When it became clear that even the most sympathetic observers would have a hard time blaming the police for the death of Ma’Khia Bryant—whom an officer shot and killed as she was about to stab another girl with a knife—activists instead turned their ire on the foster care system.
Bryant was living with her sister in what was apparently a neglectful, and possibly violent, foster home at the time of her death. Indeed, the fight she was engaged in when she was shot may have involved a former resident at the home; one report claims that the foster mother may have even asked the other girl to fight Bryant. Since 2018, according to records obtained by the Washington Post, police were called to the house 11 times to investigate a teenager who had run away. Police also investigated shots fired from the home into a neighboring residence and were called about a fight between the foster mother and Ma’Khia’s sister.
Writing at The Grio, Stacy Patton, a former foster child herself, wrote about “how traumatizing the American foster care system can be” and maintained that Bryant’s being “a ward of the state has everything to do with her death.” For advocates like Hana Abdur-Rahim, an organizer with the Black Abolitionist Collective of Ohio, the case is more evidence that foster care should be abolished. She told the Washington Post 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.”
But Ma’Khia Bryant’s story did not begin when she entered foster care, and the evidence suggests that living with her biological family was not an option. Of course, we may never know the full story; child welfare records are generally kept confidential, and the family has no incentive to reveal what happened. But we do know some things about her upbringing.
Ma’Khia and her three younger siblings were removed from their mother in March 2018, after police responded to an “incident” at a residence. They found the children unsupervised and also found evidence of abuse by the mother and an older sibling. Ma’Khia’s grandmother took the children in at this point, but their mother did not comply with court orders for mental-health counseling and failed to show up for visitation with her children during this time. After 16 months, their grandmother returned them to the agency.
In other words, these kids were not removed from their biological home and their extended family because of poverty. There’s a big difference between poverty, on the one hand, and abuse and neglect. The vast majority of poor people in the United States don’t abuse their children or leave them unsupervised for long periods of time. Poor grandmothers do not drop off their children with state agencies when they’ve had enough of them. These are signs of profound dysfunction. It’s incumbent on those who want to abolish foster care to explain how giving more money to families like the Bryants would have allowed Ma’Khia to have a safe, decent childhood.
We can do much to improve foster care, to be sure. Yet children are still much less likely to suffer abuse in a foster home than in their biological one. In 2014, the median rate of reported maltreatment of children in foster care was 0.27 percent, a figure much lower than the rate for the general population—around 1 percent.
In almost every state, foster parents are in severely short supply—especially those willing to care for teens. Sometimes the scarcity leads states to let bad foster parents stay in the system. The solution is to do a better job training and supporting quality foster parents. This should start with cooperating with faith-based organizations to recruit middle-class parents who do this work because their faith tells them they should, not because they get a paycheck from the government.
We should also treat foster parents better. There’s a reason that half of foster parents quit in the first year. They don’t want more money. They want respect, caseworkers who tell them the truth about kids, and family courts that don’t jerk them around. They want to be trained in how to handle kids who were traumatized before they were taken into the system. They want to feel like they are helping kids, not becoming part of a system that is making things worse.
As for Ma’Khia Bryant, the family that abused, neglected, and abandoned her in life may now be looking to profit off her death. “She was a 16-year old, vibrant, bubbly girl whose life was cut short by many of our failing systems,” said Michelle Martin, a personal-injury attorney representing the girl’s relatives, at a recent press conference. “We’re going to investigate every agency that had a time and an opportunity to prevent Ma’Khia’s death.” Let’s just say there’s plenty of blame to go around.