Ma’Khia Bryant’s court records raise questions about the system’s custody

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ma’Khia Bryant was 13 years old when Columbus police removed her and three siblings from their mother’s home and placed them in the emergency care of Franklin County Children Services in March 2018.

Three years and one month later, on April 20, Ma’Khia was still in the agency’s custody when a Columbus police officer fatally shot her outside the foster home where she lived .

The initial reaction to the death of the 16-year-old girl was outrage among community members who have grown weary of police killings of Black people.

But in the days since the shooting, attention increasingly has turned to questions and allegations regarding the child welfare system, specifically Ohio’s foster-care system, and whether it played a role in the tragedy.

“We need to know more before we can say whether the system failed her and, if so, how,” said Ronald R. Browder, president of the Ohio Federation for Health Equity and Social Justice and a foster parent of 27 years whose focus is on helping Black teenage males transition to adulthood.

“What we can say is this: When children are taken from their parent, the assumption is, the expectation is, you’re taking them to protect them. So when they end up dead, there are questions that have to be answered.”

Ma’Khia and siblings taken from mother’s home after abuse allegations

Most of the details that Browder and others involved in the foster-care system say they need to determine whether mistakes were made in Ma’Khia’s placement haven’t been released. Children Services won’t provide any specifics about the custody case, citing privacy and confidentiality concerns.

An agency spokeswoman wouldn’t even say how many foster children were in the home, but confirmed that all were removed after the shooting and that the agency is conducting an evaluation of the home, as is standard procedure when a child dies in foster care.

The Franklin County Juvenile Court case file, obtained by The Dispatch, shows that Children Services initially placed Ma’Khia and her siblings — a sister and two brothers — with their paternal grandmother, Jeanene Hammonds.

The court granted temporary custody to Children Services after police responded to an incident at an unidentified Columbus residence in the early morning hours of March 18, 2018. According to Columbus police, the four children made allegations of ongoing physical abuse by their mother, Paula Bryant, and an adult sibling.

Records show the mother “emphatically denied all allegations of abuse.” But the court granted temporary custody of the children to Children Services.

The agency began a plan aimed at reuniting the children with their mother, but its filings with the court indicate the mother repeatedly failed to comply with the plan, which included mental-health counseling, or even to consistently show up for scheduled visitations with Ma’Khia and her sister.

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The files contain repeated references to the father not responding to outreach by the court and “refusing involvement with the agency.”

In December 2019, Children Services became so concerned about what they deemed to be emotionally damaging interactions between the mother and her daughters that the agency filed a motion “requesting an order from the court to suspend Paula Bryant’s visitation for now.”

A month later, in January 2020, the agency filed a motion seeking permanent custody of the girls, a request that was still pending with the court at the time of Ma’Khia’s death.

Michelle Martin, an attorney for Ma’Khia’s family, declined to comment on any of the specifics in the court filings when contacted by The Dispatch, saying she was ethically prohibited from discussing the details of an ongoing case.

“But I promise you, there is another side,” she said. “I can’t tell (the mother’s) side right now, because she still has an active case and there are still minor children involved.”

Among the demands Martin is making on the family’s behalf is for an investigation by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services into Ohio’s foster-care system.

The Dispatch has tried repeatedly to arrange a conversation with Ma’Khia’s mother but has yet to be granted an interview. 

Paula Bryant actually contacted a Dispatch reporter in September 2019, sending a brief email saying that four of her children were in residential care. “I’m trying to get them home,” she wrote. “Please help.”

The reporter told Bryant she would need to provide some documents that the newspaper could refer to in reaching out to Children Services, but Bryant didn’t provide any additional information.

Ma’Khia and her siblings were placed with their grandmother for 16 months. Then they were separated.

The placement of the children with the grandmother, known as kinship care, lasted about 16 months, until the summer of 2019. At that point, Children Services reported that conflict between the grandmother Hammonds and the mother “has been a barrier to mother’s ability to focus on services,” and transferred the children to foster care.

In a later filing with the court, Children Services said Hammonds “consistently indicated she did not want to take custody,” had lost her housing and “subsequently dropped the children and their siblings off at the agency.”

But in December 2019, Hammonds filed a handwritten motion with the court asking for custody, saying the children had done well in her home and that the separation of the siblings in foster care “has caused a great deal of emotional and mental stress.”

Children Services never returned the children to her, telling the court that Hammonds “does not understand the children’s special needs” and had “failed to facilitate counseling for the children when she had placement.”

