Emma Butler has volunteered as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for the past five years, advocating in court cases for the best interest of children in the foster care system. A few years ago, she met a very self-conscious little girl who had been placed in multiple homes and whose hair had not been properly cared for in months.
Butler, who wondered if this was a singular instance of a white family not knowing how to care for a Black child’s hair or a more prevalent issue in the foster care system, connected with Oklahoma Department of Human Services child welfare specialist Christy Horn to get her take.
Horn has been with OKDHS for more than six years, four years as a permanency worker and two as a family meeting facilitator, and she confirmed that improper hair care is a problem for kids in the foster care system, both for girls and boys. In her experience, kids’ appearance, especially their hair, is one of the biggest points of contention between biological and foster parents.
Challenges exist for all parties involved. Biological parents often spend their visits with their children doing their hair, or hair care falls on Black child welfare workers. Horn has researched and spent her own money to purchase hair care products for foster kids that she hoped were adequate for their needs.
Though some foster parents aren’t motivated to figure out hair care for a child whose ethnicity is different from their own, many who are so inclined face barriers. Horn knows foster parents who’ve been berated for their foster children’s appearances while trying to shop for proper hair care products or attempting to patronize a salon or barber shop. In addition, hair products and stylists are expensive. Though Horn says foster parents receive hours of training to become certified, not much time is devoted to hair care, and potential foster parents are often, understandably, more focused on topics like trauma-informed care at that point in their learning journey.
Butler and Horn decided to do something to address the problem, empowering foster parents with hair care tools and resources, and in turn boosting the confidence of kids in foster care, celebrating and affirming their heritage and building bridges with biological families. In 2018, nonprofit organization The Hair Initiative was born.
“We wanted to educate parents on the basics of hair care, give them supplies, create a network of stylists and facilitate conversation through workshops, all in a judgment-free zone,” said Butler.
Meeting the need
The Hair Initiative achieves its mission by providing hair care kits and educational workshops to foster parents. They also provide referrals for stylists near foster families who are experienced with their foster child’s type of hair, and they are working to create a network of top-notch stylists offering discounted services.
Hair care kits cost about $15 to $20 to make and include detangling brushes, products, spray bottles, hair clips and sleeping bonnets packed in a sturdy bag, with items included specific to hair length and texture. Kits are available for both girls and boys. Butler and Horn test out all the products, ensuring they are great quality items that can hold up to kids. Most items are sourced from local Black-owned companies, including LaMoor Beauty Supply in Oklahoma City, which has provided high-quality items at reduced prices for the nonprofit.
Hundreds of kits have been provided so far, through workshops, foster care agencies, individual child welfare workers, the Boys and Girls Club, various clothing closets and Oklahoma City’s juvenile detention center.
“Every child deserves the dignity of a good hair day,” said Butler. “Kids in custody often travel with their items in trash bags, so we also wanted to give them a kit and a bag that belongs to them.”
The Hair Initiative develops partnerships with Black stylists and Black-owned beauty salons to provide discounted services to kids in foster care. No matter where a child is placed in the state, the organization strives to connect kids with a vetted stylist who will know how to care for his or her hair. Stylists undergo a background check and sign a confidentiality agreement, and they are prepared for the nature of foster children who have undergone trauma or neglect.
Roshonda Coleman is a metro stylist who will both provide services for foster kids through The Hair Initiative and travel around the state in the coming year to present the organization’s workshops, through which foster parents have the opportunity to learn about proper hair care, get hands-on with products and ask questions.
“Often they have been scared to ask questions, but we make them feel comfortable,” said Horn.
Over the course of the workshops, especially during Q&A sessions, conversations often encompass how a child’s hair is connected to their culture and the importance of the foster parents respecting and affirming that connection.
“These kids are taken from their families, schools, siblings and grandparents,” said Horn. “A child deserves to know about their culture, and this allows kids to feel they are still connected to that part of themselves.”
After a recent workshop, a mom contacted Butler and Horn to say her foster daughter felt much more confident after she learned how to properly care for her hair.
“This is teaching kids to love themselves, their natural, beautiful aspects, and empowering them to know they don’t have to look a certain way,” said Butler.
Horn adds that the simple act of a foster parent brushing or caring for their foster child’s hair provides physical affirmation and increases bonding, helping kids feel safe and connected.
More than hair
In the short time the nonprofit has existed, community response has been overwhelmingly positive and the outreach has grown beyond what the founders dreamed. After a judge at Oklahoma City’s juvenile detention center was concerned about the condition of many of the female residents’ hair, he called Horn to see if The Hair Initiative could help.
“The boys were getting hair cuts every other week, but the girls had never had that happen and some had even shaved their heads,” said Horn.
Butler and Horn immediately went to work, providing more than 700 hair products and tools to the center, putting on a hair care workshop for the girls and providing a stylist for the girls to get their hair done. Their bright smiles, and even some tears, at the acknowledgment that they mattered meant the world to Butler and Horn. Kids in inpatient care will also have the opportunity to get their hair done.
“These kids don’t have anybody,” said Horn. “We want them to know they still matter, that they aren’t forgotten.”
The initiative has also brought people across races together to learn about and celebrate their differences.
“As a biracial woman I’ve been in that in-between, uncomfortable space, but standing in that space all these years has come in handy,” said Butler. “I can stand in the middle of these two groups and relate with the parents and the children.”
Butler visited the little girl whose story inspired The Hair Initiative the night before she was adopted, while the girl’s aunt did her hair. Unlike that first visit, the girl was confident, able to look Butler in the eye and so excited about the opportunity to get her hair fixed in a way that fit her personal style. At the time, the idea for The Hair Initiative was still percolating, and the girl helped Butler brainstorm the name, a beautiful nod to where it all began.
“This started off as how can we help this one little girl and has snowballed,” said Butler. “This little girl has completely changed my life, and in turn, all these other kids’ and parents’ lives.”
How you can help
The Hair Initiative is run entirely by volunteer efforts. The organization is currently seeking board members as well as volunteers to pack and deliver hair care kits. Individuals, families and organizations can donate to the organization to help purchase items for the kits and cover operational costs. The organization is also seeking local hair stylists, of any specialty, to help. Visit thehairinitiative.org for more information.