16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was killed on April 20th, 2021, outside of her foster home by a police officer called to help (NYTimes). The officer resorted to extreme and fatal force without issuing any clear verbal warnings or commands to the girl who had been in foster care since 2018. Unless you’ve been a child or teen in the foster care system or a foster parent, this situation may be hard to understand. As a product of the foster care system, this case hit home. In light of National Foster Care Month, I’ll be telling my story, one of hundreds of thousands of stories of current and former foster care youth in America.
My name is Jacari. I’m a Tallahassee, Florida native, a former child of foster care, and an adoptee. I grew up living in low-income, dirty, unkempt conditions with no provisions for care, surrounded by drug dealing, sex, poverty, and high crime rates.
I first met my biological father on his death bed on my thirteen birthday. My biological mother had a long history of crack and alcohol abuse. Before I could even crawl, she left me with a non-relative, informing the keeper that she would return in an hour. She returned days later, spotted walking the streets, appearing drunk or high on crack. This caused me to be in and out of foster homes for two years before I was eventually adopted. Once the termination of parental rights occurred, and there were no other family relatives who wanted to take me in. I had no choice but to remain with this new family.
Growing up in this system, I was depressed and angry with anyone I encountered. I spent much of my early grade-school years in detention, suspension, or expulsion. My adoptive mother put me in sports and sent me to counseling to reduce my anger and behavioral issues. I became angrier and would be triggered often to call the police department on my adoptive parents, thinking that they’d kick me out if I continued getting in trouble.
By high school, I was determined to go in a different direction and worked a full-time job, finished high school a year early, and eventually became the youngest intern at Parks & Crump, the firm that represented Trayvon Martin and George Floyd, in their firm’s history. I later graduated from college and wrote a book called Lost & Found about growing up in foster care and finding my identity as an adoptee. I now work in the racial justice space and advocate for foster care and adopted youth through my non-profit, Families for All.
My story is just one of the hundreds of thousands of children’s in the foster care system. Over 437,000 children are currently in the U.S. foster care system, and the numbers are only increasing (CCAI). “Over 125,000 of these children are eligible for adoption, and they will wait, on average, four years for an adoptive family” (CCAI). The rates are even more shocking for Black youth, who make up 13.71% of the population, yet 22.75% of children in foster care (NCSL, 2018). According to federal data, Black children “receive fewer services, are more likely to be given psychotropic medications to control their behaviors, and increasing numbers are being funneled through the foster-care-to-prison pipeline” (The Grigio).
In President Joe Biden’s recent “Proclamation on National Foster Care Month,” he confessed to some of the racial disparities that exist in the foster care system. “Black and Native American children are far more likely than white children to be removed from their homes, even when the circumstances surrounding the removal are similar. Once removed, Black and Native American children stay in care longer and are less likely to either reunite with their birth parents or be adopted. Too many children are removed from loving homes because poverty is often conflated with neglect, and the enduring effects of systemic racism and economic barriers mean that families of color are disproportionately affected by this as well” (“A Proclamation on National Foster Care Month, 2021”).
For these children, resources are often scarce. The demand for foster parents far exceeds the supply, and children in foster care receive 50% of the investment that the average American child receives (iFoster). During the pandemic, these disparities become increasingly impactful, with only 5% of rural foster youth and 21% of urban foster youth reporting access to a computer at home, limiting these children’s access to education, resources, and jobs (iFoster). Twenty thousand kids age out of the system annually, “leaving them to fend for themselves” in a world where they will have little access to education and be at high risk for unemployment (iFoster).
The foster care system failed Ma’Khia long before the day she was murdered by a state official. The system’s failure directly led to her death right outside of the home she was sent to keep her safe. She had no reason to trust the officer because adults had let her down, time and time again. Ma’Khia was not protected. We must do more to protect the hundreds of thousands of children in her position.
This month, as a former child of the foster care system, I ask that you share our stories, amplify our voices, and support organizations dedicated to meeting the needs of children and families touched by the foster care system.
Jacari W. Harris, a native of Tallahassee, Florida, is an author, life coach, social justice activist, and inspirational speaker. He also serves as the Executive Director of The George Floyd Memorial Foundation.
437,000+ children are currently in the U.S. foster care system and the numbers are only increasing. 125,000 of these children are eligible for adoption (CCAI).
Black children are overrepresented in foster care, making up 22.75% of the foster care population, but only 13.71% of all children in the U.S. (NCSL, Our foster care system failed Ma’Khia Bryant system. We must do more to protect children like her.