The need for a safe, accepting environment for teenage girls in the foster care system is often overlooked. Negative perceptions of teenage girls as being promiscuous or bringing unwanted drama to families are just a few of the perceived problems, which make it difficult to find a home.
“I have specifically had foster care parents tell me that they’re afraid to take teenage girls into their home because of the possibility of them making accusations against them,” case worker Danette Nordhof said. “They just don’t want to deal with teens and it’s really unfortunate and really sad because these guys can bring you the most joy and happiness.”
This past June, Nordhof was able to open an independent living home in Holland for teen girls having trouble finding a suitable home within the foster care system. The home is established through Samaritas, a non-profit organization that focuses on housing and assisting displaced people within the Michigan community.
For Nordhof, her job is more than just a way to make a living; rather, it is a mission in which she seeks out the opportunity to provide adolescent girls within the foster care system the comfort and space to grow as individuals. Additionally, she lends herself to the same girls as a mother-like figure, often referred to as “Mama D.”
The level of trust formed between Nordhof and the girls has created an open, honest relationship, going as far as being able to discuss matters as intimate as sex.
“Teenage girls a lot of times act out in that way and they don’t know how to handle that, and unfortunately our culture is more, ‘Don’t talk about it, let’s bury it,’ where here, we talk about sex a lot because it’s important,” said Nordhof.
The house is currently home to five girls, and they are expecting another roommate later in the month.
Alicia Miller, one of the girls living in the Holland house, had been put into the foster care system in the beginning of July. Luckily, she was able to move into the home by the end of that same month.
“I think it’s really difficult to feel normal because you go to school, you see everybody else and you feel like an outsider,” said Miller. “But I think this house tries to teach you that it’s okay not to be normal because we’re all so weird.”
To qualify to live in the home, girls must be 16 to 19-years-old and in the foster care system. Nordhof receives referrals of potential girls to live in the home and through a two-week process of interviewing and reviewing their information, determines whether or not the candidate would be a good fit for the home.
Prior to her position in independent living, Nordhof was working with the police department, Child Protective Services and in foster care case management. She said being involved with independent living came easiest to her and made the most sense in terms of being able to help teen girls.
She said being a caseworker with Samaritas has been more beneficial to her than when she was a caseworker with the state.
“There is way more support and dedication to myself as a worker to pursue the dreams and desires that I wanted because [the staff] were all willing to listen,” said Nordhof. “I thought, ‘This is it, this is what I was supposed to do,’ so that’s what I think drove me to continue to be better for [the girls].”
When she first began working with Samaritas six years ago, she began learning more and more about the type of responsibilities and environment specific to independent living. Eventually, she was able to take over.
Program director Trisha Sverns said there is a need across the state for programs similar to this.
“We’re trying to open one in Grand Rapids for boys,” Sverns said. “For a while now we’ve been trying to find a house that would be willing to have at least five or six bedrooms, because each child has to have their own bedroom, but its been hard to find one that’s going to work for the program because of zoning laws in Grand Rapids.”
She said in Grand Rapids you cannot have more than four unrelated people in the house.
Nordhof said people from the community want more independent homes available to kids but they don’t know how to start.
“Our program is designed specifically for youth that are in foster care, but there’re a lot more kids out there that are not in foster care, that have just fallen in between the cracks and have run away from home and are not part of the foster care system, but they still need help as well,” Nordhof said.
*Photos by Johnny Quirin