And it isn’t just about policing, and the disproportionate violence targeting Black and Latino children by law enforcement officers, as was the case in the recent killings of Adam Toledo, 13, and Anthony J. Thompson Jr., 17. Bryant’s situation was also greatly shaped by her experience in foster care. In the United States, systems of care and protection of children have been racialized at their inception, something that has only intensified between the 20th century and today.
The first orphanages in the United States were established in the antebellum North in cities with growing free Black populations. Yet, these institutions refused to admit Black children. The New York Orphan Asylum, founded in 1809, did not have any Black children and in Philadelphia, the Orphan Society explicitly identified Whiteness as a requirement for admission. In both cities, White Quaker women established private, segregated orphanages for Black children — the Philadelphia Shelter for Coloured Orphans (1822) and the New York Colored Orphan Asylum (1836). And yet these Black orphanages were fundamentally different: Rather than caring for Black children, they sent them out to complete indenture contracts at age 8 — term labor that lasted until they reached adulthood as domestic workers or on farms. It was very unlike the valued, skilled labor White children performed in apprenticeships during the same period.
These institutions, while thought of as “orphanages,” frequently served Black children who were often not orphaned due to the deaths of their parents. Rather, administrators believed they were in need of intervening care, making judgments about the Black parents of the children they admitted and frequently advocating for children’s removal from their parents if they were poor, if their mothers worked or if they were found alone on the streets. Some children at Northern orphanages were even fugitive slaves.
Black children’s parents, many of whom at the time were newly emancipated, often struggled to provide for their children. They needed their children to work to help support the family and they had difficulties finding child care while they worked, often in hazardous and exploitative occupations. To navigate this labor system, some African Americans attempted to use these institutions as temporary child-care sites as they gained financial footing. But then they struggled to regain custody of their children.
For example, in 1828, a Black mother named Lucinda Ricks went back to the Philadelphia Shelter for Coloured Orphans after she had surrendered guardianship of three of her sons two years before. She regained custody of only one of the three boys, and the other two tragically died later at the orphanage. The orphanage depicted mothers like Ricks as desperate and greedy when they wanted their children back. At their origins, orphanages that cared for Black children pathologized Black families, who then often lost autonomy over their children.
Like young Bryant, Black children experienced violence in these institutions. White mobs physically attacked the defenseless children and the orphanages during racist riots, including the burning of Pennsylvania Hall (1838) and the New York draft riots (1863). In both instances, Whites attacked, terrorized and displaced African American children.
Black children were also subjected to the violence of separation and confinement, illness and neglect, and policing and surveillance. When children expressed anger and frustration, probably influenced by these conditions, and acted in ways deemed inappropriate or dangerous, they were sent to juvenile reformatories — places that were essentially prisons for children where they labored, lived segregated from White children and were indentured out to White employers. The circulation of Black children in and out of schools, orphanages, houses of refuge and indenture contracts paved the way for the school-to-prison pipeline.
These institutions, in all of their complexities, served as the foundation for the modern foster care systems. By 1900, orphanages and reformatories had shifted away from the indenturing process of binding children out to complete labor contracts to sending them to individual homes that excluded Black children. This change led to the foster care system.
African American children were criminalized, adultified and pathologized in the early foster care process and were sent to industrial schools and reformatories. Historian Tera Agyepong uncovered a Black girl named Mary Tripplet (age 11) who was categorized as a delinquent in 1899 in Chicago’s Juvenile Court only because she was an orphan, even though she never committed a crime. In doing so, the court drew a false equivalence between dependency and delinquency and criminalized Tripplet for being orphaned and Black. She was then sent to the Illinois Industrial School for delinquent and dependent girls. Once at such underfunded institutions, Black children were strictly punished if they did not adhere to rules and regulations of “respectable” behavior and experienced the violence of domestic parole.
This practice continued throughout the 20th century. Time and time again, when Black children were sent to reform homes, they were treated as more adult, dangerous and incorrigible than their White peers.
Today, Black children and families continue to be discriminated against in the foster care system. While Black children are not abused by their own parents at higher rates than Whites, they make up 36 percent of all children in foster care systems (while they are only 15 percent of the entire child population). They experience higher instances of abuse and violence in foster homes, and their parents lose their rights over their children in more cases than Whites.
Ma’Khia Bryant was left to defend herself in the foster care system. Many others like her experience violence outside their homes due to racism against Black children (and especially Black girls) and violence inside their homes due to the racism of the foster care system, without protection or even sympathy. But no children — including Ma’Khia Bryant — deserve to die.