The controversy surrounding the treatment of Sgt. Maurice McCabe by various State agencies has raised significant issues regarding the operation of our child protection system in Ireland. Issues that perhaps have needed attention for some time and that will now hopefully receive due attention. Before we try to disentangle the fallout from this controversy, let’s briefly remind ourselves of how the McCabe case unfolded.
It was revealed the child sexual abuse allegations made against Sgt. McCabe, referred to TUSLA (Irish State Child and Family Agency) in August 2013 by a counselor employed by the Health Service Exectuive‘s (HSE) National Counselling Service (NCS), were false. The HSE is Ireland’s national health service provider.
The following year in 2014, a TUSLA social worker opened files on all four of the McCabe children which also included their then adult children. It has yet to be determined why files were opened on adult children as this is not standard procedure within TUSLA practice or child protection practices. Additionally, it is also yet to be determined what was the reason for the time delay from the initial referral?
It also emerged that the referral to TUSLA originated from the same individual connected with previous 2006 allegation of “inappropriate sexual behavior” against Sgt. McCabe. However, after an investigation by the Office of the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions), the investigation determined there were no grounds to proceed with prosecution against Sgt. McCabe.
Nine months after the NCS referral to TUSLA, the NCS contacted TUSLA to advise them that the referral had included an error. They stated:
“the line ‘that this abuse involved digital penetration, both vaginal and anal’ is an error and should not be in the referral. It is in fact a line from another referral on another adult that has been pasted in error”
An error that will surely gain significant attention under the Charleton inquiry which is investigating the alleged smear campaign against McCabe who was a whistleblower.
In 2016, approximately two years and four months after receiving the initial referral, a TUSLA social worker contacted Sgt. Maurice McCabe to advise that he was the subject of an allegation of child sexual abuse. Sgt. McCabe’s issued a statement through his attorney refuting the allegations and referred to the previous decision not to prosecute him. This was the first contact TUSLA made with Sgt. McCabe regarding the referrals they had received relating to him. The following June 2016, Social Workers informed Sgt. McCabe that there had been an error and that no such allegation was made against him. Again, another error that will surely receive significant attention.
The following June, in 2016, Social Workers informed Sgt. McCabe there had been an error and that no such allegation was made against him. Again, an error that will receive significant attention in McCabe’s defamation investigation.
So what’s the child protection context of all this?
In the ordinary course of things, the allegation of sexual abuse or inappropriate behaviour in childhood made to the NCS by the then adult individual constitutes what TUSLA terms a ‘Retrospective Disclosure’. This is a disclosure by an adult of abuse they experienced as a child. These types of referrals make up approximately 10% of TUSLA’s child protection caseload and have been the source of some controversy in recent years.
The independent Health and Quality Authority (HIQA) is tasked with assessing the efficacy and function of Tusla child protection and welfare services nationally. They carry out both announced and unannounced inspections of child protection and welfare services and in recent years have begun to pay attention to Tusla’s management and assessment of retrospective disclosures.
In recent reports, HIQA has deemed Tusla’s handling of such referrals as inadequate and posing potential risk to children. They have reported in respect of some services:
“…a large number of retrospective abuse referrals had not yet been assessed which meant that the potential risk to children was not fully known”; “inspectors found there were significant delays in the service assessing risks in relation to retrospective abuse and there were immediate and high risks that were not dealt with in a timely manner”.
An adult disclosure of abuse may relate to an incident that occurred decades ago. For example, a sixty year old man coming forward to disclose abuse he suffered when he was eight or nine. It may also, however, relate to abuse disclosed by a 19 year old in which the incident occurred when they were 17.
These disclosures, therefore like all referrals to child protection services, may or may not contain details of an alleged abuser, details of an identified child or children at risk or specific locations or dates of where and when the abuse took place. It may be argued that some of the more ‘historic’ of these referrals may contain no identifying information at all with no way for social workers to ascertain the level of risk to children. But what is crucial here is the above HIQA report which states, “referrals had not yet been assessed which meant that the potential risk to children was not fully known”.
