by Anne Marie Silver
May is National Foster Care month. Of course, we honor and recognize the amazing people who come forward to foster children and youth who have been removed from their families. Providing a temporary home for these vulnerable children is an incredible and selfless contribution to their safety and well-being. Caring for a traumatized child requires patience, dedication and compassion; individuals who provide this shelter are true heroes.
This year, as with so many other national events, Foster Care Month feels different. The recent tragic shooting death of 16-year old Ma’Khia Bryant, a youth in foster care in Columbus, Ohio, shines a light on some of the deepest challenges in the child welfare system. Although there is still much to be learned, anyone who is involved with the child welfare and foster care system can recognize and lament the complex set of circumstances that brought Ma’Khia to the events of April 20, 2021.
At Boston CASA our advocates serve the critical role of safeguarding and advocating for the best interests of the children and youth who are involved with the juvenile court in Suffolk and Middlesex Counties, most often through involvement with the Department of Children and Families. Many of our CASA volunteers felt the bone-chilling fear for their own CASA youth upon hearing of Ma’Khia’s death, as they recognized the patterns of an overburdened system and related injustices of our own child welfare system. The threads of systemic racism are woven into the fabric of our child welfare system. Those of us who live and work in Massachusetts pride ourselves on our progressive ideas and politics, but when reviewing the impact of our state child welfare system, we embody the same sad statistics that burden most child protective systems: Explicit and implicit biases play roles in determining the involvement, and of course the outcomes, for BIPOC families in our state. Ma’Khia’s death will be reviewed and analyzed from multiples perspectives, and people will discuss and disagree whether her death was justified in the specific circumstances in which it occurred. In truth, though, the circumstances which, at least in part, brought her to her death began long before the call to the police on the day of her death, just as the circumstances which brought George Floyd to his murder at the hands of the Minneapolis police department did not originate on that day. If we focus the discussion of Ma’Khia’s death solely on the police interaction on the day of her shooting, we will lose the opportunity to learn about her life, to evaluate decisions made about her care, supports that might have been put in place to minimize trauma and loss, and how the child welfare system played a role in placing her in that driveway on April 20.
The events of 2020 and early 2021 have caused us as a nation to rethink our perspectives on so many things we formerly viewed as norms: the ability to gather for celebrations, the way we interact with one another, the need to care for and check on our neighbors and to guard against isolation and injustice. Perhaps this year for National Foster Care Month, as a nation we can focus on addressing the social issues which result in the need for the foster care system. Perhaps we can rethink traditional approaches to social safety nets, poverty, understanding and treatment of substance use and mental health challenges, along with racial justice. If we do, perhaps next May we can focus on celebrating these changes along with the heroic families who foster children in need. If we do not, we will almost certainly have to mourn the tragic loss of another Ma’Khia Bryant.