The foster care system is failing Black children and the death of Ma’Khia Bryant is one example, experts and attorney say

Ma’Khia Bryant was charging at two young women with a knife, police body camera video footage shows, when an officer arrived and fatally shot her outside the foster home she had been living in for about two months.

Ma’Khia’s foster mother Angela Moore, who wasn’t home at the time, said the dispute stemmed from an argument over a messy house and an unmade bed between Ma’Khia and some of Moore’s former foster children who had come to the house to throw Moore a birthday party. At least two of the women involved in the altercation were adults ages 20 and 22, according to a police report.

While there are still a lot of unanswered questions surrounding the April 20 incident and the investigation is ongoing, one thing is clear: 16-year-old Ma’Khia died while under the care of a system that was created to provide safe, temporary homes for children whose biological parents are unable to raise them.

And Ma’Khia’s biological mother, the family’s attorney and child welfare experts say they believe the foster care system failed Ma’Khia.

Columbus police records show several 911 calls in the last three years made from the foster home where Ma’Khia lived including one in late March where a caller using the name of Ma’Khia’s younger sister threatened to kill someone in their foster home if she couldn’t be placed in a different home.

The National Coalition of Child Protection Reform reports that children often face neglect, abuse and other harmful conditions in foster care. According to the coalition, family preservation programs have a better record with safety than foster care.

Cheryl Grills, a professor of psychology at Loyola Marymount University who has promoted and investigated child welfare reform, said the abuse is particularly hurting Black children, who are overrepresented in foster care and already face implicit bias and police brutality because of the color of their skin. Black children made up 23% of the kids in foster care nationally but only 14% of the total child population in 2018, according to Kids Count.

“The system is broken and we just as a country have not come to terms with that,” said Grills. “They have a duty to protect and ensure a child’s well-being and that’s where I see the system failing miserably.”

Grills said youth are removed from their families and placed in a foster care system that has a shortage of adequately trained case workers and may not be teaching coping skills or safe conflict resolution methods in every foster home.

In Ma’Khia’s case, Moore told CNN it was normal for her foster children to argue in the house, but she never expected it to escalate to Ma’Khia being killed by police.

“I never in my worst nightmare would have thought it would ever come to this,” Moore said.

Moore described Ma’Khia as a fun teen who liked to dance and do chores around the house.

Moore declined to further discuss any prior disputes at her home or calls to police. She also would not discuss the growing concerns about Ohio’s foster care system following Ma’Khia’s death.

A troubling foster care journey

Police records indicate there had been reports of trouble at the foster home in the past.

For example, a girl who identifies herself as a 15-year-old and uses the name of Ma’Khia’s younger sister, called 911 from the home on March 28 and said she got into a fight with her sister, and she wanted to be placed in a different home. The caller doesn’t identify which sister she had fought with, and it is unclear if Ma’Khia was home when this incident occurred. CNN is not naming her because she’s a child.

When officers said they could not move her out the house, the girl “became irate and stated that if she does not get to leave, then she was going to kill someone in the home.” Officers took her to a hospital for a psychological evaluation at the foster mother’s request, according to the incident report.

Other police calls include Moore reporting that she was shot at while driving a car about 3.8 miles west of their home, and at least seven reports of missing foster children between July 2018 and April 2021.

Michelle Martin, an attorney for Ma’Khia’s biological family, said Ma’Khia had been removed from her mother Paula Bryant‘s care about three years ago.

Franklin County Children Services had initially placed Ma’Khia and her three siblings with their paternal grandmother Jeanene Hammonds for about 16 months after the children made allegations of ongoing physical abuse from their mother Bryant, according to records obtained by The Columbus Dispatch.

Bryant said she denies those allegations of abuse.

The Columbus Dispatch reported that Franklin County Children Services had developed a plan, which included mental health counseling, to reunite the children with Bryant. Bryant, however, did not comply with the plan, the newspaper reported.

Bryant disputed this, telling CNN that she had done the required counseling and therapy and made oral and written motions to the court to get her kids back.

According to the Dispatch, the children were ultimately removed from Hammonds’ care in the summer of 2019 due to a conflict between Hammonds and Bryant. The grandmother filed a motion to regain custody of the children in December 2019 saying the siblings endured emotional distress from being separated in foster care. Franklin County Children Services declined to return them, and told the court that Hammonds “does not understand the children’s special needs” and had “failed to facilitate counseling for the children when she had placement, the Dispatch reported.