As recently as February 2016, two months after their initial contact with Sgt. McCabe, TUSLA Child Protection services in Cavan were assessed by a team of HIQA investigators. The inspection was announced in other words the social work department knew the inspection would be taking place. HIQA reported, “there were waiting lists for assessments and for retrospective allegations of abuse and the system in place to manage the assessment wait lists was not robust”.
HIQA stated at this time that TUSLA team leaders kept a list of all adult referrals and that these cases had been audited and categorised with on-going liaison with the Irish State Police Service (Gardaí). This would appear to be good practice in the face of the growing number of referrals to TUSLA, albeit the cases are remaining on a waitlist for full assessment were required.
Despite this, reports concerning the handling of the allegations against Sgt. McCabe highlight a two-and-a-half-year delay in Social Work action on the matter. HIQA are not the only ones who have highlighted concern in respect of Tusla’s handling of retrospective cases.
As early as May 2015, then Senator, Jillian van Turnhout raised the matter with, then CEO of Tusla, Gordon Jeyes following the Laois/Offaly controversy; and as recently as July 2016 Fíanna Fáil frontbench spokesperson for Children, Anne Rabbitte TD, raised the matter in the Dáil (Irish Parliament) with Minister Zappone herself.
During this latter exchange, Minister Zappone acknowledged the failings in Tusla’s assessment of retrospective disclosures. She went on to acknowledge that frontline social workers are in a position where they are working from a draft guidance document and advised that she would seek clarification on the entire matter from Tusla, stating “I have asked to meet senior officials in Tusla next week to be updated on the steps they are taking to deal nationally with these cases, and on cases currently before the courts which may impact on Tusla’s practice in these matters”.
The Minister went onto state “I want Deputy Rabbitte to know that I do have concerns in relation to dealing with adult disclosure cases or retrospective cases. I would like to see timelines on when they have been allocated”. It would appear that the outcome of Minister Zappone’s meeting with Tusla following this exchange is relevant in respect of what is unfolding currently.
The bottom line is that retrospective disclosure of childhood abuses are not being prioritised or resourced. HIQA have noted long waiting lists in respect of these referrals to TUSLA and despite draft guidelines and a number of specific Tusla teams being set up to assess these cases the problems remain. What is occurring is a system failure within Tusla or maybe a failure due to a lack of a system being in place in the first place.
Frontline practitioners are not receiving adequate training and clarification in respect of how to handle retrospective allegations of abuse.
Competing Rights and Confusion
One of the key issues in this allegation or referral of abuse, which occurred in childhood, casts two sets of competing legal rights into play. The adult referrer’s right to justice and to have his/her referral investigated and the right of the alleged abuser to privacy, good name, and the presumption of innocence.
It is these competing rights which have caused the most confusion within the child protection system which is also the central cause of what can only be termed ‘paralysis’ in relation to the investigation of adult disclosures of childhood abuse. If an alleged abuser or victim refuses to engage with social work, does the duty to protect children cease? Justice Barr was quite clear that social workers have a duty to assess any potential future harm to identified or unidentified children. And to do this “before the risk crystallises into actual harm” as Justice Hedigan added in a later case.
It would appear that Tusla’s fear of suit in these matters, or maybe just sheer confusion, has led to these referrals being moved down the caseload list and in some cases not receiving an assessment at all. This can have detrimental effects on alleged perpetrators who, if falsely accused, want to clear their name. It also has effects upon victims who have taken a monumental step in disclosing the abuse they have suffered. Finally, it also affects the social workers who are tasked with assessing these cases. Competing rights to justice and good name hanging in the balance while these matters sit in social work offices.
The McCabe case deals with a false allegation against an individual. However, the central fear is the non-assessment of a referral for a child potential being abused by an individual who has been identified yet has failed to be assessed in a timely manner.
There are no winners in the McCabe case. While the political fallout is yet to be determined, we must remember, in this specific case, a man and his family have been put through hell at the hands of our most trusted of State institutions. Meanwhile, the reputation of confidentiality and professionalism of our child protection services and of our State-run counselling service hangs in tatters.
It is critical that steps are taken to rectify these issues, to support and guide front-line staff and ultimately to provide an efficient and sensitive service to those wishing to disclose abuse, those who may be falsely accused and all and any children who may be at actual or potential risk in our communities.
