It is always disheartening when people take advantage of a tragedy to support their own views or interests, even when the facts don’t support it. The tragic death of Ma’Khia Briant is an example of this tendency. As soon as it was disclosed that Ma’Khia was in foster care, advocates and pundits began to argue that her death is “indicative of deeper problems in the foster care system,” as the Washington Post put it. That the case illustrates problems with foster care cannot be denied–but most of the damage to Ma’Khia clearly occurred before her placement in foster care.
For the few who have not heard, 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was shot to death by a police officer in Columbus Ohio who was responding to a 911 call from her younger sister saying that “grown girls” were attempting to fight and stab them. Officer Nicholas Reardon found Ma’Khia swinging a knife while pinning a 22-year-old woman against a car. He fired four shots, striking Ma’Khia, who died shortly thereafter.
When it became known that Ma’Khia was in foster care, many foster parents and advocates raised serious concerns about how the system contributed to her death. Noting that teens should not be unsupervised in a foster home, experts interviewed by the Washington Post raised concerns about the low standards for foster parents who care for Ohio teens, which some tied to the scarcity of foster parents willing to care for teens.
As a social worker in the District of Columbia, I had a very similar experience. Many foster parents refused to take in teens. As a result, it appeared that the standards to become a foster parent for teens were minimal. Many of the foster parents who cared for my teen clients in DC foster care provided little more than room and board, not the loving care these children needed. Few had ever visited the child’s school, doctor, or therapist. They were typically not home during the day, as foster parents are not paid enough to forego full-time work. Moreover, as in Ohio, foster parents who have enough room were often landed with several teens, each with a history of trauma–a recipe for conflict.
Another way the system failed Ma’Khia may have been by failing to help her grandmother, Jeanene Hammonds, retain custody of Ma’Khia and her sister, who spent their first 16 months in foster care living with her. But when her landlord threatened to evict her for having too many people in the house, the Children’s Services social worker had no solution other than telling her to drop the girls off at the agency, according to what Hammonds told the New York Times. If the agency had licensed her as a foster parent, she could have moved to a larger apartment. But information from case files quoted by both the Times and the DIspatch suggests that the agency believed Hammonds was not meeting the girls’ needs or making sure they received needed therapy. I cannot assess the truth of either the grandmother or the agency’s statements, but I can say that as a social worker I was often frustrated by my inability to help relatives obtain housing needed to obtain custody of children in foster care.
Some advocates are using Ma’Khia’s death to ask for needed changes in the system, like a crisis response team, better training for foster parents, and more help for relatives willing to take custody of children in foster care. They should also be advocating for better options for troubled teens in foster care. These teens need either professional foster parents who are paid to be home all day and and trained to work with traumatized teens or high-quality, trauma-informed residential facilities where they receive the therapeutic care that they need before graduating to a less restrictive setting.
Less responsible or informed advocates are using this tragedy to argue for the abolition of foster care. The Washington Post quotes Hana Abdur-Rahim of the Black Abolitionist Collective of Ohio, who said that“a lot of times people’s children get taken away because they can’t afford to take care of them, or they don’t have proper housing….So if we had more resources, children would not get taken away from their families.”
Abdur-Rahim’s statement embodies the popular trope that what child welfare systems call “neglect” is really poverty, and that children are being removed due to poverty alone. Anyone who has been a social worker in child welfare will tell you that removals for poverty alone are quite rare; that neglect usually involves some combination of drug abuse, alcohol abuse, mental illness, disorganization and family violence; and, in any case, that chronic neglect can be more damaging to a growing child than abuse.
It is not surprising that Ma’Khia’s mother, Paula Bryant, would not say why her daughter was removed in the first place. The Columbus Dispatch has reported that Ma’Khia, her younger sister, and two brothers were removed from Bryant in March 2018, after police responded to an “incident” at a residence. Police reported the four children were unsupervised and made allegations of abuse against their mother and an older sibling. A neighbor who spoke to the New York Times says she can still remember the fights between Bryant and her daughters, stating that “the girls ran out of the house terrified, and were hanging out in the backyard screaming while the mom was yelling at them.” Children’s Services already knew of the family due to repeated complaints that the two youngest children were absent from school. And in February 2017, according to the Times, Bryant brought her four children to Children’s Services saying she could no longer handle them. The grandmother, Ms. Hammond, told the Times that it was difficult having the four Bryant children because “they came from a lot of dysfunction.”
Aside from this historical information, the behavior of Ma’Khia and her sister provides evidence of their traumatic history. According to the Post and the Times accounts, Ma’Khia’s sister Ja’Niah told police officers she called to the home 23 days before Ma’Kiah’s death that she would to “kill someone” unless she was placed in another home. Ma’Khia was killed while threatening someone with a knife, and Ja’Niah told the Times that Ma’Khia was triggered when the one of the older women spit toward her family. To anyone familiar with foster youth, these statements and behaviors suggest girls who were traumatized not by foster care itself but by a long history of neglect and violence in their home.
Children’s Services was trying to help Ms. Bryant get her children back but in court filings obtained by the Columbus Dispatch the agency reported that the mother “repeatedly failed to comply with the plan, which included mental health counseling, or even to consistently show up for scheduled visitations with Ma’Khia and her sister.” Court reports also indicate that the father did not respond to outreach by the court or agency. In December 2019, Children’s Services asked the court to suspend the mother’s visitation because of “emotionally damaging” interactions between her and her daughters, according to the Dispatch. And in January 2020 the agency filed a motion seeking permanent custody of the girls. Court action was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and was still pending at the time of Ma’Khia’s death.
Ma’Khia’s mother, father and grandmother are now united in calling for an investigation of Ohio’s foster care system in the wake of her death. It is depressing but not surprising that the mother who abused and neglected Ma’Kiah and the father who would not engage with Children’s Services are now blaming the foster care system for her death.
None of this exonerates the foster care system for the unacceptable quality of the care Ma’Khia was apparently receiving at the foster home where she was killed. When society removes a traumatized child from an unsafe home, it adds one more trauma to that child’s history. It owes that child more than an environment only slightly better than what she was removed from. A good system might have saved Ma’Khia from the trajectory she was on when she was removed. To that extent, a struggling foster care system, and ultimately our society’s indifference to these most vulnerable children, bears some responsibility for Ma’Khia’s death.
To argue that foster care should not exist is to say that children should be allowed to grow up in homes characterized by chronic violence, abuse and neglect. As Lily Cunningham, a mental health counselor, told the Washington Post, “The question always is Why is this child or family in foster care? But the right question should be: What can we be doing now to enhance the lives of children in foster care?” Foster care should be improved so that it can become a place of healing, from which children can return to families that have done the work needed to get their children back.
This post was edited on May 8, 2021 to incorporate new information shared by the New York Times.