The 16-year-old’s death is a reminder to the foster care system: Before placing children with strangers, we must exhaust all other options.
Over the course of my legal career, I’ve worked with so many relatives who have struggled to get placement of their kin in foster care due to their poverty. A grandmother who didn’t have money to buy beds. A grandfather whose home wasn’t big enough to meet licensing standards. An aunt who lived out of state and lacked the resources to move. An uncle with criminal history because he couldn’t pay outstanding fees.
All too often, at the first sign that there might be an obstacle to overcome, or a challenge to navigate, the systems take the “easy” approach. It gives up on family and instead subsidizes the placement of children with strangers.
My mind flashed back to many of these stories a few weeks ago, after reading The New York Times’ story recounting the experiences of Ma’Khia Bryant — yet another young Black American shot by the police — in foster care. In the article, the reporters describe that after Ma’Khia was removed from her mother’s custody, the child welfare agency placed her with her grandmother, where she remained with her siblings for 16 months.
But then her landlord found that she had her grandkids in the home, so he evicted them. Ma’Khia’s grandmother called the agency, asking whether she could take the children with her to a hotel. But a caseworker refused, and as a result, the grandmother dropped the children off at the agency. After entering stranger foster care, the kids “spent two years cycling through short-term placements, arrangements that dissolved one after another,” according to the article. Until, of course, Ma’Khia’s untimely death.
Life is a series of choice-points, fleeting moments where we have important decisions to make. They might pass us by. We might not even notice them.
These moments are quick, but how our lives unfold are often based on the decisions we make in these moments. Ma’Khia Bryant might still be alive if that caseworker had simply allowed her grandmother to take the family to a hotel.
She might still be alive if the caseworker had offered the family emergency rental assistance to find a new home.
She might still be alive if the caseworker had referred the family to a lawyer or a social worker — or better yet, both — to prevent them from being evicted from their home.
Instead, the system just hummed along. It didn’t pause to consider the consequences of this enormous choice-point — separating children from their kin. It chose to willingly spend thousands of dollars subsidizing Ma’Khia’s care with strangers until her tragic death.
This tragedy is yet another reminder of a lesson the child welfare system so stubbornly refuses to heed: Before placing children with strangers and erasing their sense of belonging and feeling of security, we must exhaust all other options. The system must view family separation as its equivalent of DEFCON 1, which requires the military to develop an “immediate response” based on the imminence of the threat and the potential catastrophic consequences.
We must mobilize all resources at our disposal to prevent it from happening, whenever possible. These are the choice-points where we must force systems to slow down and carefully consider what they are doing because of the potentially devastating outcomes.
Because if we don’t, we run the risk of losing children like Ma’Khia, both by placing them in a broken foster care system full of risks and hardening their hearts by stripping them of their sense of belonging.