How Social Services Across Europe are Supporting the Integration of Unaccompanied Children
The European Social Network (ESN), in co-operation with its Swedish member, the National Board of Health and Welfare, organises the seminar ‘Migrant children and young people – Social inclusion and transition to adulthood’, in Stockholm on 23-24 October to address challenges in integrating unaccompanied children and young people in communities across Europe.
According to Eurostat figures, in 2015 and 2016 over 2.3 million asylum seekers arrived in the EU. It is expected that about 1.3 million of those will be granted refugee status.
The challenge is huge for local social services, most of them squeezed from years of austerity policies. The European Social Network, which monitors social services across Europe, has been working on the issue of unaccompanied children for several years to support the role of local and regional social services in ensuring the successful integration these vulnerable children in our societies.
With more than 130 participants from 18 countries already signed up, the seminar ‘Migrant children and young people – Social inclusion and transition to adulthood’ promises to be a unique opportunity to share insights on migrant children and young people’s inclusion in local communities and their transition to adulthood across Europe.
The registration is open to any individuals and organisations with an interest and expertise on the topic.
Also, the European Social Network is interested in hearing from people with direct experience of migration themselves and will fund the participation and accommodation of members of organisations representing unaccompanied children in care, young migrants or migrant families.
Based on a questionnaire that was conducted earlier in 2017, ESN collected data and examples of how local public social services are supporting the inclusion and transition to adulthood of unaccompanied children and migrant young people across European countries.
On top of local practices, several international organisations will take us through the policy instruments that have been developed so far to support unaccompanied children and migrant young people. International organisations confirmed so far are the European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, the OECD, the WHO and UNICEF.
The Swedish Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, as well as other representatives of national authorities, local authorities, NGOs and the media, will also be part of the debate. More information on the programme, the speakers and how to register can be found on this page, or do not hesitate to contact Valentina Guerra, ESN Policy Officer.
ESN and its work on unaccompanied children
The European Social Network (ESN) brings together people who plan, manage and deliver local public social services, together with those in regulatory and research organisations. It supports the development of effective social policy and social care practice through the exchange and transfer of knowledge and experience.
ESN has been working on unaccompanied children and young people since 2005, when a first report was published on the theme of the social inclusion of young asylum seekers and immigrants. Some of the issues highlighted in the report are still of relevance today, and even more so given the exceptional number of unaccompanied children and young people reaching EU countries since 2015.
Therefore, ESN published a second report in 2016 analysing the impact of the refugee crisis on local public social services in Europe and addressed the support for unaccompanied children at the launch of our publication “Investing in children’s services: improving outcomes”.
Grenfell Tower: Three Months On
If you aren’t still angry about the Grenfell Tower tragedy, you probably haven’t been listening. For (perhaps international) readers who have not yet heard this story – the story of an inferno in a London tower block. The story of a hellish injustice, and it both starts and ends with inequality.
The fire at Grenfell broke out back in June 2017. The nation’s horror was bright, the smoke still choking our words, and the broken building breaking our hearts. And yet, in the wake of Grenfell’s black ashes, the nation’s indignation has been sparked by other tragedies. However, Grenfell has not been forgotten.
Allow us to go from the beginning.
The affluent borough of Kensington, West London, is known for hosting numerous high-end eateries and shops, alongside the famous Royal Albert Hall. On average a person will pay a cool £2m for a house here – which suits those who earn the area’s mean salary of nearly £123k, but perhaps not those who earn the median (which is about a quarter of that). Kensington and Chelsea reportedly the most unequal borough in the country.
Grenfell Tower is – was – a block of 129 flats. Within it lived young artists, working adults, older adults (some with dementia), people with disabilities, schoolchildren. It housed the whole colourful spectrum of life, from infancy through to retirement. Read about the residents. Learn their names; learn their stories. The Grenfell Action Group, established in 2010 to defend “the rights of the residents of Lancaster West Estate”, repeatedly warned that the building in which these people lived was unsafe.
