Ever since the death of Ma’Khia Bryant, the question that her family – who all went rushing to the cameras after her death – didn’t want to answer has been floating in the ether.
And that question was “why was Ma’Khia Bryant in foster care?”
That question got overrun by the media in the wake of their rush to blame the police officer (thanks a lot, LeBron James, you utter fool), and then as media began to analyze the actual bodycam footage, there was a narrative shift. Even though the reflexive impluse was to blame the police officer, there was division amongst the ranks. When Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo actually agreed that the police officer did what he had to do, I knew that this particular narrative was wrecked, and the death of Ma’Khia Bryant would fade quietly away.
Did hell freeze over?!
Both CNN Don Lemon & Chris Cuomo defended the officer who fatally shot 16 years old Ma'Khia Bryant
"When they roll up on the scene, they see people tussling around. Someone has a knife & their job is to protect & serve every life on that scene" pic.twitter.com/DihhSeGIDj
— Mona Salama (@MonaSalama_) April 22, 2021
The New York Times has released a long-form narrative about the life and death of Ma’Khia Bryant that attempts to answer the question of why she was in foster care. In reading this long and complex story that ends with a 16 year old charging someone with a knife and being shot, the person who actually bears no blame for the situation is the police officer. Officer Nicholas Reardon was on the scene for less than 15 seconds before he had to shoot Ma’Khia before she stabbed someone, namely, 22 year old Tionna Bonner.
This story reads like a tragedy because it is one, and it also demonstrates the most primal longing in any child’s soul – the desire for their mother. There is nothing Ma’Khia Bryant and her sister, Ja’Niah (who was interviewed extensively for this article) wanted more than to be returned to either their mother’s custody, or their paternal grandmother’s custody. And there is nothing in this story that gives the reader any hope of future stability for this family.
We learn that Ma’Khia Bryant was the oldest of four children, but that her parents never married and her mother, Paula, says that the father, Myron Hammonds, had left her alone to raise the kids. By 2017, Paula Bryant had given up on controlling her children, and essentially handed them over to the system.
The family had been on the radar of Children Services for several years, amid repeated complaints that the two youngest children were absent from school. In February 2017, Ms. Bryant took Ma’Khia, Ja’Niah and two younger siblings to one of the agency’s offices and said “she was at her wits end” and could no longer handle them, according to a Children Services document outlining the case. The children, Ms. Bryant told the agency, had “no respect” for those around them.”
The move to Hilltop had been difficult for her daughters, who missed their friends on the East Side, Ms. Bryant said. “They were kind of rebelling in the home,” she said. The police came, she said, when she was arguing with Ma’Khia and Ja’Niah over bedtimes, and their younger sister, Azariah, ran outside and yelled for help.”
“The officers said, you have just lost control as a parent, meaning, you can tell them to go to bed, go upstairs right now, and they’re not going to go,” she said. The children told police officers that they had suffered physical abuse from their mother and an older half brother, according to the mother’s lawyer, Michelle Martin, though Ms. Bryant denied ever abusing them. A magistrate judge dismissed the abuse claims against Ms. Bryant in February 2019 but found that she had neglected the children, according to court documents.”
It was at this point that their grandmother, Jeanene Hammonds, stepped in to take all four children. However, her living situation couldn’t accommodate her grandchildren, and her landlord evicted her. It is unclear (and the way the story is written, it seems the NYT isn’t certain about this either) that if circumstances had been different, and Hammonds could have been licensed as a foster parent quickly, instead of waiting for state aid (which showed up six months after she took the kids), that she would have been able to keep her grandchildren. Or if she had a landlord who was willing to work with her, if she would have been able to provide a long-term home. These are details that simply aren’t fleshed out, but we do know that Hammonds said the children “came from a lot of dysfunction.” I find it unlikely that kids who were actively rebelling against their mother were behaving like perfect angels for their grandmother. Regardless, Hammonds says that she attempted to keep the kids together with her, and she says the foster system was no help.
In desperation, she called the children’s caseworker to ask if she could take them to a hotel with her for a few nights, but the caseworker said that was not allowed. He told her to drop the two older girls off at Franklin County Children Services, a hulking brick edifice in downtown Columbus.”
She found it frustrating; she felt the children belonged with their family.”
“They could’ve just given me what they give one foster parent, and then I could’ve gotten housing, taken care of the kids and done what I needed to do,” Ms. Hammonds said.”
When they pulled up to the building, she said, Ma’Khia did not want to get out of the car.”
“She didn’t want to leave me,” she said. “I think about that all the time.”
Where was the children’s father? The story doesn’t tell us. It does tell us that Paula Bryant was “struggling” to work toward regaining custody, and that Hammonds did not have an adequate living situation until December 2019. When she applied to the court for custody, she was turned down. Obviously, this is something that the foster care system is going to have to answer pointed questions about. The struggle between the grandmother, who obviously was trying, and the foster care system, who admits that the older girls were shuttled from home to home, is something that will have to be examined by investigators. It’s clear that the girls were willing to live with their grandmother, but that they longed for their mother. The foster parents, however, were not convinced that letting Ma’Khia and Ja’Niah return to their mother was the best idea.
Micheale Cates, 54, one of the foster parents who briefly housed Ma’Khia during that period, was friends with Ms. Moore, who took her in later. She would not discuss the details of the case, but she said she had noticed a pattern: Children who had escaped from traumatic family situations often long to return to them.”
