COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The younger sister of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant called 911 a few weeks before Bryant’s fatal shooting by a Columbus police officer, saying the girls had been in a fight with each other and she wanted to leave their foster home, records show.
“I don’t want to be here no more,” the girl told a police dispatcher, adding that she’d been in the home more than a year.
The 911 call was one of more than a dozen placed from the Columbus foster home since 2017, most by Angela Moore — the home’s foster mother — seeking help with foster girls who had left without permission or didn’t return after being out, according to documents and 911 calls obtained by The Associated Press.
Ma’Khia Bryant was shot four times April 20 by Officer Nicholas Reardon as she swung a knife at a young woman just seconds after pushing another woman to the ground. Bryant was Black and Reardon is white.
The shooting further heightened tension in Ohio’s capital city over fatal police shootings of Black people, which has included three other high-profile deaths since December. A week after Bryant’s death, Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther invited the Justice Department to review the police department for possible “deficiencies and racial disparities.”
But Bryant’s killing also cast a light on the state’s foster care system, with an attorney representing the slain teen’s family calling for an investigation of the system and whether girls in the foster home were properly supervised.
“The whole world has placed Ma’Khia on trial based on this one incident where they see her swinging a knife,” attorney Michelle Martin said this week. “But why aren’t we looking further and figuring out who were those girls? How did they get there? How did this develop so quickly?”
She added, “What trauma was not being addressed within the home? I mean so many questions that have to be answered.”
Bryant had only been in the home since February, but Martin said she had been in the foster care system for too long.
The treatment of Black children by Ohio’s foster care system is already under scrutiny. Last month, a review ordered by Republican Gov. Mike DeWine found it was infused with racial inequity.
Among other findings, the children’s services system sometimes failed to value Black voices and experiences and poorly equipped foster parents to raise multiracial families, sometimes resulting in the children in their care experiencing racism.
The system also left foster youth unprepared for adulthood and foster parents struggling to help them, the report found. In response, the state has launched a new approach to recruiting and retaining foster parents and ordered caseworkers to take racial equity training.
Advocates say the review barely scratched the surface of the racial inequity that pervades every corner of the system.
“The foster care system in Ohio failed Ma’Khia on a number of levels,” said Dot Erickson-Anderson, administrator for the advocacy group Ohio Family Care Association. “It’s a system that has been struggling for a long time with our image of what a family is.”
But Erickson-Anderson, who is also a former foster parent, said Franklin County, where Bryant lived, is actually one of the state’s better counties in terms of working through the “racism that is embedded” within the system.
Records show the children in Moore’s care were all Black, as is Moore. Records involving foster homes and their parents are not public under state law. A message was left with Moore on Friday.
In the March 28 call to 911 by Bryant’s sister, the girl, 15, told police she wanted to be placed in a different home.
Informed that wasn’t something police could do, “The Victim then became irate and stated that if she does not get to leave, then she was going to kill someone in the home,” a police report said. The girl was later taken to a hospital for an evaluation.
The 15-year-old sister attended an April 28 news conference calling for the investigations but did not make any comments.
Police took at least 13 reports related to foster children who went missing from the home since 2017 or other problems at the home, records show.
— An 18-year-old woman telling police on Feb. 12, 2017, that she was going to kill herself because Moore won’t let her leave. Moore said the woman’s biological mom was at the house trying to take her daughter.
— A July 6, 2018, report by Moore that a child in the home since March had left with a friend and hadn’t returned.
— A July 13, 2019, report by Moore that two foster children, 14 and 17, had left the home.
— A Nov. 8, 2020, report by Moore that a 13-year-old foster girl left the house after an argument with the foster mother.
— A Dec. 9, 2020, report by Moore that she needed a 10-year-old boy removed because he was knocking things off a Christmas tree. “He’s 10 years old. He’s turning on me,” Moore says in a 911 call over the boy’s screaming.
— An April 7 report by Moore — just two weeks before Bryant’s fatal shooting — that a 13-year-old foster girl had left the home.
It shouldn’t be a surprise when children leave their foster homes because typically they’re not happy to be there in the first place, said Michelle Johnson-Motoyama, a professor at Ohio State University’s College of Social Work.
“Most children want to go home, regardless of what might have happened at that home,” Johnson-Motoyama said. “They want to get back to their friends, they want to get back to their schools, whatever is familiar to them.”
Two days after her shooting, Franklin County Children Services said it has an obligation to make changes.
“We are committed to ensuring that our programming and services most appropriately address the needs and concerns of those we serve,” the agency said. “We continue in our efforts to dismantle the practices that have historically created barriers for those who are marginalized, especially our children.”
The agency did not return a message seeking comment about the police records. The agency has called Bryant’s death “a tragic loss.”
A funeral for the 16-year-old girl took place Friday afternoon at the First Church of God in Columbus, where two other funerals were held in recent months for Black people shot and killed by police.
In attendance were all of Bryant’s family, as well as Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther, U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty, and Tamika Palmer, the mother of Breonna Taylor. The majority of mourners dressed in shades of blue, Bryant’s favorite color. The service was filled with screams of agony — a woman can be heard yelling, “Why did you leave us?” as she draped herself over Bryant’s open casket.
Beatty, a Columbus Democrat and chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, was at the same church in January, speaking at the funeral of Andre Hill.
On Friday, the congresswoman lamented at the number of Black men and women who have been killed at the hands of police since then.
“There are not enough apologies that we can give as elected officials, as lawyers, or even as clergy,” she said of the leaders and systems that failed Bryant. “It is with this pain that I am all too familiar with that I stand on this stage and say again, I’m sorry. I pray for you.”
Critics of police use of force and witnesses of Bryant’s shooting — including Bryant’s father and grandmother — have demanded to know why the officer didn’t use other tactics to stop Bryant short of shooting her, such as deploying a stun gun.
But many use of force experts and even some civil rights attorneys have said the officer followed his training and may have saved the girl Bryant was attacking. The national Fraternal Order of Police called the shooting “an act of heroism, but one with tragic results.”
Associated Press writer Julie Carr Smyth contributed to this report from Columbus. Farnoush Amiri is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.