The Grenfell Action Group did the best they could – created a community collective, campaigned, gathered evidence and shared stories. Nobody listened. The tower, built in the 1970s, received a “refurbishment” in 2014. Cheap combustible cladding was used to cover the outside of the building – largely reported as a way to improve the appearance of the tower, for wealthier local residents. Their home was airbrushed with death.
Leaked documents suggest that the cladding was deliberately downgraded (from fireproof to combustible) to save £300,000, at a time when the council was actually in surplus of around £2.74 million. They had also recently given the rich (who payed full council tax) a £100 tax rebate in their “overachieving efficiency drive”. The cladding material is banned in continental Europe and the United States – in late June, Chancellor Philip Hammond suggested it may even be banned in the UK.
The Grenfell Action Group tried, again and again, to bring fire risks to the attention of those with the power to spare their lives. That particular post ends with chilling prophecy: “ONE THING IS CERTAIN – THEY CAN’T SAY THEY HAVEN’T BEEN WARNED.“A fire risk assessment back from 2012 noted a range of out-of-date fire safety checks. The cladding was unsafe. Rubbish and waste blocked fire exits. Reports to the government dating back to 2000 suggested that non-combustible external cladding should not be used on buildings. It’s all there.
The fire started in a flat on the 4th floor, apparently due to a malfunctioning refrigerator, around midnight on the 14th June. Approaching 1 AM, the first call to firefighers came in. Eventually, around 40 fire engines with around 200 firefighters were tackling the blaze. Despite their best efforts, it was not enough. Of course, the cladding was not responsible for the onset of the fire. However, it accelerated the blaze phenomenally. It wasn’t until 5pm the next day that firefighters reached the top floor.
However, it cannot be understated how much the power of the Grenfell community shone through – from offering shelter, food and taxi rides, to supporting grieving and traumatised individuals, to helping each other escape from the tower itself. Humanity was not lost from the side of the residents and locals. It wasn’t lost from the rest of the public. The Grenfell community was always there. It was never a blight. It was home.
The Prime Minister, Theresa May, initially suggested it would take three weeks for survivors to be found a new “home”. Later, this was recast as a promise offers that everyone would have offers of housing. As of 1st August 2017, only 45 “offers of accommodation” were made, with 12 families being rehoused. Some survivors ended up searching for private accommodation such as one man because his wife couldn’t leave the hospital until they had a home to go to. Others are now currently “bidding” for council housing.
As of the end of August, Freedom of Information requests have suggested that £4.2 million was spent by the council on hotels for survivors. And that’s not the only money in questionable status. Around this time, over half of the funds raised by charities after the fire were “available” for distribution. However, just over two-fifths of the money raised by charities to support survivors of the fire has actually reached the intended recipients. There was over a £16 million shortfall as of early August, but there have been some improvements since then.
The Metropolitan police have confirmed that the Grenfell Tower “tragedy” amounts to corporate manslaughter. Note how the “tragedy” is referred to as an “incident” or “disaster”, because heaven forbid we actually mention the people who created this situation.
Sir Moore-Bick, Judge presiding over the inquiry into the fire has suggested that his work will not give survivors the justice they deserve. The scope of the inquiry is only allowed to ask questions about the fire, but not the context of how flammable cladding was purchased for prettiness). Residents have not been consulted on the inquiry, and the – despite promises from the Prime Minister that they would be. So what now? How do we help?
We have the charity football match Game4Grenfell, the “Bridge Over Troubled Water” charity single with various celebrities and other public characters offering their support, condolences, and sympathies. We have empathetic stories about the futures missed, the A-levels passed, the art displays. We also have first-person accounts bluntly calling out what amounts to a context social cleansing which created this tragedy.
“I want to urge everyone in the media with the power to do it to give the individuals who work with and for you the space to do something, anything, in the wider community we communicate with.” – Journalist John Snow
What you are reading, then, is an article trying to harness media power. Firstly, it’s an article trying to prevent Grenfell’s ashes fading away in the wake of other, more recent tragedies and governmental abuses. Secondly, it’s an article to say: charity intervention is still not going to change the underlying causes.
