ORONO, Maine — The keynote speaker at the 21st annual Maine Child Welfare Conference told the story of how well-meaning and loving relatives didn’t accept that her child, who is half black and half white, needed to be treated differently when it came to her hair care.

“They were treating Nicky as if she were white,” said Judith Josiah-Martin, Office of Multicultural Programs director at the University of Maine and a doctoral student at the Smith College School of Social Work, recalling her daughter’s first camping trip decades ago with her white in-laws. “They washed her hair every day. It frizzed. It frizzed every day.”

The solution her in-laws came up with to manage the frizzy hair was to cover her daughter’s head with a bandana. When the camping trip was over, however, “it was uncombable” and her daughter’s hair needed to be cut off, Josiah-Martin said.

By ignoring her daughter’s diversity, her in-laws “failed to encompass the whole person.” The same thing can happen with those who provide services to children, she stressed to conference attendees Wednesday at the University of Maine.

“Engagement suffers,” Josiah-Martin said to the more than 200 nurses, child protection caseworkers, social workers, law enforcement personnel, students and mental health and educational professionals. “And as a result, we fail to meet the needs of the diverse child and family.”

Diversity matters because it affects how people seek health care services, she said.

Josiah-Martin has more than 25 years of experience working as a clinical social worker and is a former director of clinical services at substance abuse and mental health programs in Antigua.

Diversity, whether it be race, sexuality, social or economic factors, should be embraced in order to provide the best care, she said.

Pat Phillips, a licensed clinical social worker at Penobscot Pediatrics in Bangor, said those who work with children often are just “trying to be nice” by ignoring differences.

“It’s the elephant in the living room,” she said during a break in the daylong conference, held at Wells Conference Center on campus.

That is why it’s so important to gather and educate providers to make changes, said Phillips, who admitted to “messing up” and making remarks without thinking in the past. She now considers what she says before she speaks.

“We all play a role in this,” the social worker said. “We have to examine ourselves, be self-aware and self-monitor.”

Former Bangor police Chief Ron Gastia said he was really impressed with the two youngsters with mixed racial backgrounds who spoke during the first panel of the day about surviving foster care without their diversity recognized.

Bonny Dodson, clinical director of United Cerebral Palsy of Maine, said what she took away from the young panelists is that better records need to be kept for children in foster care to learn about their backgrounds.

“That is a key issue,” Dodson said.

Without records, children in foster care don’t know about their biological background or their family’s medical history, and therefore can’t recognize or celebrate their cultural diversity, she said. Oftentimes records are kept from children to “protect them” from the realities of why they were removed from their families, but “they know,” Phillips said.