The sad death of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant has raised important concerns about the nation’s foster care system. While it is essential to examine the police response, in this case, the underlying issues of why this child was still in the foster system and whether she was in an appropriate placement must also be examined.
Reports from 10TV in Columbus, Ohio, and the Associated Press raise significant questions about the foster home Bryant was in. “Police took at least 13 reports related to foster children who went missing from the home since 2017 or other problems at the home, records show,” the AP reported.
The 911 call that set in motion the chain of events that resulted in Bryant’s death was the seventh such call from that home since November 2020. Two of the earlier 911 calls involved a runaway child, and two other calls involved gunshots.
At this time, we know that multiple foster children were in the house, including Ma’Khia and her younger sister, but we do not have the precise total. In any case, the number of children appears to have exceeded the capabilities of the caregiver. The Associated Press added:
The younger sister of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant called 911 a few weeks before Bryant’s fatal shooting by a Columbus police officer, saying the girls had been in a fight with each other and she wanted to leave their foster home, records show.
“I don’t want to be here no more,” the girl told a police dispatcher, adding that she’d been in the home more than a year
Why Bryant, her sister, and other children were in this particular foster home deserves significant scrutiny. At the macro level, America simply has too many children in foster care. We do a huge disservice to foster children by placing them with unqualified or uncaring foster parents and encouraging competent caregivers to take on additional children at the risk of exceeding their bandwidth.
For those of us who grew up in functional homes, it can be hard to imagine how children can thrive without the unconditional love that our natural and adoptive parents, fortunately, gave us. While many foster parents are excellent (and often go on to adopt children), many others are incapable or uncaring. Having been forcibly extracted from their original homes and often having gone through multiple foster placements, these children are often traumatized. Ideally, they should be placed in the care of short-term super-parents who are skilled in helping them through this difficult period. Unfortunately, we do not have enough of those types of foster caregivers.
One solution is to reduce the number of children in foster care so that those in the system get the best possible placements. Policies to lower the caseload include keeping children in their birth homes whenever it is safe to do so and accelerating reunification or adoption processes for children who can’t return home.
While there is much criticism of hasty and unjustified removals of children by county authorities, the unfortunate reality is that some birth parents abuse and seriously neglect children. In those cases, removal from the home is in the children’s best interests. But once they are in foster care, more attention should be paid to shortening the time children spend in the foster system.
The sooner a child can be restored to a normal home environment, the greater the opportunity he or she will have to recover from the trauma that both removal and foster care cause. As a volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for foster children, I have seen firsthand that the system is not prioritizing adoption once the reunification option has been ruled out.
One problem is the lack of incentives to minimize children’s time in the system. In the Ohio case, for example, amidst allegations of abuse Ma’Khia Bryant was removed from her biological mother’s home in March 2018—more than three years before her death.
Foster parents, private non-profit foster family agencies, attorneys, and therapists are all largely compensated based on their caseloads. The more children that are in the system, the more revenue is available to fund many of the services related to these children.
One alternative would be to gradually decrease compensation rates for attorneys and foster family agencies the longer that children remain in the foster system (perhaps after nine months) while using the money that would be saved to offer bonuses to those involved in successful adoptions.
State oversight of county child protective service agencies should focus more of their attention on the ability of these agencies to properly close cases. While county social workers do not have financial incentives to hold onto cases, they may not have the motivation to close them either. Assigning more aspects of the adoption process to private entities could also accelerate case resolution while incentivizing safe, positive outcomes for the kids involved.
Policymakers and advocates should also be cautious about allowing other cultural and political issues to impede the adoption process. For example, the Supreme Court is currently deliberating on Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case in which a Roman Catholic adoption agency is challenging the city’s decision to stop referring cases to it in light of its unwillingness to certify same-sex couples as suitable parents. Ideally, child protective services would hire a broad array of adoption agencies, including many that permit same-sex couples to adopt.
Similarly, Bethany Christian Services, the nation’s leading Protestant foster care and adoption agency issued a report, which included recommendations to scale back the 1994 Multi-Ethnic Placement Act, which sought to make adoption colorblind. While it is reasonable for an adoption agency to determine whether a white couple has the social awareness to sensitively raise a black child, this flexibility should not be abused by social workers who are opposed to interracial adoption.
Yet as a proud parent of an adopted black daughter (as most readers know, our beautiful youngest daughter is from Ethiopia), I agree with Bethany that it can be harmful to children for parents to walk into adoption with a purely colorblind philosophy. As much as we might want to live in a world where race doesn’t matter, and we’re all one human family, it’s a simple fact that children of color face different challenges from white children as they navigate our culture and as they’re raised in white families.
And while I’m a firm supporter of transracial adoption, I also think that a true “best interests of the child” adoption standard should include an analysis of whether the family is thoughtfully approaching the unique challenges that will face their adopted kids.
This isn’t critical race theory. This is life. This is experience. You can try to be as colorblind as you want, but your child will not be. He or she will be keenly aware of his or her differences. Your community will not be. And it is on the parents to prayerfully and carefully prepare for this reality. We do not yet live Martin Luther King’s “content of your character” dream, and while we do not, it is imperative to prepare parents for the world as it is.
Not all adoptive parents are suitable for every child currently in foster care and experienced, trained intermediaries should be able to exercise some discretion in efforts to more quickly, and successfully, place children in healthy environments. Government and private agencies serving foster children should be given the incentives and tools to make child‐centered decisions that safely reduce the number of kids in the system, increase prudent family reunifications, and more timely adoptions.