The phrase “adultification bias” has evolved in recent years; it is not an evaluation of maturity based on observation of an individual child, but is instead a presumption of maturity, that can have a deeply harmful impact.
We spoke with safeguarding expert Jahnine Davis to get a closer understanding of the meaning of adultification bias, its impact and what organisations can do to address and eliminate it.
Jahnine Davis is one of the UK’s leading specialists in the safeguarding of Black children – with a core focus on adultification bias. Jahnine's PhD research explores safeguarding responses to Black children when harm is outside of the home. Jahnine has over 20 years’ experience of working in both the charitable and statutory safeguarding arenas. This includes her current role as a member of the National Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel. Jahnine is the Co-Founder and Director of Listen Up, a company established to amplify lesser heard voices in child safeguarding research, practice, and policy.
We asked her a series of questions to unpack adultification bias.
Please note that this interview was conducted prior to the Local Child Safeguarding Practice Review concerning Child Q and the findings of that review have not been reflected in this article.
What is adultification and its impact?
There are various definitions of adultification bias; ultimately it is where children are perceived as being more adult like, and where they are seen through a lens of deviancy and not necessarily acknowledged as deserving victims, and where their innocence and vulnerability is erased over time. The preconditions of adultification are based on various biases which intersect, such as systemic inequalities and where certain communities, and particularly those from Black communities are pathologized, and considered an “other”, and therefore not necessarily seen through a lens of safeguarding.
When we think about the impact, we can look at the language we use to describe Black children, such as “streetwise”, where it might be assumed that due to their lived experiences that somehow, they are super resilient to protect themselves. However, what we do know from research, is that Black children are more likely to experience this form of bias. That is because when we look at various racialised stereotypes which are rooted in slavery, Black children aren’t afforded innocence.
If we are viewing some groups of children as being deviant and when we look at it through that intersectional lens, for example Black girls being more likely to be seen as “hyper sexualised”, the “jezebel”, and Black boys more likely to be seen as “aggressive”, and “angry”, ultimately the impact means there is a dereliction of our safeguarding duty. It means we are less likely to provide the support that Black children, and all children should receive because we cast them aside, erase their vulnerability, and instead increase their culpability and see them as undeserving victims rather than children who should be safeguarded and have the right to be protected.
Whilst adultification can impact all children in certain ways, we must not universalise it to a point where we take a one size fits all approach to adultification. It is important that there is an acknowledgment that it specifically affects Black children.
Are Black children allowed to be vulnerable? Is there a space for this in modern society?
First and foremost all children are vulnerable. However, Black children are excluded from vulnerability. The question is, do professionals perceive them as vulnerable? Unfortunately, because Black children are framed and depicted in a certain way, they are not afforded that vulnerability. The impact could lead to Black children seeing themselves as less than, and potentially normalising this form of devaluation.
There is a history of dehumanising Black people – Black children are not excluded from that and therefore when we frame adultification, it must be within a historical context. Slavery and colonialism are not in the past as it is those conditions which have socialised people, including our systems and structures to devalue, dehumanise and demonise Black children.
What is the impact of the inability of some safeguarding professionals to see Black children as vulnerable?
If we are not seeing children; if we are not acknowledging the innate vulnerability all children have, if we are dehumanising Black children; professionals are potentially increasing their risk of harm, or the harm Black children are already experiencing.
Professionals must consider how adultification leads to victim blaming. If language such as “angry” or “aggressive” is used or punitive measures are taken in response to any child experiencing harm – this may assume Black children are somehow complicit in their own abuse, whether this is by the state or individual professionals.
Adultification can lead to professionals placing a level of responsibilisation on Black children to protect themselves instead of their responsibility to safeguard and protect them.
What stereotypes are currently having an impact on the perception of Black girls / Black children?
These stereotypes aren’t anything new; they existed before my time and unfortunately continue to permeate the lives of Black children and Black adults. Looking at it through an intersectional lens in terms of gendered racism, we hear that Black boys are “aggressive”, “criminal”, “deviants”, “perpetrators”, and that they are the ones causing harm, and that we need to safeguard people from them, them rather than them needing safeguarding (The cost of adultification Davis & Marsh, 2020). The stereotypes of Black girls are that they are “hyper sexual nature, strong, loud, rude”, that they can withstand any type of abuse (Where are the Black girls, Davis, 2019). Black children are more likely to be met with suspicion than care.
How can organisations that work with children fight those stereotypes?
We must acknowledge the existence of racism. We need to move past the conversation of whether or not it exists, to acknowledging its existence and think about how its existence impacts upon services and agencies to safeguard Black children. If we can acknowledge that it exists within our society, then we must acknowledge that it will exist within our working environments and that we as individuals hold biases (not just unconscious). These biases also exist within our wider systems, frameworks, structures and theories which underpin our work (Chapter 6 – the myth of the universal child, Davis and Marsh, 2022). That is not to say that by doing that, all of a sudden all those stereotypes will go away, but it allows conversations to develop. Be courageous and lean into your discomfort. It starts with your own acknowledgment of your biases.
Leadership also plays a very important role. Sometimes we tend to focus on the front line, but we need to think of the context and environment various practitioners are working within. If you are working in an environment where racism or just talking about discrimination or even acknowledging it isn’t normalised or isn’t a part of the fabric of the organisation, then of course there is going to be an impact on how safe and confident staff feel to have those conversations, and to challenge one another or our different partner agencies.
Is there a “culture of silence” around sexual violence in communities of colour and where do you think this comes from?
There is a silence full stop in all communities when talking about sexual violence. There is a silence and specific victim blaming narratives which infiltrates the lives of victim-survivors.
There are intersecting challenges for some communities and in particular Black communities and if we can acknowledge racism as something we live in and exist in everyday, then we can acknowledge how it impacts certain systems and environments. If we think about criminal justice for example, if you are a Black victim survivor of sexual violence, you may not feel confident and comfortable going to a police station – we should not assume that these spaces are safe for all. There is a history for Black communities, where such spaces potentially enforce harm rather than safety.
Therefore, it is important to consider how silence is framed – we must consider the function of racism and its continual impact on collective / communal trauma.
What are your key recommendations for safeguarding professionals in addressing adultification bias in Black children?
- Start with yourself, acknowledge the fact that there is discrimination, bias, oppression and social inequity in our society. Acknowledge that we hold bias and that is conscious. We have to be more curious and think about whose voices / experiences are amplified and whose voices are missing.
- When we think about our personal circles, ask ourselves whether they are reflective, diverse and dynamic and if they stretch and challenges us enough in our thinking.
- Ask ourselves what resources we are accessing, and what is our personal commitment – this could be through resource, reading and accessing spaces. Sometimes it is going back to the basics; if we don’t understand anything, we have a duty to understand it. Go and learn about it. Some of us still struggle to acknowledge the existence of racism. The adultification of Black children is rooted in racism and we must acknowledge that and the impact of racism.
- We must be committed to EDI and not just as an HR activity or something we do in a corporate role. We must acknowledge that the work is paramount to the work we do to safeguarding children and people. Black girls and boys deserve to be protected too.
If you require further information about anything covered in this briefing, please contact Shehnal Amin or your usual contact at the firm on +44 (0)20 3375 7000.
This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.
© Farrer & Co LLP, March 2022