Kinship care is nearly always preferable to foster care because there are better outcomes for children, said Browder, the Federation for Health Equity and Social Justice president.

But Browder said that grandparents and other family members who take on kinship-care duties generally don’t receive the same support — financially or otherwise — from the child-welfare system as foster parents. 

“If you are a senior citizen or a working person, you have income for yourself, then you all of a sudden have two, three, four kids in your house, but there haven’t been any additional resources put in,” he said. “I’m sure some of that had a bearing on Ms. Hammonds’ issues.”

Browder, a former executive director of Children’s Defense Fund Ohio who also oversaw adoption, kinship and similar programs for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, said he grows frustrated when he hears complaints about the failures of those providing kinship care.

“It’s very likely some of the (Bryant) children needed some type of counseling,” Browder said. “A lot of times in case plans, they put in counseling, but there may not be any realistic way of making sure that can happen. … You may have transportation problems that prevent you from getting them there. There are unrealistic expectations put on families, particularly ones who are already dealing with trauma and are already struggling.

The question in this case, he said, “is what resources were put in place to support the grandmother? I guarantee you there were very little, if any.”

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Court file has no later details about foster placements of Ma’Khia and her sister 

The court file does not provide details about the foster-care placements of Ma’Khia and her sister after they left their grandmother’s care in mid-2019.

Martin, the family attorney, said Ma’Khia had been in the home since February, with her younger sister having been placed there “a little bit before.”

There is no indication in the file of how many other foster homes Ma’Khia lived in before, but foster-care experts say that more than one or two such moves can be damaging for children.

“We know that moves cause more trauma,” said Scott Britton, deputy director of the Public Children Services Association of Ohio. “But still, it happens that there are foster parents who get in over their heads sometimes, and they need more support than we can provide.”

Nothing in the court file suggests that the girls were having problems at the foster home prior to a 911 call to Columbus police on the afternoon of April 20, which sources say was placed by Ma’Khia’s younger sister.

“We’ve got grown girls over here trying to fight us, trying to stab us, trying to put their hands on our grandma,” the girl said. “Get here now.”

Officer Nicholas Reardon shot Ma’Khia within seconds of arriving outside the residence. His body-camera video shows Ma’Khia, wielding a knife, charging at a young woman who falls backward at the officer’s feet, then turning and chasing another young woman in a pink outfit, pinning her against a car parked in the driveway.

Ma’Khia appears to be swinging the knife toward the woman’s upper body when Reardon fires what sounds like four shots.

A police report shows that the two women involved in the altercation with Ma’Khia were ages 22 and 20 and believed to be former juvenile residents at the foster home who now live elsewhere. .

The paternal grandmother told The Washington Post that the younger granddaughter called her on the afternoon of April 20 and said a former resident of the home had stopped for a visit and was upset about cleanliness at the house.

After an argument, Hammonds reportedly said, the woman left and returned with at least two other women.

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The foster mother told The Dispatch that she was at work and wasn’t home at the time of the altercation and shooting.

That’s troubling, Browder said.

In all of his years as a co-foster parent with his mother, Browder said the teens in their care always had adult supervision, even though it wasn’t legally required.

“The children were never here when we weren’t here,” Browder said. “That never happened. When you’re dealing with children who have trauma and other issues…   you have to make sure there is adult supervision because things can get out of hand.”

Columbus police records show a number of previous runs to the address of Bryant’s foster home, but none involving Ma’Khia. Her sister called 911 on March 28 upset about the foster mother yelling at her and told the operator that she wanted to be placed in another foster home.

Police run reports going back to July 2018 show about a dozen calls about missing children, all of whom eventually returned to the home.

Browder said that type of report to police is required whenever foster children are gone and their whereabouts are unknown.

Britton, of the Public Children Services Association, said one problem affecting the system is a shortage of foster parents in Ohio.

As of April 30, the state had 15,250 foster children,  and about 7,800 foster homes.

Making matters worse for teens such as Ma’Khia and her siblings, many of those foster parents prefer to take in younger children.

“Unfortunately, too many foster parents are more comfortable taking a baby or a young child,” Britton said. “And that’s fine. We don’t want to place older children where the parents aren’t equipped for them. But we need more foster parents willing to take older children with complex traumas or behaviors.”

Ken Gordon and Mark Ferenchik contributed to this report.

Follow John Futty on Twitter: @johnfutty.