The cries for help from Ma’Khia Bryant’s Ohio foster home began weeks before the 16-year-old was killed by police gunfire one year ago today.
Ma’Khia and her younger sister had called 911, begged to be moved, and described fights getting out of control, according to press reports and those close to the girls’ family.
News of Ma’Khia’s death on April 20, 2021 spread just moments before a Minnesota jury convicted officer Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd — a killing that renewed rage and grief in a nation focused on police brutality and systemic racism like no other time in recent history. Video footage of the Columbus incident followed shortly thereafter, haunting images of a young Black girl shot by a white police officer.
In child welfare circles, the shooting revealed other fundamental flaws in our nation’s governance: How a system designed to protect abused and neglected children failed Ma’Khia.
Advocates called out two glaring policy gaps that, if better addressed, could well have saved her life: They included insufficient support for relative caregivers — Ma’Khia had been placed in the child welfare system because her grandmother struggled to maintain stable housing while caring for the teen and her siblings — and the lack of a central office where foster children can easily turn to for help.
“Everything about that situation was broken in so many ways,” said Lisa Dickson, spokesperson for the youth-led Alumni of Care Together Improving Outcomes Now (ACTION Ohio). “And it’s not just Ma’Khia that the system is failing.”
In the year since, one of those shortcomings has been addressed. Legislation creating the Youth and Family Ombudsman Office passed in February. The new resource, located within the state’s Department of Job and Family Services, will be available to foster children starting May 31.
In a statement sent to The Imprint acknowledging the one-year mark, Franklin County Children’s Services called Ma’Khia’s death “a personal and heartbreaking loss to our workers and Agency.”
“We continue to share our condolences with Ma’Khia’s family, friends, and the community at large,” the statement said.
Ma’Khia was killed outside her foster home last year after Columbus police officer Nicholas Reardon shot her four times, according to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. Law enforcement had been called to the home in response to an argument involving Ma’Khia, her 15-year-old sister, and two young women who had previously been fostered in the home, the state’s investigative records show. Body cam footage shows that when law enforcement arrived, Ma’Khia appeared to be swinging a knife.
In March, a grand jury declined to indict Reardon, with special prosecutors noting that under Ohio law, “the use of deadly force by a police officer is justified when there exists an immediate or imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or another.”
The Columbus Department of Public Safety has announced it will conduct an internal review to determine whether Reardon’s actions followed department policy. A statement released by Ma’Khia’s family last month pledged to be “resolute” in fighting for justice on her behalf, according to the Associated Press.
“There should have been other non-deadly options available to deal with this situation,” they stated, calling for “full-scale changes” to Ohio’s foster care system to prevent similar tragedies.
When the circumstances surrounding Ma’Khia’s death were revealed, Ohio advocates for youth pointed to her case as a prime example of why an ombudsperson was so desperately needed. Ma’Khia and her sister spent two years cycling through foster and group homes, only to find themselves feeling threatened and unsafe yet again. Their outreach for help and pleas to be moved had apparently gone unnoticed.
Testifying at a state Senate committee hearing last year, former foster youth Deanna Jones said her experience in the child welfare system was not unlike Ma’Khia’s. Jones said she remembers feeling unsafe too, but was fortunate to have an understanding caseworker.
“I saw how my life could have ended if I had not had an advocate,” Jones said, adding: “Honestly, I feel Ma’Khia was in survival mode.”
Dickson described abuse and concerns reported by foster youth as commonly disregarded by authorities and child maltreatment hotline workers. The role of a foster youth ombudsperson is to answer those concerns, and, when necessary, to advocate on their behalf.
“She could have called this office, and they could have said there’s something going on in this foster home where she feels unsafe, and we want to put her in respite pending an investigation,” Dickson said. “And she might not have lost her life.”
Foster youth and their supporters have been pushing for the state to create a youth ombudsperson office since 2018, a campaign led by ACTION Ohio. Finally, in February, the Legislature approved the creation of a Youth and Family Ombudsman Office which will have two directors. One will focus on the concerns of adults involved with the child welfare system, and another will serve as a direct resource for foster children, investigating and attempting to resolve their complaints.
House Bill 4 grants the ombuds office access to child welfare records and data from public and private foster care agencies. The office will produce annual reports, and have its leaders appointed by the governor, with advice from Action OHIO’s youth advisory board.
Seventeen other states have passed laws creating ombuds offices dedicated to serving foster children, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. Fourteen of those offices are autonomous and independent of the department they oversee, including those in Colorado, Michigan and Washington. In California, Utah and Texas, the offices are autonomous but, like Ohio, operate within the department that also manages the child welfare agency. Independent offices generally have more power, including the ability to issue subpoenas and in some cases intervene directly in court cases.
While youth advocates celebrate this new oversight in Ohio, others say another critical problem in Ma’Khia’s foster care experience remains unresolved — adequate support for relatives who step up to care for children headed to foster care.
When Ma’Khia and her siblings were first separated from their mother in 2018 by child welfare authorities, they were taken in by their paternal grandmother, Jeanene Hammonds, according to reporting by The New York Times. But when Hammonds was evicted from her apartment, her lack of stable housing prompted child protective services to place the children in foster care.
Recently filed court documents include statements from Hammonds that show if she had received the same assistance as a foster parent, “then I could’ve gotten housing, taken care of the kids and done what I needed to do.” She added that Ma’Khia “didn’t want to leave me.’”
In Ohio, relative caregivers receive far less financial support than licensed foster parents, despite the fact that on its website the state’s child welfare agency describes kin placements as “the most desirable” for children, offering more stability and a greater “sense of belonging.”
Until recently, low-income relatives received no financial support from the child welfare agency, and instead had to rely on welfare cash assistance — monthly payments that are far lower than what foster parents receive.
In Ohio, licensed foster parents are eligible for payments between $300 and $6,000 per child each month, with higher rates paid for children with special needs. In contrast, a grandparent caring for four siblings, like Hammonds, receives monthly welfare support of just $668 total — a rate that has increased slightly since Hammonds was caring for Ma’Khia and her siblings.
“We should not be just moving kids because a family doesn’t have the resources that they need; we should be able to provide those resources,” said Dot Erickson-Anderson, a coordinator at the Ohio Family Cares Association, which advocates for foster, adoptive, kinship and birth families. “Ma’Khia could have stayed with her grandmother — the kids could have all stayed — if somebody had helped her with a housing situation. But they didn’t.”
A 2017 U.S. Court of Appeals ruling in the Sixth Circuit, covering Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee, determined relatives must be compensated on par with licensed foster parents. And in late 2020, Ohio reformed its support for kinship providers in response to this ruling.
But instead of enacting commensurate payments, the child welfare department now offers a daily stipend of just $10.20 per child for the first six months, intended to act as stop-gap payments while relatives become licensed foster parents. If they choose not to become licensed, they lose all child welfare support after the first six months.
Yet such unequal and time-limited payments under this new policy runs afoul of the prior federal court ruling, a 2020 lawsuit alleges. In it, the prominent national advocacy center Children’s Rights accused Ohio of failing to live up to the requirements of the ruling. A judge dismissed that lawsuit, but the decision is now being appealed.
In December, a group of advocates filed an amicus brief in that lawsuit, arguing that sufficient kinship support could have prevented Ma’Khia’s death.
“Without foster care maintenance payments, kinship care is jeopardized,” the brief states. “Tragedy may even strike. Such was the case for Ma’Khia Bryant.”