Sylvia Ikomi

The adultification of Black girls in state care

  • Date:

The Churchill Fellowship is a charity that supports people in the UK to explore and promote change, through learning from across the world and bringing that knowledge and experience back to the UK. In 2022, Coram became a partner for fellowships on children and young people with experience of care. Last year I was fortunate to be awarded one of these fellowships for my chosen topic of the adultification of Black girls in state care.  

What is adultification? 

Adultification is a term used to describe when children, typically from marginalised or minority backgrounds, are perceived to be and treated as if they are older than they actually are. This can be demonstrated in various ways, such as holding them to higher standards of behaviour or responsibility, expecting them to take on caregiving roles for family members at a young age, or subjecting them to harsher disciplinary measures than their peers. Adultification can have significant negative impacts on children's development and well-being, as it can deprive them of their childhood and place undue stress and pressure on them to mature prematurely. 

Adultification affects Black girls in state/local authority (LA) care: 

  • prior to their entering into care within their own family  
  • during their time in care through adultification-bias by the professionals within the social care system that work with them  
  • as they transition from care into independent living and adulthood 

My fellowship enabled me to explore the experience of adultification for these girls, how it manifests, why it happens and potential solutions to address it. I travelled to Washington DC in August 2023 and spoke to experts on the adultification of Black children.  

Professor Linda Burton, Dean of Social Work at the University of California, shared the insights from her 2007 study Childhood Adultification in Economically Disadvantaged Families: A Conceptual Model that led to the development of her conceptual model on the adultification of children within their relationships with their parent(s).  

Sadiyah Malcolm shared insights from her work since 2010 mentoring Black girls, courtesy of her social enterprise Sistas Elevating Learning and Healing (SELaH), as well as her academic research including her PhD study Yuh Tink Yah Big Ooman? (that explores the transition of Black girls into adulthood in Kingston, Jamaica).  

Canadian scholars Travonne Edwards, Rasnat Chowdhury (who is care-experienced), Andre Laylor and Professor Bryn King shared views from their 2023 study Pushed, Dropped, or Fleeing from Care: The Narratives and Adultification of Black Youth Who Have Aged out of Ontario’s Child Welfare System.  

The impact on relationships with parents and responsible adults 

My research enhanced my understanding of the role of adultification within a child’s relationship with their parent as defined by Professor Burton’s conceptual model. These are parentification (whereby the child takes on the role of the parent and the parent becomes the child); spousification (the child takes on the duty that is normally given to a spouse rather than a child) and mentored precocious knowledge (the child develops knowledge of things  beyond what would traditionally be expected of a child of their age after being mentored to do this by adults). 

This can affect children’s understanding of their role, and the role of the responsible adults that are supposed to look after them, in ways that need to be addressed by the social care professionals that work with them. Adultification-bias by professionals can also affect the human experience of Black girls in local authority care, from the behaviour management that they receive from staff in children’s homes to social workers’ assessments of their needs. 

Potential solutions 
  • Understanding the importance of the intersections of the identity of children in local authority care (for example race and gender) and the nuances that these add to their human experience. 
  • Addressing the problems caused by a tick-box approach to social worker assessments which does not allow for meaningful engagement with children or address needs that don’t fit in a box. 
  • Adopting an empathic approach by professionals that asks whether they would be satisfied if their own children received the same treatment. 
  • Encouraging conversations about the current socio-economic climate and the challenges that this presents for care leavers (a group that too often falls behind the general population when it comes to having the qualifications that open the doors to meaningful/well-paid employment). 
Next steps 

I am now in the dissemination phase of my fellowship. Since my return to England in September 2023, I have shared the study findings with social workers as the keynote speaker at Lewisham Council’s Annual Staff Conference, alongside sharing my findings with college and university students. I look forward to keeping this conversation alive in England.  

Sylvia Ikomi, secondary school teacher and a higher education lecturer. 

Download the full report: The adultification of Black girls in state care