Ma’Khia Bryant shooting sparks call for US foster system changes

Ma’Khia Bryant and her sister lived with their foster mother in a two-story house in a middle-class neighbourhood, next to a cornfield along the edge of the city limits here.

Residents described the neighbourhood as quiet and most of those interviewed said they did not even know that the sisters were foster children until 20 April, when Ms Bryant, 16, was shot and killed by a Columbus police officer when he saw her swinging a knife at a woman during a disturbance in front of the foster home.

Ms Bryant’s grandmother, Jeanene Hammonds, said Ma’Khia called her that afternoon asking for help. She told her grandmother that there was trouble at the foster home involving a former foster child who had previously lived at the residence. The young woman had reportedly returned for a visit and was upset over the condition of the house, sparking an argument, Ms Hammonds said.

The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation is investigating the case, which has raised questions about police officers’ use of deadly force. But the disturbance at the house and Ms Bryant’s death also are indicative of deeper problems in the state’s foster care system, say foster parents and child welfare advocates, many of whom are now calling for reforms to the overwhelmed and disjointed system caring for abused and vulnerable children. With Ms Bryant’s funeral scheduled for Friday, her death has become a call to action.

At a somber news conference Wednesday, Ms Bryant’s birthparents and their attorney called on the US Department of Health and Human Services to investigate Ohio’s foster care system and asked for a Justice Department probe of the Columbus Division of Police, whose officers have fatally shot 38 people since 2015, including five under the age of 18, according to the department.

“We are going to investigate every agency that had a time and an opportunity to prevent Ma’Khia’s death,” attorney Michelle Martin said. “All systems failed her . . . and we have to protect our children.”

Foster parents, some of whom gathered with their children at a protest to honour Ms Bryant on Sunday, say they need more training on how to de-escalate conflicts, more funding for social workers and more resources devoted to helping children remain with their birthparents. They are also demanding that armed police officers no longer be the first responders for most incidents involving foster children, nearly all of whom are traumatised in some way by being relocated away from birthparents.

And to many foster parents, Ms Bryant’s death only reinforces their own concerns about the system. Morgan Wade had been a foster parent for just a couple of years when her three-year-old foster son began having an episode that is probably familiar to many parents.

She was driving down a highway when the toddler crawled out of his car seat and began hitting his younger sister. Ms Wade called the agency that licensed her for guidance.

“They told me to call the police,” Ms Wade said. “I was just wanting advice, but they told me to call police on a three-year-old.”

Ms Wade disregarded the advice, quickly determining she could handle the child’s outburst on her own. But her story resonated with many of the foster parents at Sunday’s protest.

“It’s a really tough choice for foster parents,” said Laura Flynn, 27, who has been a foster parent for five years. “We are all aware of how unsafe it is to call law enforcement on our kids, but who else do you call for support? And how do you protect your kids from being moved to a new home if you are not following what the current systems say you should and you lose your licence?”

Over the past decade, Ohio has been hit hard by the nationwide opioid crisis, leading to a surge in the number of foster children, officials said. The number of children in the state’s care has grown from 12,000 in 2012 to about 15,000 today.

More recently, the system has been battered by a lack of funding and a shortage of foster families – about 8,000, a sizeable percentage of whom do not take teenagers.

Earlier this year, Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, said an ongoing overhaul of the system was his top priority, and he proposed spending $415 million (£298 million) to help children in need. Mr DeWine has also pledged to make changes to the system through executive actions.

“This is going to remain an issue that Governor DeWine will be focused on throughout his tenure as governor,” said Dan Tierney, a DeWine spokesman, who added that the governor is also a former US senator and state attorney general who has been pushing to reform the system for decades.

But the state’s foster care system continues to face setbacks and criticisms, including accusations that it is especially debilitating for non-white children.

A March report commissioned by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services found that Black youths make up 36 per cent of Ohio’s foster care population, despite making up just 14 per cent of the state’s population of children.

Black youths also stay in the system longer than white children and often feel as if they cannot speak up about the quality of their care, the report said. Many white foster parents don’t believe they have adequate training on how to best raise children in multiracial environments, the report concluded. Advocates say about 80 per cent of Ohio foster parents are white.

Ma’Khia Bryant’s biological mother, Paula Bryant, declined Wednesday to discuss why her children were placed in foster care or how long they have been in the system.

But as she sobbed, she told reporters that her daughter “had a full life in front of her that ended in a tragedy”.

“I loved my baby. She was a good little girl,” Paula Bryant said. “Words can’t even explain how I feel right now that I have to bury my beautiful daughter.”

