There is no perfect way to be a child in foster care. As a 30-year-old Black woman and foster youth alumni, I reflect daily on my decisions as a traumatized youth in care and the grace that was not always granted to me.
I survived the foster care system and the opportunity to thrive into adulthood and advocate for young Black children in care; Ma’Khia Bryant deserved the same chance. I am heartbroken by the messages we send to foster youth about their value and worthiness. Young Black girls who see themselves in Ma’Khia deserve to feel protected, seen, and valued and know they can live through foster care.
On April 20, we witnessed the tragic murder of Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old girl in Columbus, Ohio, who was in the middle of a crisis and who grabbed a knife during an altercation for protection. The reality is, as a foster youth, you often have to fight for your safety and are left with no reason to trust adults, law enforcement and the child welfare system.
On April 20 we witnessed the systemic failure of the child welfare system. The system’s failure led directly to Ma’Khia’s death, by no coincidence right outside of the same home she was placed in by the child welfare system to keep her safe. These systemic failures represent our society’s lack of investment and attention to the unique needs of Black girls in foster care. Ma’Khia Bryant, like many other Black girls in foster care, is placed under the control of a system designed to protect, honor and shelter them, but does the exact opposite at an alarming rate. It inflicts physical and psychological harm, which can ultimately lead to death.
The trajectory of Ma’Khia’s life and Black girls who become involved with the child welfare system is dreary. Black girls are criminalized, adultified and pushed through a foster care pipeline, with their likelihood of becoming victims exceptionally disproportionate. Despite this, Black girls are ignored immensely, and as we see in the case of Ma’Khia, blamed for their murder.
It’s time to give Ma’Khia Bryant the justice she deserves. Justice for Ma’Khia begins with visibility and accountability. The outcome of her life cannot and should not be treated as an exceptional case, a justified death to protect other citizens, but as an example of a larger truth of the prevalence of white supremacy and anti-blackness in the child welfare system and its tragic impact on the lives of black girls. True justice for Ma’Khia is her life being long-lived and filled with joy, mistakes, lessons and protection.
Public discourse on Ma’khia Bryant has been split, and varying opinions are justifying and creating a narrative that dehumanizes and vilifies a young Black girl who spent the final moment of her life in a child welfare system because of her size, and not the environment the child welfare system creates. Ma’Khia has publicly been addressed and referred to as a woman convincing us that she was a threat and not a child experiencing fight or flight. She has been adultified without the ability to live out her childhood.
As a Black child, your body is heavily and frequently feared and stigmatized and felt less deserving of protection. For young Black girls in foster care, your criminalized body is then compounded with trauma, hyper-surveilled and left without support by the child welfare system, leaving tragedy to follow you immediately and irrevocably.
Black women like me, who survived the foster care system, lived through a childhood corrupted and reared with stereotypes and associations of “too grown, violent, angry, too emotional.” Characterizations that are reserved exclusively for Black girls and assigned to them as they navigate a foster care system filled with anti-blackness and trauma. For me, my childhood never happened, and I am saddened, and left hopeless that young Black girls who look like me are experiencing the same tragic outcomes 20 years later.
On January 6, many of us witnessed adult domestic terrorists treated far more humanely than Ma’Khia while storming the United States Capitol, armed with weapons and intent, risking the lives of elected officials, law enforcement and the general public. They were adults who under no danger undertook an insurrection and were still granted leniency. That day, we learned that nuance is strictly reserved for white teens and adults who choose to incite riots and domestic terrorist attacks in America.
Ma’Khia deserves the same compassion. Ma’Khia deserves to be seen as America’s baby girl, uplifted, celebrated with care, and displayed as the innocent, fun, cute and full of life child she was.
To social workers removing Black children from their homes based on implicit biases, to our judges terminating the rights of Black mothers, and to our policymakers who have the power to force change: We must honor Ma’Khia’s life by exploring how the intersection of race, gender and bias contribute to the tragic outcomes of Black girls in foster care. The child welfare system must finally address, see and honor the Black girls disproportionately subjected to its violence and then forgotten.
According to the National Women’s Law Center, Black girls make up 23% of all girls in foster care but are the largest group (36%) of those experiencing more than 10 placements in the system. In addition, the center has said, Black girls in foster care “lack access to early childhood education and special education services and have higher discipline rates, lower achievement rates, and lower graduation rates.”
To create real, long-lasting change in our child welfare system, improve the lives and experiences of Ma’Khia and Black girls like her, we need to understand Black girls, how they live, and how they suffer at the hands of our child welfare system.
Ma’Khia Bryant deserved love, care and support. We must do better for Black girls in foster care everywhere.