When we do our post-mortem, we can’t just think about the specifics of the blaze. We need to include the socio-cultural fuel: poverty, inequality, contempt for the poor, an ignorance of people’s lived experiences. For example, the Grenfell Action Group documented first-hand what was going on, yet their stories which still has fewer views that mainstream second-hand sources.
Do we live in a country where tax rebates are paid for in blood money? Do we live in a country where we unashamedly let empty, million-quid houses lounge comfortably next to our crowded, deathtrap towers? Do we live in a country which still has nearly 230 other high-rise buildings at risk due to cladding?
Are you angry now?
Follow Grenfell Media Watch online, write to your MP, keep tabs on what the people in power are doing. Keep asking where the charity money has gone. Stop demonsing the poor, and/or immigrants, and/or people on benefits. Accept that, through no fault of their own, whole swathes of our society need a bit of a leg-up. If you hear other people doing the demonising, call them out. Read people’s own stories, in their own words, and believe them. Amplify the voices of people who are perfectly able to speak for themselves.
Grenfell is cold, but our hearts aren’t. Let us show more solidarity and support than just our sympathy and disbelief. Let’s continue to stand alongside each other.
Britain: We Need to Talk About the Benefits System
Whether we want to admit it or not, the benefits system is hurting people. It’s killing people, and something has to be done.
Examples of how the benefits system can kill include incidences of people starving to death in their own homes to the 600 benefits-related suicides that have been reported so far (and this is a conservative estimate). The suicides and other deaths related to benefits have been reported again and again. Reportedly, over 200,000 have been physically attacked as a result of claiming benefits, and, although it is not easy to unpick the reasons for this, approaching two and a half thousand people have died after being deemed ‘fit to work’.
A 2016 conference, Psychologists and the Benefits System: Time to Get Off the Fence was dedicated to just this topic. The British Psychological Society is also one of five official therapy/mental health organisations which have signed a statement opposing welfare sanctions due to the lack of evidence that they work, and the potential for harm.
After all, mental health has always been a social and political endeavor. If mental health professionals stay silent about our deadly benefits system, so deadly that the UK has been investigated by the United Nations for grave and systematic violations of human rights, are they not siding with the status quo?
A report from Cradle2Grave, a campaign against the abuse of human rights of people who rely on the state for financial help, highlight the shocking number of suicides which have been linked to welfare cuts.
In more than one case, it was the coroner themselves who suggested that the main cause of death was worry about benefits. A 2015 report from mental health charity MIND found that, as a result of the benefits system, job centre, and “help to work schemes”, around eight out of ten people:
- Felt less able to work (76%)
- Required more support from mental health services/GP as a result (86%)
- Had worse self-esteem (83%)
- Had worse confidence (82%)
And nearly a quarter of people were hospitalised or sectioned (i.e. legally detained) for mental health crises whilst on such schemes.
If this is the case, why is the rhetoric (and indeed, “commonsense”) view of people on benefits so at odds with reality?
One theory suggests that ordinary, compassionate people are able to stigmatise others because they feel that stigmatisation is justified (Crandall, 2003). British media has long been complicit in creating a culture whereby it is easy to stigmatise people on benefits, which creates fertile soil for this kind of thinking.
Stigmatising other people can be justified in two main ways. The first way is through the acceptance of a natural social hierarchy. The idea of a natural hierarchy is based on evolutionary theories, and is known as Social Darwinism – some people are intrinsically ‘workshy’, maybe worklessness runs in families (spoiler: it doesn’t), and so on. This image of the ‘benefits brood’ is designed to create a culture where an anti-welfare stance is the commonsense, rational way of seeing the world.
Secondly, stigma can be justified by suggesting someone is to blame for their own circumstances. This can include believing that the world is fundamentally just (i.e. people get what they deserve), and victim-blaming (poor people are lazy, make bad decisions and can’t plan properly, have too many children, spend frivolously, and are a burden on society). All of these stereotypes play out in empirical research into the matter.
Societal stigma can also lead to people who are on benefits repeating the same debunked myths about benefits, in order to distance themselves from the stereotype (i.e. “I’m a real/good/proper claimant”). This means that from all angles, this dangerous welfare narrative is being played out.
