A Ma'Khia Bryant memorial in Columbus, Ohio

Marcía Hopkins facilitates Juvenile Law Center’s Youth Advocacy Program: Youth Fostering Change, Juveniles for Justice, and the Youth Speakers Bureau. She also works closely with JLC attorneys on various policy-focused projects related to foster youth and transition-aged youth.

As we celebrate National Foster Care Month throughout May, stories like Ma’Khia Bryant’s should raise more questions about child welfare, foster care placements, and the ways law enforcement interacts with these systems.

A reminder of the circumstances: Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old Black girl in foster care, was fatally shot by a police officer in Columbus, Ohio, on April 20, 2021.

It has now been one year and 19 days since her death. There’s still no justice for Ma’Khia’s murder. It only raises more questions. How is it that society saw a Black girl in rainbow crocs and blamed her for her own death?

As I sit and think about my own foster care experience, I think about what things would have been like for me.

What if I, like Ma’Khia, had been placed in multiple homes instead of with a loving Black family? What if I stayed in care longer and never reunited with my mother and father? My life would mirror that of many of the youth I work with, Black girls coming in and out of the foster care system.

I recall their stories of adultification, the dangers they were placed in, and the lack of protection for them in a system not designed to value and care for them. It is time we hold these systems accountable for their destruction, harm, and failure to protect Black girls.

Why has society accepted the fate of this young Black girl?

In the instance of Ma’Khia, society has yet again criminalized another Black girl for her own death. The “child protective services” system holds powers akin to the criminal justice system, yet we fail to hold them to the same scrutiny. The child welfare system retains the power to terminate parental rights, yet is seldom investigated for its poor outcomes for youth, particularly youth of color.

Data shows Black children spend more time in foster care, are less likely to reunite with their families, experience more restrictive placements, and are less likely to receive services than their white peers. Black and Native American or Alaska Native children also have higher rates of removal than all other children.

Why are we not outraged by this?

Historically, the “protective services” system has over-policed, over-surveilled, and criminalized Black and Brown families. Nationally, about a third of the children in foster care have been removed from Black mothers. Beginning in the 1970s, the system served fewer white children and more minority children, especially Black children. Meanwhile, state and federal governments spend more money on out-of-home care and less on in-home services.

This approach is based on age-old stereotypes of Black families, and Black people viewed as uncaring, lazy, or absentee parents. It’s vital to confront the embedded racism that continues to drive outcomes for children like Ma’Khia.

According to the Washington Post, members of law enforcement have fatally shot nearly 250 women across the United States since 2015. Of these women, 48 were Black — and 89 of them were killed at homes or residences where they sometimes stayed, like Ma’Khia and Breyonna Taylor. None of the officers were charged for their deaths.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the African American Policy Forum and the #SayHerName Campaign, puts it best:  “Black girls as young as 7 and Black women in their 90s have been killed by the police, and for a long time nobody was talking about it.”

We also don’t focus on the implications for Black girls, like Ma’Khia, who grow up in legal systems like foster care and other institutionalized care settings. Too often young Black girls in the justice and foster care systems face damaging outcomes, and are more likely to experience adultification and exposure to sex trafficking. A 2019 Georgetown Law study found Black girls are viewed as less innocent and adult-like than their adolescent peers. Even more strikingly, adults perceived Black girls as needing less nurturing, protection, and comfort.

So why has society accepted this fate for Black girls but rejected it for others? Because of false narratives that shorten Black girls’ childhoods and contribute to unwarranted punishment.

Black girls are children. They are joyful and complex, like all children. And if we accept the premise that all children deserve to be nurtured and cared for, that includes Black girls and boys.

Black girls, especially, deserve our investment.

We must hear and uplift their stories

A new podcast called “Diaries of Black Girls in Foster Care”, led by Black women with lived experience in child welfare, Tasiha Roberts-Wing, Kaysie Getty, Amnoni Myers, Alexandria Ware, and Ángela Quijada-Banks, aims to do this by creating dialogue with other Black girls and women around shared journeys within the system. Other organizations like Black Girls Rock, PowerPlay New York, and Girls Inc are also working to invest in Black girls by working to empower, develop, and support future leaders.

But we still have more work to do. As a community, we must work to develop more solutions that ensure the safety and protection of Black girls while closing the disproportionate gap between Black and white children in child welfare.

We must demand more accountability for their safety, and we must fight for their ability to exist just as children. Black girls deserve better. Ma’Khia deserved better. They deserve justice, yes, but also to be remembered as they were: TikTokers, rainbow croc enthusiasts, and children failed by the foster care system.