Ms Hammonds, the grandmother, said Paula Bryant lost custody of her four children several years ago. Ms Hammonds said she cared for the children until mid-2019, when Franklin County Children Services removed them amid a dispute with a landlord and disagreement over adequate housing.

Ms Hammonds said Ma’Khia Bryant initially ended up in a group home near Dayton but in February was placed with a foster parent who was already caring for her younger sister in southeast Columbus.

A spokeswoman for Franklin County Children Services confirmed that Ms Bryant was in foster care but declined additional comment, citing confidentiality laws.

Ms Hammonds said Ms Bryant called her on the afternoon of 20 April asking for help. A former foster child, now a woman in her 20s, had returned for a visit and was upset over the condition of the house, sparking an argument, Ms Hammonds said.

The woman then left the house but returned with at least two other women to continue the argument, Ms Hammonds said. Ms Hammonds said it was her other granddaughter – Ms Bryant’s younger sister – who called 911 at 4:32pm.

“We’ve got these grown girls over here trying to fight us, trying to stab us, trying to put their hands on our grandma,” the girl told an operator, according to a recording of the call that police released after a public records request. “Get here now.”

Officer Nicholas Reardon arrived 12 minutes later to the scene of a physical altercation involving several people, including Ms Bryant swinging a knife while pinning a 22-year-old woman against a car.

Mr Reardon fired four shots, striking Ms Bryant, who died a short time later after being transported to a hospital.

Gerry Slocum, who lives three doors down from the house where Ms Bryant and her sister lived, said the foster parent was not home during the incident. But the woman, who Ms Slocum thought had been at work, returned a short time later and huddled with other neighbours in Ms Slocum’s driveway.

“She was distraught, and she was very confused about what was happening,” said Ms Slocum, 50, adding that she believes the woman was a single foster parent. “She was trying to piece together what possibly could have been going on.”

Ms Martin, the attorney for Ms Bryant’s biological parents, said she does not believe that Ma’Khia and her sister were receiving adequate care.

“It doesn’t sound like the children were being properly supervised, even within the moment,” said Ms Martin, who also works as a court-appointed attorney in foster care cases. “Who were those girls at the house? How did they get there? What trauma was not being addressed in the home?”

A Washington Post reporter visited the foster home Tuesday evening. A woman who answered the Ring doorbell audio system said the foster mother was not at the home. The woman then asked for privacy to “allow her time to mourn”. Attempts to reach her by phone on Wednesday were also unsuccessful.

Ms Slocum and several other neighbours interviewed by The Post said the 20 April shooting was the first time they had seen or heard any sort of disturbance at the home.

“It’s like all of this just came out of the blue,” said Shonnell Kelly, 38, who has lived on the block for four years. “I didn’t even find out it was a foster home until that day … and you don’t know what goes on behind closed doors, but I had never seen any conflict of any kind outside.”

But police records, obtained by The Post after a public records request, show that the 20 April incident wasn’t the first time Columbus police had been dispatched to the home.

Since mid-2018, police have been called to the house 11 times to investigate suspicions that a teenager who lived at the home had run away; the most recent of those calls occurred 7 April and involved a 13-year-old.

In December, the foster parent called police to report that a 10-year-old was “knocking things off the Christmas tree, yelling”, according to the police records.

In March, a 15-year-old girl – identified as Ms Bryant’s younger sister – called 911 and told an operator she no longer wanted to live in the home, according to police records. Officers responded and learned that the girl had a fight with her sister and foster mother, and threatened to “kill someone” unless she was placed in a different foster home.

A caller from the residence also called police on 15 April to report that someone had fired two gunshots into a neighbouring residence.

“Why were any children still in the house at this point with those types of calls coming into police?” said Ms Martin. “That is one of my questions.”

Glenn McEntyre, a spokesman for the Columbus Department of Public Safety, said the police department’s “computer-aided dispatch” system includes a flagging mechanism that can alert officers to properties with a history of problems or other issues that could require a modified response. But Mr McEntyre said he does not know whether Ms Bryant’s foster home had also been designated a “special-situation premise address”.

“We won’t know until the conclusion of the investigation what information officers had access to,” Mr McEntyre said. “The information that the officers had will fall under the purview of the state investigation into the response.”

For foster families in Columbus, the experiences in the foster home where Ms Bryant and her sister lived sound all too familiar, and are among the reasons many are urging the public not to make sweeping judgments about the care and the oversight she may or may not have received from her foster mother.

Nicole Hernandez, 24, who has been a foster mother for about two years, said Ohio foster families struggle to navigate a bureaucratic system that does not provide enough financial or mental health support for parents or children.