“Home is more than just a location, it’s where you have a level of comfort,” she said.”
“Ma’Khia really was a family person, she needed that,” she said. “But, see, sometimes it’s not the best for the children. These children get triggered. I know the whole idea — keep them together, keep them together — sometimes that’s the worst thing for these kids.”
Angie Moore was who Ma’Khia and Ja’Niah were living with when Ma’Kiah died. It sounds at best like a chaotic living situation, and one the girls wanted to leave. Moore intially talked to the NYT, and then declined to keep answering questions. Given that her home is at the center of the story, I am certain she decided it was best to stay quiet.
Ms. Cates, who formerly cared for Ma’Khia, said Ms. Moore faced a problem common to many foster parents: The agency expected her to work full-time outside the home, a situation that forced her to leave foster children unsupervised.”
“I believe she was a loving, caring foster parent,” she said. But, she added, “foster parenting is a full-time job.”
By this spring, Ja’Niah said, Ms. Moore’s home had become increasingly tense. In the weeks leading up to the shooting, she said, Ms. Moore had accused the girls of stealing the cards that carry cash benefits for food.”
And she said Ms. Moore sometimes left them unsupervised, or with former foster children, women in their 20s who, she said, berated them and mocked Ma’Khia’s speech impediment.”
And when the fight broke out between Ma’Khia and Tionna Bonner, a former foster child of Moore’s, Ja’Niah first called her grandmother, and then 911.
The dispute escalated quickly, but when Ja’Niah called Ms. Moore, who was at work, she said she was too busy to get involved, Ja’Niah said. So each of them called for backup: Ja’Niah called her grandmother, and Ms. Bonner called another young woman, Shai-Onta Craig-Watkins, 20, who had lived in the house as a foster child. Neither Ms. Bonner nor Ms. Craig-Watkins agreed to be interviewed for this article.”
Ms. Hammonds rushed over and described standing on the stairway inside, trying to protect her granddaughters as the older women threatened to beat them up. Ms. Bonner had pulled out a knife, Ja’Niah and her grandmother said, and Ma’Khia had grabbed a steak knife from the kitchen. Ja’Niah went into her room and called 911. In the call, placed at 4:32 p.m., Ja’Niah asked for help as people shouted in the background.”
Someone could be heard saying, “I’m not scared of no knife.”
“It’s 3171 Legion Lane,” Ja’Niah told the dispatcher. “We got Angie’s grown girls trying to fight us, trying to stab us, trying to put her hands on our grandma. Get here now!”
In a brief lull, Ms. Craig-Watkins left the house and the sisters began to pack up their things, thinking the worst of the situation was over. As they rushed out of the house, their father was pulling in to come to their aid. But also arriving was Ms. Craig-Watkins, who had returned with two more people. The two groups crossed paths, and Ms. Craig-Watkins spit toward the family, Ja’Niah and Ms. Hammonds said.”
“I feel like that really made Ma’Khia really mad when she spit,” Ja’Niah said. “That’s when everything just went left.”
Yes, Ma’Khia and Ja’Niah’s father, the perpetually absent figure in this story, also showed up. Who called him and asked him to come? We don’t know. Did he help calm the girls down, or get the knife away from Ma’Khia? Nope, he was the one recorded on video trying to kick Craig-Watkins in the head when she fell on the ground. You know, exactly the kind of example that a grown adult should be setting for his teenage daughters – and his young son, who he had brought with him to the scene.
And then Officer Reardon showed up to see Ma’Khia lunging toward Tionna Bonner with a knife. If Bonner had a knife previously, she no longer did. Ironically, the story opens with Ja’Niah having called 911 three weeks earlier, threatening to “kill someone” if she couldn’t leave the foster home. At the end, though, it was Ma’Khia who had the knife in her hand trying to stab Bonner, and who was shot.
Ma’Khia Bryant wanted to go home to her mother, whom she kept in contact with, but short of her grandmother, no other adult seemed to actually care where she and her siblings ended up. Officer Reardon knew nothing about any of this when he pulled up. All he saw was an imminent threat to an unarmed person, and he did what he had to do. So many adults failed Ma’Khia before that moment. The last one who should have helped her was obviously her father, who was busy pouring lighter fluid on a volatile moment, instead of being an actual adult. When the girls’ mother arrived, Paula Bryant poured out her story of her “sweet little girl.”
The one she had taken to Children’s Services four years earlier because she “couldn’t control” her or her siblings any longer. Ma’Khia was TWELVE when her mother gave up on her. But Ma’Khia never gave up on hoping her mother would want her again and make the effort to bring her home.
This article about the life and death of Ma’Khia Bryant is heartbreaking. She was failed by her father and mother and by the foster care system many times over.
The story suggests lots of systemic reforms that could help, none involving policing.
— Conor Friedersdorf (@conor64) May 9, 2021
The story of Ma’Khia Bryant should inspire some soul-searching in the Ohio foster care system, and in a perfect world, it would motivate Paula Bryant to work on getting custody back of her other children. Will any media outlet follow up on Ja’Niah a year from now, to see where she is, and if she has gotten the help she clearly needs to deal with her rage and grief? Ja’Niah needs her mother, and a stable family, as well. Will her mother step up to actually be there for her, or has the family only gathered in solidarity because there might be a settlement forthcoming? I have the sad feeling that this tragedy is only going to continue, not stop.
Let this serve as a reminder on this Mother’s Day. Any woman can be a “birthing person,” but no one can replace a mother.