’re offering a cup of tea. And it’s also sort of lovely. I mean, I do think that people just overall do lower their defenses often when—

Marina Bassili:
Food. Drink.

Teresa Huizar:
Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

Marina Bassili:
It’s communal.

Teresa Huizar:
Yes. Isn’t that why at our multidisciplinary team meetings we often have food or drink? For the same reason. And team meetings and all of the other things.

So I’m just wondering, you know, we’ve talked about so many important things. But if you said, “Look, if people listen to this, if the listeners take away these three things from this conversation, here’s what I absolutely want them to know and leave with,” what would those be?

Marina Bassili:
I have a few, I have a few key takeaways. I think this whole conversation speaks to the importance of education and awareness.

So, starting with an understanding of: I’m not going to know everything. I can’t know everything. I’m never going to achieve cultural competence. That’s something that has been talked a lot about in, like, academic settings and professional settings. I’m not going to achieve a level of cultural competence. That should not mean that I’m not going to try again to do my due diligence and get an understanding. Practicing cultural humility, that is a place to start. So: “This is what I’ve learned. This is what I understand. Help me—help me learn more about you.”

So education and awareness for families, professionals, policymakers, other stakeholders. Also coming in with an understanding that you may be a point of education for the families that you work with. So don’t jump straight into things. When there are these differing values, and maybe this is again, first interface with you as a professional in this capacity, first interface with child welfare. You may be the first person who’s ever told them that corporal punishment is not the norm here in the United States. It’s something that is looked down upon. That may be something that they really don’t know. So having an awareness that you may be the point of education, taking the time to really understand, like, where is this family at?

The other things that I think are important takeaways is building family-centered and community-based practice.

Professionals who work with ethnically diverse families, we want to work to build up the family unit. So that speaks again to some of the points you brought up earlier. Like, what are some things that have maybe historically been considered risk factors but that we can look at as strengths? So that communal value.

So, not positioning family members, like, having the adolescent children challenging their parents, for example. How can we build on that alliance of this relationship of respect and honor the values of honor, loyalty? How can we build on those things and take them into account rather than having people try to conform to some of the more widespread values in the host culture, if you will.

The other part of that in terms of building up the family unit, we want to do everything in our power to be creative about how to avoid dismantling the family unit, because that can cause further traumatization.

So keeping in mind that this family may—this whole experience may be traumatic for them in that they are fearful. Maybe what they’ve heard about child welfare is that they take away your children. That is something that is, I know in my community, something that people, when they immigrate to America, they are told, “Keep things within your family because if a report is made, they may take away your children.” And imagine just how traumatic it is to have an allegation then, and a case opened. That in itself can be traumatizing. So we don’t want to add further trauma. So just again, being mindful and aware and creative can be really, really helpful. Just take a moment to take pause and think about, “Okay, what does this family need? What does this all mean to this family?”

And I’ll say the last thing is—one of the things we didn’t talk a whole lot about but I talk a lot about in the article is language barriers. So I talk about some of the difference between Black and Latinx families and when they come into interface with the child welfare system versus some of the other ethnically diverse groups, we’ve talked about in terms of language representation. You mentioned a little bit.

There are major limitations. Sometimes there are not going to be people that you can link up with. But maybe go out of your way to find someone who can translate materials if they’re not available in a certain language. Just because it’s not available in English or Spanish, or maybe Chinese—some of these big language groups that we have in the United States. Go the extra mile. It may be difficult. You may be really limited, I know for sure. And I imagine you’ve come face to face with this where it’s like, “Okay, maybe we have one person who speaks Arabic, but they don’t speak the same dialect.”

We kind of have to do what we can. If we just say, like, “Okay, I don’t have access to the resource that this family needs. So they’re not going to get it.” Again, we might be doing more harm than good. And that does happen sometimes for fear of: “I don’t have somebody who is a medically certified interpreter.”

So keeping in mind that there are different levels of access to resources and education and really just getting creative about how we can assist and serve.

[38:41] Teresa Huizar:
Well, and making sure we’re not reinforcing inequity. Right, you know—

Marina Bassili:

Teresa Huizar:
—if we have to be careful that we’re not just going, well, you know, we—

Marina Bassili:
the things that lead to the disparate adverse—

Teresa Huizar:
That’s right. That’s right.

Marina Bassili:
—things that we’re talking about.

[38:53] Teresa Huizar:
We’re spending a lot of energy now trying to undo things that we created ourselves. So, let’s not expand that to yet other cultural groups where we create the same problems for ourselves—

Marina Bassili:

Teresa Huizar:
—all over again.

Well, I could talk to you all day. I know you actually have other responsibilities, too. So I’ll end with this question, which is, is there anything else I should have asked you or anything else that you just want to make sure that our listeners know about before we go today?

Marina Bassili:
I think I’ll end with: Good intentions don’t stop institutional racism from happening. The child welfare system was built on noble good intentions but can actually serve to perpetuate those despair outcomes that we’ve been talking about.

So again, being mindful of: “Okay, where am I coming from? Maybe my intentions are good. But how can I maybe be reinforcing some of the things that perpetuate issues?”

So it’s not about making any one person the enemy or making any one entity kind of malicious, but really understanding that good intentions, while they can go a long way, is not enough.

What else can we do from there? I’ll end with focusing on that shared goal of: What is in the best interest of the children? And, taking a step back, is my definition of best interest the same as what this family’s definition of best interest is?

So I think I can end with that.

[40:16] Teresa Huizar:
Well, I appreciate so much what you’re pointing out, which is what we are all about, or should be all about is focusing on good outcomes and not just good intentions. And I think that that at the end of the day is what our entire discussion has been about.

[Outro music begins]

So, Dr. Bassili, I just so appreciate you coming onto the podcast. And come back anytime. We’d love to talk to you more. I know you have just a wealth of experience and knowledge on this and we can always benefit from it. So thank you so much for joining us.

Marina Bassili:
Thank you so much for having me.


[40:46] Teresa Huizar:
Thank you for listening to One in Ten. If you like this episode, please subscribe and listen to great guests about every two weeks. And for more information about this episode or any of our others, please visit our podcast website or follow One In Ten podcast on Facebook. See you next time.

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