Although the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services sets statewide standards for foster care, state officials stress that the system is designed to be “state-supervised” but is administered by 88 counties.

In Franklin County, which includes Columbus, the county department of child services has opted to contract out the placement and supervision of foster children, employing 21 private agencies. Statewide, Ohio counties are contracted with about 100 private agencies involved in the placement and care of foster children.

The guidance foster parents receive depends on which agency they are licensed under, said Ms Flynn, the foster parent with five years’ experience.

When a child is having an outburst or conflict erupts in a home, some agencies urge foster parents never to physically restrain or try to break up the commotion. Others offer some form of physical de-escalation for small children but not after they become teenagers, Ms Flynn said.

“A lot of foster parents are not really trained to de-escalate situations,” Ms Flynn said. “I think most agencies say, ‘Just call police’ … And police arrive, they just take them to Nationwide Children’s Hospital, and just adds to the child’s trauma.”

The burden on families is especially intense for those who are willing to care for teenagers. Foster parents say many families do not take teenagers, meaning those who can are at times expected to care for up to five teenagers at the same time.

“When you have a lot of teens, all suffering trauma, stuck in a home together, conflict is bound to happen,” Ms Hernandez said.

Ajmeri Hoque, who works as a court-appointed advocate for foster children in several central Ohio counties, said the state simply isn’t requiring “enough supervision” of children that it decides to remove from their biological parents.

“The bar is very low for what is considered to be a safe home, in terms of cleanliness and number of people in the home, and the number of children that one foster parent has to take care of,” Ms Hoque said. “When you have multiple children … and you have one parent taking care of all of them, there is going to be issues, and there is going to be conflict.

“If the state is taking these children, the state needs to care for these children,” Ms Hoque added.

Foster parents in Ohio are reimbursed by the state and county between $10 (£7) and $200 (£144) a day per child, depending on the age of the child, their health and a few other factors, including the location of the placement.

Dot Erickson-Anderson, coordinator of the all-volunteer Ohio Family Care Association, said most foster parents simply do not receive enough money to avoid having to work primary jobs, meaning many foster children are also “latchkey kids”.

“The system places a kid with an individual family and expects them to be able to deal with that child, and sometimes a sibling group of three or four, and then the parent then has to leave those children for some time or leave them with someone else,” said Erickson-Anderson, who has been a foster parent for 35 years.

Ms Erickson-Anderson said state and national leaders should be working on developing a more coordinated approach to foster care, including a robust network of trained social workers who are capable of responding to foster homes “within 10 minutes” when problems arise. Foster families should also be encouraged to create their own support pods, in which they work together to try to respond to and de-escalate trouble even when it involves a child not under their direct supervision, Ms Erickson-Anderson said.

“Child welfare is now built so much on the confidentiality of the system, you might have two foster parents on the same block, and they may not even know they are both foster parents,” Ms Erickson-Anderson said.

Scott Britton, assistant director of the Public Children Services Association of Ohio, an advocacy group for county children services agencies, said some help is coming for foster families. He said that in January, the Ohio Department of Medicaid will launch “mobile response teams” to help children with “complex behavioural health needs”.

“These are programmes that Ohio should have had for a long time,” said Mr Britton, adding that 99 per cent of the state’s foster children qualify for Medicaid.

Lily Cunningham, a clinical mental health counselor in Franklin County, added that Ms Bryant’s death shows why social workers have been pushing for police to embrace a “wraparound” approach to public safety.

“The question always is: Why is this child or family in foster care?” Ms Cunningham said. “But the right question should be: What can we be doing right now to enhance the lives of children in foster care?”

Mr McEntyre, the Columbus public safety spokesman, said it is up to Franklin County Children Services and state lawmakers to make such policy decisions.

Hana Abdur-Rahim, an organiser with the Black Abolitionist Collective of Ohio, which is affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement, said Ms Bryant’s death only reinforces her group’s belief that the Ohio foster care system should be abolished. The state should instead spend its money supporting families so children are not removed from their homes, she said.

“A lot of times people’s children get taken away because they can’t afford to take care of them, or they don’t have proper housing,” Ms Abdur-Rahim said. “So if we had more resources, children would not get taken away from their families.”

Many foster parents also say they, too, would like to see the day when their services are not needed. But in Ohio and elsewhere, they know it’s only a matter of time before they get another call from their agency pleading for them to take in another child.

“There is literally nowhere else for these kids to go,” Ms Flynn said. “So for people who want to criticise foster parents, you instead should think whether you can take in a teenager.”

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