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Ma’Khia Bryant’s Death Wasn’t Just a Failure of Police — The Foster Care System Failed Her, Too

In the immediate aftermath of the guilty verdict of Derek Chauvin, I reeled at the news of another death from another police shooting, this time a child. As more information came out about Ma’Khia Bryant, my heart continued to crack open. As a former foster care case manager and violence prevention specialist in schools, I knew many girls like Ma’Khia: Girls whose young lives were shaped by trauma and who were not given the resources or support they needed to overcome the havoc that it wreaked in their lives. These were joyful, silly girls who were just as likely to crack a witty joke, support a friend in need as they were to react aggressively when they felt threatened. Understanding the toll trauma takes on our brains and bodies puts the actions of Ma’Khia and others like her into perspective. Too often our service providers, our foster care system, our schools, our behavior specialists — and yes, our police — operate from a lens that is not trauma informed and our most vulnerable suffer because of it.

You’ve probably heard the term “trauma informed before, but what exactly does it mean? To view the world through a trauma-informed lens means that I understand that I cannot know what everyone around me is experiencing, but I can interact with them in a way that will not add to the trauma they may have already endured. Beginning with a very simple shift in our thinking we move from “What is wrong with you?” to “What has happened to you?”

This shift can make a world of difference. In the case of Ma’Khia Bryant it means shifting the conversation from all the things you’re told to think she did wrong, the things that shape her as a threat in our minds instead of a victim: the knife, the racism we’re all biased with, the trope of the angry, aggressive Black girl/woman and, ignoring all of that, walking away from it. Asking instead, what happened to this smart, sweet, beautiful girl who had plans to make her parents proud and who wanted better things for her life. What happened to her? That is where a trauma lens starts, because there was nothing wrong with Ma’Khia and there is nothing wrong with the many young people like her, she was just as deserving of love, affection and protection as any of us. 

Beginning with a very simple shift in our thinking we move from “What is wrong with you?” to “What has happened to you?”

When our systems do not operate in trauma-informed ways we fail our most vulnerable community members. Our children need more from the adults tasked with protecting them. This was made all too clear by what happened to Ma’Khia, her placement with Children’s Services, the multiple previous 911 calls from her foster home, the fight, the police response — the system and the adults in it all did a terrible job keeping her safe. The foster care system, just like the police system, just like our schools and so many systems we use to provide for our children, do not operate within a model of trauma-informed care. Everyday in foster care placement meetings, family support team meetings and school conferences, we talk about what’s wrong with the kids we serve: What diagnoses do they have? What poor behaviors do they exhibit How do they manipulate those around them?

If we shifted these conversations to discuss instead —  to what has happened to our kids? How have their brains been shaped by trauma? What does their overactive stress response look like when they feel threatened? How have they learned to meet their needs in a world that has let them down again and again? — it would drastically change the way we care for them. 

We all must come from a place of understanding, beginning with understanding how chronic and complex trauma shapes our brains. In order to understand this we need to better understand what trauma is. In their groundbreaking study the CDC and Kaiser Permanente discovered the negative health and wellbeing outcomes associated with what they termed Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE). What they found was that the more ACEs a person experienced the more likely they were to develop risk factors that lead to disrupted neurodevelopment, social, emotional and cognitive impairment, disease and ultimately early death.

The Center for Youth Wellness, founded by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, California’s first Surgeon General states that “Childhood adversity literally gets under our skin, changing our brains and bodies. Exposure to ACEs, including abuse, neglect, domestic violence and parental mental illness and substance abuse, not only affects brain development, it can change children’s hormonal systems, immune systems and even their DNA. This can cause behavioral problems, learning difficulties, and physical health issues.” 

I do not know the details of Ma’Khia Bryant’s life, but I do know she was in the foster care system, which tells me that she had experienced at least some trauma in her short life. During the last point in time survey of foster care youth in the United States in September of 2018 there were over 400,000 children in the foster care system. We know at least 90 percent of these children have experienced some form of abuse or neglect and we know that almost half of foster care youth have reported exposure to more than four types of traumatic events. We cannot deny the racism present in Ma’Khia’s life as well, research tells us that Black and Hispanic children are more likely to experience ACEs than their white counterparts. Studies show that 61 percent of Black children have experienced one ACE compared with 40 percent of white children. Children like Ma’Khia are in need of trauma-informed care more than perhaps any subset of our society. 

We must shift our lens to recognize the effects of trauma in the behaviors of our youth. When our stress response is overactive because of the trauma that has impacted our brains and hormonal systems, we may react like a bear has entered the room ready to attack when a facial expression, body language or statement sends our brain into fight, flight or freeze unnecessarily. Our brains see a threat where there is none but our bodies react anyway. As the adults entrusted with protecting and providing for these children, we have to understand that it is our job to deescalate the situation, to build relationships with the youth we serve so that we can co-regulate with them, bringing them from a place of fight, flight or freeze to a feeling of safety and connection.

The good news is that there are protective factors we can build up in our communities to buffer the effects of trauma. By creating programs that provide economic support to families, promoting social norms that protect against violence, investing in our youngest children to ensure they have a strong start, teaching social emotional learning and healthy relationship skills, connecting youth to safe and caring adults and intervening with supportive services when traumatic events do happen we can protect our communities from the effects of ACEs.

We cannot change what happened to Ma’Khia Bryant, but we can move forward with the knowledge that allows us to better serve and protect vulnerable children. We can make our communities safer. We can learn more about how trauma impacts us all and we can heal together.

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