Starkeisha & The System

If there was ever an example of why it’s so important to adequately fund foster care and mental illness programs, look no further than Starkeisha Brown and her girlfriend Krystal Matthews who are accused of abusing and torturing Brown’s 5-year-old son.

The abuse and torture suffered by the 5-year-old at the hands of his mother, her girlfriend, and the child’s babysitter is unfortunate. No child should ever have to live through what that young boy endured.

But let’s be real. What happened to that 5-year-old has nothing to do with the fact that the two women were black lesbians, because it’s been well-documented that lesbian and gay parents are no more predisposed to abusing their children than heterosexual parents.

What should be setting off red flags for everyone is the fact that both of the two women were at one time during their own childhood wards of the State of California. Somewhere down the line “the system” and their community failed them.

True story. After spending 4 years “in the system” in various group homes and foster homes, I showed up one day to the Edmund D. Edelman’s Children’s Court in Monterey Park, California where a judge declared me emancipated from the system. There was no fanfare, no cake and ice cream. More importantly, there was no check to make sure that I wasn’t sleeping on the streets that night or even the invitation to go into an independent living program. I was simply free to go and was no longer a burden on the taxpayers of the State of California.

Today I am 30, and will admit that I stumbled across many bumps in the road from that day in El Monte up until today. At the time of my emancipation, all of the ingredients were there for me to end up as a prostitute on Figueroa or a mother on welfare. I could have easily been Starkeisha or Krystal. Not because I am also a black lesbian, but because at 17 years-old, I was not prepared to take care of myself, let alone a child, which for some young women coming out of “the system” is the only guarantee of a monthly income (welfare).

Mental health issues do not conveniently disappear when foster youth are emancipated. Plainly stated, if they had issues while they were in “the system,” without treatment, those issues are going to follow them out of “the system.”

So often, minors in “the system” are simply being babysat until their 18th birthday. Sure there are group home and foster home placements that do make an effort to prepare foster youth for life outside of placement, but more often than not, when it’s time to go, most of us aren’t prepared for what waits beyond. At the end of the day, there are those of us that manage to make it and those that slip through the cracks. Such is the case with Starkeisha and Krystal.

I am not advocating that all foster youth end up in jail or on welfare, I am living proof that is not the case thanks to my grandparents. What I am saying is that we cannot deny the number of black youth in foster care or the number that go from one system - the foster care system - to another system - the criminal justice system and welfare systems.

The foster care system must be adequately funded to provide these young men and women a fighting chance. A chance to not end up in yet another system, as another number, with another caseworker. It is clearly not enough to house, feed, and clothe these youth until their 18th birthday. If we don’t provide them with the skills necessary to make it in the real world, we are doing nothing more than setting them up for a lifetime of failure. Many of these kids are dealing with serious psychological issues that need to be treated beyond the date of their emancipation.

Starkeisha and Krystal didn’t come into this world hardened criminals. Somewhere along the line, their parents failed them. And maybe they didn’t have grandparents to take up the role of parent in their lives, so they were thrust into a system that by law mandated that they provide the basics for them until their 18th birthday. It’s a tragic story that is repeated on every block in every neighborhood throughout urban communities. What makes this story all the more tragic is that now this 5-year-old boy is going to go into the same system his mother is a product of, thus continuing the cycle.

I don’t want to see inner city black lesbian mothers stereotyped from this incident. Child abuse is child abuse, straight or gay. As a black lesbian, I am no more prone to abuse my child than my heterosexual counterpart is. But I do want to see a community on fire regarding the state of our foster care system.

I want to see a community rallying around this young boy to make sure that he is given a fighting chance in life and doesn’t end up like his mother. I want to see a community step forward to mentor and support the thousands of young black men and women in our foster care system. I want to see a community stand up against any further cuts in our foster care budget.

That’s what should come out of this unfortunate set of circumstances, not the demonization of inner city black lesbians.

Jasmyne Cannick is a critic and commentator based in Los Angeles who writes about pop culture, race, class, sexuality, and politics as it relates to the African-American community. A regular contributor to NPR’s ‘News and Notes,’ she was chosen as one Essence Magazine’s 25 Women Shaping the World. She can be reached at or

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