Eight days after a police officer killed Ma’Khia Bryant in front of her foster home in Columbus, Ohio, the 16-year-old’s anguished family convened on the steps of City Hall on Wednesday to call for federal investigation into the child welfare system that was supposed to care for her – and the police agency tasked with protecting her.
“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. “We’re going to investigate every agency that had a time and an opportunity to prevent Ma’Khia’s death.”
Police were called to Ma’Khia’s foster home in southeastern Columbus on April 20 by a young teen girl, still unidentified, who reported that several women were trying to “fight” and “stab us.” As officer Nicholas Reardon approached, video shows Ma’Khia running toward a young woman, who fell to the ground, and then running toward another young woman. In the footage, Ma’Khia appears to be holding a knife. Just 12 seconds after arriving, the white officer can be seen shooting the Black teenager four times in the upper body before she collapsed to the ground.
The incident ignited immediate outcry across the nation. The Columbus police department responded quickly, taking the unusual step of releasing the officer’s body camera video footage the same night of the shooting. The next day, Reardon was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
Ma’Khia’s family is not satisfied, their attorney Martin said, and is now calling for an inquiry by the federal Health and Human Services Department into Ohio’s foster care system, beginning with Franklin County. They are also calling for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the shooting, for the simple reason that “this can’t happen again.”
Martin urged people to look beyond the specific chain of events that led to Ma’Khia’s death and examine the larger systems at fault. Ma’Khia had been placed in foster care for her protection, she said, but remained there for “too long.”
“All systems failed her,” Martin said. “We have to protect our youth, Ohio. If we sweep this under the rug without answering to Ma’Khia’s pain, then we fail her again.”
Ohio is one of a handful of states with a foster care system run at the county level, under oversight from the state’s Department of Jobs and Family Services. The state system is funded in part by the federal Department of Health and Human Services, which in Georgia and Massachusetts has conducted investigations of civil rights violations alleged by families.
Asked by email if the Ohio state agency planned to conduct a review of Ma’Khia’s death, a spokesman replied that it “is closely monitoring the situation and providing support to the agencies involved.”
The communications director for the county child welfare agency that serves Columbus said it will examine her case internally. “Franklin County Children Services is committed to the thorough review of Ma’Khia’s case,” Alison Rodgers wrote in a statement. “We are also continuing our process of evaluation as we consider and strive to improve our efforts to address the needs of those we serve.”
At Wednesday’s news conference, Ma’Khia’s family joined the grim ranks of African American families gathered before banks of microphones, publicly describing their torment over yet another life taken by the public safety officers paid to serve and protect.
Ma’Khia, one of three American teens killed by police in the last month, died just as the verdict in the George Floyd case was delivered. At the time of her killing, Ma’Khia was a child in the custody of the state, taken into a foster home to protect her from harm.
One by one, her family members all shared what they had loved about her.
To her grandmother, Jeanene Hammonds, she was “Sugar Mama,” a cherished grandchild who sometimes surprised her by cleaning up the house and lighting special candles.
“To know Ma’Khia was to know life,” said her father, Myron Hammonds. “The water, the sun, that was her spirit. To know her was to know peace.”
Her mother, Paula Bryant, was overcome with emotion at the prospect of having to bury her “beautiful” daughter, whose funeral will be held Friday just a few miles from where she died.
Ma’Khia had spent just nine weeks at the foster home where she died, her foster mother Angela Moore told the New York Times. Her 15-year-old sister also lived in the home but is now in the care of her grandmother and aunt, family members said Wednesday.
Public records show the home had repeatedly been visited by law enforcement. Police reports show that when officers arrived at the home on April 20, it was the fifth time in six months they had been called from that address — each time, the calls related to foster children living in the home.
On Nov. 8, Moore called police to report that a 13-year-old in her care had run away. The foster mother told police that she had told the teen’s aunt that she had a girlfriend, upsetting her about being labeled “gay.” The teen had run away previously, the report stated, and “typically returns within an hour or so.”
On Dec. 9, Moore again called police, twice on the same day, because a 10-year-old boy in foster care was yelling and knocking decorations off the Christmas tree. The second time police responded, she asked officers to take the boy to the outpatient center at a children’s hospital.
Then, less than a month before Ma’Khia died, her sister called police after an argument and asked to be moved to a different foster home. When officers told her they could not move her, she threatened “to kill someone in the home” and was transported to a children’s hospital for psychological evaluation at the request of the foster mother.
Ma’Khia’s death will be reviewed by the county Child Fatality Review board, part of the local public health office. However, the board’s findings are reported confidentially to the executive board of Franklin County Children's Services and are exempt from public records request laws and court subpoenas. Such case reviews are designed primarily to identify best practices for preventing future deaths, a spokesman for the agency said, and do not assess fault.
The Public Children’s Service Agencies of Ohio, a trade group that represents county child welfare agencies including the one in Franklin County, expressed confidence in the county’s internal review of the circumstances in Ma’Khia’s case.
“Like our member agency, Franklin County Children Services, we grieve the loss of Ma’Khia Bryant,” Assistant Director Scott Britton wrote in an email. “We know that Franklin County Children Services will conduct a careful internal review of this matter and that the state will determine if further review is warranted.”
Michael Fitzgerald contributed to this report.