Ohio’s foster care system is supervised by the state and foster care is administered by the county. Franklin County contracts with a company, SAFY, for a service to screen or approve of foster care settings.

CNN has reached out to Franklin County Children Services for further comment multiple times and has not heard back. A person who answered the phone at SAFY of Ohio referred calls back to the county.

Martin said Ma’Khia was placed in various group homes and foster homes in both Columbus and Dayton, Ohio, after leaving the grandmother’s care. She moved into Moore’s home in February of this year, Martin said.

Bryant, the biological mother, said Ma’Khia had expressed to her on several occasions that she was unhappy and uncomfortable in foster care. Franklin County Children Services allowed Ma’Khia to move into Moore’s home because she wanted to be close to her 15-year-old sister who was already living there, Bryant said.

Bryant said she would occasionally Facetime her daughters and had weekly visitation with Ma’Khia, but neither child had told her about specific issues at the house. Bryant suspects it was because they feared being placed in an even worse environment.

“I believe that the foster care system failed her (Ma’Khia) and failed us as a family,” Bryant told CNN. “I’m very hurt but also angry at the same time.”

Bryant said her 15-year-old daughter was removed from Moore’s home after Ma’Khia’s death and now lives with a family member. She has another 13-year-old daughter who lives with the same family member.

Her 11-year-old son remains in a residential facility, Bryant said.

Martin, the attorney for Ma’Khia’s family, argues that Bryant has been fighting to get her kids back and that Franklin County should put in more efforts to ensure she has the parenting resources she needs to reunite with her children. Paula Bryant, she said, has “substantially complied with her case plan objectives” and is “able to meet the basic needs of her children.”

Before her death, Ma’Khia had expressed a desire to move back home with her mother, according to Martin.

“Where the failure came in was that they were (away from family) for entirely too long,” Martin said. “You’re supposed to work to remedy the situation as soon as possible because you want to limit the kids’ exposure to this traumatizing situation.”

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services Children’s Bureau, the median amount of time for a child to spend in foster care is 14.7 months. In 2018, 78% of foster care children in Ohio had been in the system for less than two years and 17% for two to four years, according to data from Public Children Services Association of Ohio.

A neglected system

Martin called it “clear negligence” that Ma’Khia faced a level of trauma that made her feel compelled to pull out a knife on two young women at her foster home. Martin said she is urging the US Department of Health and Human Services to investigate Ohio’s foster care system.

There needs to be more funding redirected toward helping parents and supporting kinship care, she said. Placing children in unfamiliar settings with strangers can be traumatic, Martin added.

“When you have people who are not performing their jobs appropriately and really doing what they promised to do as civil servants which would be to protect and serve these families and then children begin to fall through the cracks, the most heinous situations can arise from that,” Martin said. “And this is what that nightmare looks like.”

Scott Britton, assistant director of the Public Children Services Association of Ohio, said Ohio’s foster care system had been largely neglected by the state until about two years ago when Gov. Mike Dewine appointed an advisory panel that made recommendations on how to improve the system. Suggestions included providing more support and oversight of the foster care system and creating an ombudsmen program to field complaints.

Britton said the investment was critical as the state has lost many case workers in recent years and struggled to help families impacted by the opioid epidemic. Still, he doesn’t believe it’s fair to say the foster care system failed Ma’Khia.

“I think there were a lot of things going on in this case,” Britton said. “I think we need to await the results of the investigations.”

Some experts insist that the nation’s foster care system has historically neglected the needs of Black children.

Stacey Patton, a child advocate and author of Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America, said while some children need to be placed in foster care, the system often rips Black families apart without giving parents the resources and tools they need to have a chance at raising their own kids.

Many children are also emerging from the system unprepared for the world and likely to repeat the cycles of trauma and dysfunction in their biological families, Patton said.

It’s unclear whether Ma’Khia was getting therapy or had a court-appointed advocate she could call when she was in distress.

But Patton said “demonizing” or talking about Ma’Khia like she was an adult for wielding a knife, is not going to solve the broader issue with foster care.

“What was going in that foster home where there was so much disruption, kids running away, violence in the home?” said Patton, who grew up in the foster care system. “Where was Child Protective Services in monitoring that home, making sure it was a safe placement for her? There are a lot of unanswered questions.”

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