When I think of Ma’Khia Bryant, I ask myself, what is her story? Behind the sensational, attention-grabbing headlines, what is her complete story?
What was her favorite color? What was her favorite subject in school? Was she athletic or artistic or both? What were her future goals? Who are her family and friends? What are their stories that are embedded into Ma’Khia’s?
As I think about my own story, my exposure to child welfare predates my adult encounter with this system. I grew up in Connecticut in what is called informal kinship care: My grandmother, who adopted my birth mother, raised my older sister and myself along with our older foster sister from the time we were all infants. My grandmother adopted, fostered and took care of children for over 70 years.
When I was younger, child welfare was like “background noise.” It was always present, but lurking in the shadows, waiting. I was taught to not trust “the system.” They not only had “superpowers” to take me away from my family, but they also had power to take everything away, including our home. When the caseworker made her visits, we were told to go play and if we were approached, to be cordial but say nothing more than pleasantries. There was a perceived fear of the power that child welfare held over our family.
It was a complicated and complex relationship between my grandmother and child welfare. She was born in the early 1900s in the segregated South, one generation removed from institutionalized chattel slavery with limited formal education.
Although my grandmother’s love for children dated back into her own childhood, she was reduced and limited to the conditions of those times for Black women. I never saw any type of support that was offered to her from child welfare and if there was cash assistance it was limited in scope. It appeared that both my grandmother and the system were distrustful of one another and never attempted to build a relationship beyond what was required.
Fast forward to the early 2000s when I had my own encounter with child welfare. Like often is the case in child welfare, there were multiple breakdowns within the family, the community, systems writ large and society that could have prevented the traumatic encounter in the first place. My middle child was suffering from being underdiagnosed regarding his mental health. It wasn’t because I was unaware, or because I was in denial or reluctant about his mental health. On the contrary, I searched for nine years to get professionals to help me with my son.
Nobody believed me. No one valued my voice as his mother. I want to make this crystal clear; this was a two-parent, college-educated household. My husband and I were both working. I was a state employee. All three children were healthy and up to date with their vaccinations. There was plenty of food in the refrigerator. So why did my family land at child welfare’s doorsteps?
A disgruntled family member who happened to be employed at our state’s child welfare department wrote a report on me after I did not honor a threat about my youngest child. This happened three days before Christmas. Can you imagine the terror, the extreme hurt and embarrassment?
It was a complete abuse of power, and yet my story is not unique. In the 30 years of my professional career, I have seen countless reports to the child welfare hotline that clearly did not rise to the level of abuse and neglect. Many of those cases were accepted anyway. These reports often come from school personnel or other agency providers that are supposed to know how to work with children and families who might have some challenges. These systems are often set up to penalize children and families in the times when they are most vulnerable and need the support the most.
Can you imagine a time in your life when you were at your lowest and you were met with those who were in positions to help you with blame, shame, bias, bigotry and indifference? How is any of this in service of families? Do you know what it feels like to be treated like an object instead of a human-being? How it feels like to not be valued as the expert of your own family and to be told that you must be doing something wrong as a parent? Do you know what it feels like to be already broken down in depression and despair just to have a system break you down even further?
Being a great mother was extremely important to me, given the fact that I wasn’t raised by either of my bio parents. You could only imagine how it felt for me to get that knock on the door. That was close to 20 years ago and I still shudder at this traumatic experience.
And yet, me and my family are considered the lucky ones. We survived child welfare and have gone on to live productive lives and we continue to be a strong loving and supportive family. This wasn’t because of child welfare, but despite it. Don’t get me wrong, there were some family engagement champions who worked within our child welfare agency, but they were the exceptions.
There’s a culture embedded within the system that does not encourage authentic engagement and meaningful partnerships with birth parents. When I think of Ma’Khia and her family, I think of all the missed opportunities. I think about all the untapped potential. I ponder what could have been and what the world has lost? I want to know what connects us as families who have experienced the child welfare system. I want to honor their humanity with the dignity and respect they deserve even in this tragic moment however insufficient it may be.