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  • JoHanna Thompson, MPA

VIP: Reframing Our Approach to Advocate for Girls of Color in Foster Care

In January 2016, I received a call that transformed how I engaged the Child Welfare/Dependency Care System, commonly referred to as Foster Care.

A 16 year old, pregnant Black girl was placed in a facility over 150 miles from everything that was comfortable and familiar. The Department of Children and Families (DCF), and her case management team, recommended her placement in a psychiatric inpatient facility - a perceived jail for people with mental health concerns. I was appointed her Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) - a non-partisan adult who represents the best interest of a child in dependency cases.

I received all of the background information, hung up the phone, and took a deep breath before proceeding to call her for the very first time. I had absolutely no idea what this conversation would be like considering she was 16, pregnant, isolated, and had a documented history of mental health with little support.

In our initial conversation, she dispelled everything that was shared in her record. She was extremely intelligent and clearly articulated her life goals. She had aspirations of becoming a neurosurgeon like her role model Ben Carson. She spoke of her desire to be in school and her mastery of finding ways to take care of herself despite the instability of constantly being moved to different placements.

At that time, she was quintessentially a product of the dependency care system. She had experienced the cruelest form of gender violence at a tender age, never spoke of it, never received therapy, opportunity to heal, or a sense of safety. She experienced “Pushout,” completely separated from the educational system, isolated from family, in and out of the juvenile justice system; she was literally fighting for her life. She was labeled as a danger to others and diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) among other mental health disorders. They strategically planned to just throw her away in a psychiatric inpatient facility but she couldn’t be accepted because she was pregnant. She remained resilient, she is a survivor.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated experience in the Child Welfare System. Her story is that of a VIP, not in the traditional sense, though society should recognize her as a “very important person.” In these cases, I am re-defining VIP in the context of the ecosystems of violence and naming a VIP as a ‘Violence Impacted Person’ whose trauma translates into a very high Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) score.

The 2017 Adoption and Foster Care Analysis System (AFCARS) reported 23 percent of youth in foster care were Black identified, but Black children make up only 15 percent of the US child population. The overrepresentation of Black children in the Child Welfare System is problematic. Traumas experienced as a result of being in foster care is one factor that leads to Black children reporting higher ACE scores.

Disproportionality and disparity in Child Welfare/Dependency Care System mirrors the same trend across the educational system, criminal justice system, and health care system. Research suggests that children who are heavily system involved, experience more trauma and exhibit more behavior. When this behavior shows up in the school environment, implicit bias drives disproportionate punitive disciplinary practices which has an even greater negative impact on Black, Brown, and Indigenous girls. We can only extrapolate that there is further disproportionality for girls of color in foster care because there is a void of data specific to this population like that of our Transgender youth.

Some of the negative impacts are outlined in NBWJI’s October 2018 Data Sheet on School Discipline and Girls of Color. The Data Sheet identifies that Black girls make up 15 percent of the female student population, yet about 50 percent of out-of-school suspensions. Data does not show specific numbers of how many of those suspensions can be attributed to Black girls who are entering and exiting the Child Welfare system; the numbers are more obscure for Indigenous girls. This demographic of our population is extremely marginalized and vulnerable to greater risk of sexual exploitation and/or assault, especially if there is little stability and support, or traditional places of “safety” are actually committing the victimization.

In NBWJI’s 2019 Policy Brief, “Expanding Our Frame,” Andrea Ritchie explores the history of Black women, trans and gender non-conforming people’s experience of systemic sexual violence” and notes that “there is also a reluctance to acknowledge that sexual violence is systematically perpetrated by people, institutions, systems and networks advanced as sources of safety.” The Policy Brief acknowledges, among other things, that:

  • “Native Americans experience the highest overall rates of sexual assault in the US”

  • “22 percent of Black women and girls 12 and older experience rape and sexual assault”

  • “Sexual Violence by police officers often take place in schools and youth engagement programs, and in the context of police responses to calls for assistance relating to sexual and other forms of violence,” and

  • “For every Black woman who reports her rape, at least 15 do not.”

The complexities in foster care are compounded by reports of sexual assault across a number of states. The Policy Brief asserts that “sexual abuse in the context of health care well as in social services and child welfare enforcement is pervasive.”

We must acknowledge this ecosystem of violence and recognize that many of our girls of color, who are system involved, are Violence Impacted Persons. The VIP framework offers a shift in our approach to caring for our girls of color in foster care.

It was this framework I created to advocate for that 16 year old, pregnant Black female. Today, she is in my home under Extended Foster Care. Her story does not have a happy ending, it has a hopeful ending. She is having a transformational experience rooted in a network of support. She is learning to trust, working toward obtaining her GED, and applying good parenting practices with her child. Her journey was filled with many adverse childhood experiences, but she has remained resilient with the appropriate guidance, support, and commitment. Most important, we acknowledge that she is a traditional, and non-traditional, VIP.

The Violence Impacted Person framework aligns with the 2014 Department of Justice and Education Federal Guidance. The American Bar Association refers to the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education in offering some solutions for schools to implement the Guidance for children in foster care. The solutions are accessible here.

JoHanna Thompson, MPA, is the #FreedomWork and Trauma-Informed Schools Learning Network Consultant for the National Black Women’s Justice Institute

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