Better information and awareness may be one way to dispel these harmful stereotypes (necessary, perhaps, but unlikely to be sufficient). For example, people usually that ‘benefits’ means out-of-work, disability or child benefits. Newspaper stories reinforce this image. So do TV programmes such as On Benefits, Benefits Street, Benefits: The Millionaire Shoplifter, Skint, Dogs on the Dole, Benefits Britain: Life on the Dole, Undercover Benefits Cheat, Myleene Klass: Single Mums on Benefits and Benefits: Too Fat to Work (yes, they are all real programmes). As such, government welfare figures can be easily misconstrued and used to political advantage.
Contrary to the popular image, benefits as an umbrella term include fuel payments, cold weather payments, carer’s allowances, bereavement benefits, over-75 TV licenses, Income Support and more. Notably, the bulk of Income Support being towards lone parents and carers, and less than 10% of Income Support is made up of incapacity benefits. Benefits are mostly spent on pensions (approaching half of the welfare budget, at 42%), whereas unemployment benefits account for 1% of welfare expenditure.
There is an entrenched public understanding that the benefits system is riddled with fraud. The public believes that 24% of benefits claiming is done so fraudulently. Interestingly, ‘benefit fraud’ is only used as a term for people claiming benefits. When companies assessing fitness to work make fraudulent claims that someone is fit to work in one in five assessments, or three out of four assessments for people with mental health problems (these are researched facts), we do not call this ‘benefit fraud’.
So, given ‘fraud’ as a term applied solely to the individual claimant, data suggests that there is no widespread issue with fraud in the benefits system. According to the government’s own statistics, benefit fraud by claimants is 0.7% of total benefits expenditure (£1.2bn). The public belief that around a quarter of benefits claims are fraudulent is, therefore, a 3329% overestimation. Benefits-related administrative errors, to give some perspective, take up double the amount of money spent on claimant fraud. The figures for tax evasion and avoidance can also be used for comparison here: the cost of the ‘tax gap’ in the UK reaches £122bn per year (over 10,000% the cost of fraudulent benefits claims).
Another myth is that benefits are ‘too generous’. In 2013, a study from the University of Edinburgh found that there is no link between the wellbeing of people without paid employment and the amount of money they get in benefits. Additionally, it is not the first study to reach this finding (see Veenhoven, 2000). In fact, cultural factors such as perceptions of people on benefits (i.e. stigma) have a much bigger impact.
Rather than being ‘too generous’, for years now multiple organisations have been stating that benefits cuts are causing material harm, especially to the most vulnerable of society. This includes housing charity Shelter, disability charity SCOPE, domestic violence charity Women’s Aid, child abuse charity NSPCC, a whole host of mental health organisations, and anti-austerity organisations such as UK Uncut, Sisters Uncut, Disabled People Against Cuts, Black Triangle, and Psychologists Against Austerity (now Psychologists for Social Change) to name but a few.
These ideas – the poor are deserving, benefits claimants are fraudulent and the whole system is a drain on society, the benefits system is too kind and generous, most of our welfare system is spent on people too lazy to work, have to to be quashed. People’s health and mental health is suffering. People’s lives are being destroyed. People are dying. People are killing themselves.
Is this the kind of world we can live in, with good conscience?
We do not have to accept things the way that they are. We can join or support the organisations mentioned above. We can join in talks, discussions, marches, and events (or publicise these events when we can’t go to them ourselves).
We can write to our MP’s, sign petitions, talk to our friends and family, support films such as the recent I, Daniel Blake, avoid reality TV demonising people on benefits, call out the false narratives when we hear them. We can be aware of the facts (and ideally, share the facts!) to reduce stigma. We can offer a helping hand, we can be aware of the impact of losing benefits and try to offer a listening ear to someone who feels like a drain on society. We can look after each other.
Perhaps is it is not just psychologists who need to ‘get off the fence’. We all do, for humanity’s sake.
Crandall, C. S. (2003). Ideology and lay theories of stigma: The justification of stigmatization. In Heatherton,T. F., Kleck, R. E., Hebl, M. R. & Hull, J. G. (eds.) The social psychology of stigma (pp. 126-150). New York,NY: Guildford Press.
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