Dear Black Foster Youth,
I’m sure you all have seen the unrest and televised revolution going on across the country and worldwide. The death of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery – the last two of which were video recorded, all killed by current or ex-police – has acted as the straw that’s broken the camel’s back.
Many of us have watched with profound grief, exasperation and maybe flickers of hope as the topic of race, blackness in particular, has been brought to the forefront. Statements of support for the Black Lives Matter movement have come from the halls of political power, billion-dollar corporations and small businesses, and from the agencies and nonprofits that many of us have received services from.
One thing not readily understood by others is the intimate nature in which we black foster youth have been hyper-aware and subjected to the presence of police in our lives. Many of our experiences throughout our dependency in foster care were underscored by police involvement almost as much as that of a social worker.
The police were called on us at school when the frustration of a turbulent home life materialized into “difficult behaviors” in the classroom. In fact, we are when identified as foster youth, assumed to be without the accountability of a biological parent to address these concerns, I’d argue the police are used more often and quicker as the premier option. The empathy and patience necessary to guide us to the root of our pain are forgone to the ease of a 9-1-1 call. Let us not forget the Spring Valley High School student, a black girl, who was violently pushed, yanked and thrown across a classroom by a sheriff’s deputy on film. She was later identified as a foster youth.
Some of us even recall our initial removals from our biological parent’s care, painfully acted out with both social workers and police officers. During my own removal, the police arrived first and I remember feeling as if my sister and I had done something criminally wrong. Imagine one’s entry into foster care, which already involves traumatic separation from biological parents and uncertainty regarding sustained connections and first placement, including the police and what they’ve represented to black people. For me, it was a precursor to a heavily officer-involved foster care experience and my continued feelings of being criminalized as a foster youth.
As a current social worker, I can understand the usage of law enforcement when there’s a legitimate and escalated threat of harm. However, as a black woman, I also know that just the presence of police among black children and families can emanate feelings of fear and helplessness due to years of systemic racism and harassment.
The complicated relationship between the police and black communities, including the very real possibility of the utilization of excessive force and/or death, makes me hesitant to use them in any safety planning capacity.
Some of us group home kids can even attest to law enforcement being used as a first responder to any teenage rebellion we exhibited while in congregate care. Oftentimes, this aided in our introduction or complicated a path into the juvenile justice system, increasing an ever-growing foster care-to-prison pipeline. We can recall seeing a man, often white, standing over us, gun in holster, instructing us of what we’re doing wrong and how if we continue it, we’ll be headed down a wrong path, ending with incarceration.
We’d get nice officers too, sometimes, but it was always difficult to listen while being lectured by someone carrying a gun and baton as reinforcements. Even when their mannerisms were kind and empathetic. If the calls came too frequently or our behaviors became more erratic, some of us can even recall being handcuffed and driven to a local psychiatric hospital. We remember being as young as 10, in the back of a squad car, wondering if all children were handcuffed and sent to psych wards at any sign of misbehavior. Did parents call the police on their own children this often?
Too many of us can recall experiences of harassment by police outside of our foster care placement. We remember the dehumanizing feelings of anger and fear as we’re pulled over while walking home, or jogging in the “wrong” direction, or congregating too close to storefronts, or being out too late at night, or looking similar to a suspect on the run, or perceived truancy, or suspicion of soliciting, or any reason that let them deem us “suspect.”
Sometimes these interactions go beyond mere questioning to being threatened, shoved, or even slammed face down to the ground. It could even lead us to see the inside of a cell. Some of us can recall guns being drawn on us and knowing that the slightest of movement toward a phone or license, could mark the end of our lives. Afterward, we’re plagued by the trauma of the brutality as we assess what’s a life-or-death situation for many black people. Unfortunately, we also have very few people to confide in about this mental turmoil. Because when our foster care placement uses the police as behavioral reinforcement and our social workers also partner alongside them due to pre-conceived safety concerns, it’s hard to discern who would hold the weight of these experiences. Who would be on our side? Who do our lives matter to? So for many of us, we silently grieve these feelings of being subjected to substandard treatment, alone.
Yes, we black foster youth know the police very well. Some of us know them more than we’d like to.
But I reckon that a new day is upon us. There is a growing understanding by child welfare leaders that systemic racism has plagued the black community and led to disparities in black children in foster care for decades. Maybe this will also be a time for them to re-examine the ways in which they use law enforcement and how it counters cultural humility for black folks.
Maybe, along with mandating de-escalation tactical plans for all child-serving agencies to reduce calls to the police, we can increase the usage of cultural upliftment programming and services that allow for black and other children of color to explore the depth of their history and experiences.
And while black foster youth cope with their own experiences of police brutality, with the added trauma of watching black people die at the hands of law enforcement on a consistent basis, this would be a great time to invest in black-led mental health service providers. Black foster youth would benefit tremendously by having therapists and clinicians who look like them and who can effectively assist them in navigating racialized harm.
I hope black foster youth know how imperative our lives are to the world. That even though some of our experiences have been filled with pain and grief, we still come from an enduring people and are inherently great because of it. This world has been especially cold to us and yet somehow, we prevail. Every step we take, regardless of the difficulty of the path, is a win against a system that was designed to fail us. We are HERE! Despite it all, we are still here! As our healing continues, may our perseverance and will to fight against injustices also prevail.
We matter. Our lives matter. Our justice matters. Our childhood and innocence matters. Our mental health matters. Our blackness matters.
I love all of us. #AllBlackFosterYouthLivesMatter
Sade Daniels is a noted public speaker on child welfare reform and cultural upliftment practices in direct services. She’s currently a program analyst with the state of California and completing her first novel.