The family of a Baltimore teen shot and killed by a 9-year-old boy has been working for more than a year to force the state to help children like him who have committed acts of violence.
Fifteen-year-old NyKayla Strawder died in August 2022 after being shot on her front porch. Since then, her family members have lobbied lawmakers in Annapolis to pass a bill in her memory that would mandate services for young children whose actions resulted in someone’s death.
But that journey to make one small change in the law has proven harder and more complicated than they’d ever imagined.
The latest unexpected turn came weeks ago when Strawder’s 31-year-old cousin learned lawmakers absorbed the language from the NyKayla Strawder Memorial Act into their marquee juvenile justice legislation.
Bolon Xi-Amaru was in Annapolis that same day and got word of the change from his state senator and the bill’s sponsor Sen. Jill Carter. He had just participated in a gun violence prevention rally on Lawyers Mall in his cousin’s honor. He went into the State House and stood behind a bank of television cameras pointed at lawmakers where he heard them say they’d taken language from the bill named after her.
“They never called us,” Amaru said. “They never asked us what we thought about it.”
They also stripped her name from the lines the family created in partnership with Carter.
Last session, the bill unanimously passed the Senate, but was never taken up in the House. The Baltimore Democrat introduced it again this year, and said she was not told her bill would be part of the larger juvenile package.
“I had no idea,” the Democrat said, adding she also didn’t learn of the contents of juvenile justice legislation until the day it had been publicly announced.
Carter had championed the 2022 reforms Democratic leadership wants to walk back. Lawmakers are proposing allowing the arrests of children aged 10-12 for nonviolent felonies and lengthening probation times for all ages. The bill’s makeup has not been finalized.
The second-term senator said the family not being consulted has compounded their pain and stress.
“That’s not why we’re here,” she said, referring to her lawmaking colleagues.
The Baltimore-based family is asking for a change that would make it mandatory for the state to provide services to children whose actions result in the death of another. Right now, the state has the option whether to provide services.
Amaru, his father and Strawder’s uncle, Daniel Jarvis, and Strawder’s two aunts, Donyette McCray and Tuverla Strawder, uniquely understand the challenges faced by young people as a few of them work in professions that help at-risk youths find a better path.
“What we want for that child is to be assessed by a clinician and get services,” Jarvis said. “Why? Because he will be on the trajectory to be going to the adult prison. It’s not a matter of if, it’s when.”
They have never been informed whether the 9-year-old who shot NyKayla was given help, such as therapy or mentoring, Jarvis said.
Jarvis has a doctorate in human services with a concentration in public health. His job includes connecting youths and adults to mental health services, including those who have been charged and incarcerated for crimes. In this boy’s case, Jarvis said services should be required because the child’s perception is now “warped” and he needs help.
So when their singularly focused bill got swept up into a larger, far more complicated one, they decided to try to extract it.
Amaru and his aunt, McCray, who raised Strawder as her own daughter, set out for Annapolis to testify in opposition of the juvenile justice bill that now contained theirs.
The pair took advocacy classes after NyKayla died specifically to learn how to lobby their local officials. It was during these classes that a trainer helped Amaru make what he called a “power map,” a diagram of public officials who have the power to change the law, and a plan.
Understanding the system’s structure helped him see: “What do I need and who has the power to get me there,” he said.
The pair arrived in Annapolis around noon last Thursday and waited about five hours to each speak for two minutes, the time allotted for citizens to give their opinions on a bill. They waited so long, Amaru had to leave the committee room a few times to move their car to avoid a ticket.
They listened to powerful state’s attorneys speak in favor of the juvenile justice package that would allow them to decide whether youth get detained. They heard public defenders and advocates oppose it, saying children needed services not detention. And throughout the afternoon and into the evening, there was talk of justice for victims — before anyone in the room realized they were about to hear from some.
McCray, Strawder’s aunt, looked down and read from a prepared statement she held in her lap. Amaru placed a supportive hand on her hand as she read.
She asked them to pass the NyKayla Strawder Memorial Act as a stand-alone bill and “not use it to soften or justify any arbitrary provisions” of their larger plan.
She told them Strawder’s’ family did not support changes to the law unless they were evidence-based and rejected measures that may lock up more Black children.
“We ask for dignity and respect for our tragic loss and our desire to ensure children in Maryland receive the services mental health services and treatment they need to find remorse, and repair the damage to their brains, heart and spirit that caused them to commit such a violent act,” she said.
Then it was Amaru’s turn. He told them Baltimore programs for violence prevention and rehabilitative services needed more money. He said he carried with him the support of mothers who had lost sons to violence. He asked the lawmakers to partner with his family and Baltimore service providers.
He called out Clippinger, the man at the center of his power diagram, for not meeting with his family about the bill named in memory of his cousin.
“We are victims,” Amaru said to the committee. “I heard you all talk about victims this whole day. I had to wait six hours just to say what I have to say.”
On Monday, lawmakers responded.
Senate President Bill Ferguson said in a statement the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee heard the juvenile justice bill, SB 744, on Friday which marked “the beginning of a deliberative process to fine-tune our comprehensive legislation.” The committee’s work includes folding individual ideas into larger bills to ensure they pass through the Senate, he said.
As for the House version of juvenile justice bill, Clippinger said, “It was not the intent of the Speaker, the Senate President, Chair Smith, or myself to offend the family in any way. We will remove the language from HB814 and consider Senator Carter’s SB2 should it pass the Senate.”
But the family wants more certainty.
“Can you assure NyKayla Strawder’s family that you will put it up for a vote [in the House]?” Jarvis said.
For now, the stand-alone bill — the NyKayla Strawder Memorial Act — is still moving through the Senate. A hearing on the measure will take place at 1 p.m. Tuesday in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.