Advocacy Matters: State Budget Foster Care Wins

June 26, 2017 – Many legislators love nothing more than being able to leverage state investment with other funding to increase the reach of the limited dollars in our state coffers, especially those involved in the state budget process that just got wrapped up last week.  Of course, the largest leveraging that we do is with the federal government, and we rely heavily on those leveraged funds.  Many programs in Michigan get just enough state funding to be able to draw down federal funding allocated to our state – child care assistance, foster care and other child welfare services, and many others.  Of course, federal funds that support many critical programs in Michigan are at great risk right now, but that’s a topic for another blog.

This is about giving credit where credit is due.  At the beginning of the state budget process, when the Governor released his budget recommendations in early February, many pieces stood out to Michigan’s Children, including two that provide support for young people as they age out or leave the foster care system.

First, there was a recommended expansion to the Michigan Youth Opportunities Initiative (MYOI).  MYOI is a state legislators dream.  Not only is it a great and effective program that helps young people in foster care build the skills and relationships that they need as adults, but it is also based on a funding model that takes full advantage of private philanthropy, community resources and partnerships and federal funds.  The problem:  MYOI didn’t have staffing around the state, so young people’s geography, rather than their need, was determining their access to the resource.  The ask: increase the state investment to support enough staff to serve youth wherever they live.

The second program is one whose state funding seems to always be on the chopping block, the Fostering Futures Scholarship Fund.  This funding helps young people who have been in the foster care system access higher education.  It is also a legislators dream, because there is a comprehensive private fund raising component around the state for the fund, in addition to its state funding.  The problem:  taking away the $750,000 in state funds that adds to the roughly $180,000 that is raised privately each year would be a huge blow.  The ask: maintain the current state investment in the program.

As the state budget process wore on over the last several months, it became clear that although the Governor was supportive of funding in both programs, there were members of the Legislature who were not.  Some of this was driven by legislative interest in finding state resource for tax cuts and to pay for adjustments to the teacher pension system.  For whatever reason, funding for both was at risk.

So, we got to work.  Michigan’s Children got the word out through our networks, talked about the critical importance of these programs with legislators on key budget committees, and most importantly, encouraged young people who had been served by these programs to get involved.

And, we won.  Both programs will be funded through September 2018 at the levels recommended by the Governor.  We are convinced that the work done by the amazing young people in MYOI, and in college access programs for youth experiencing foster care sealed the deal.  When they were there on their own or with Michigan’s Children, talking directly with legislators, those legislators listened.  The legislators became champions for these programs with their colleagues and joined us in demanding that their funding remained in the final budget.

Thank you to the young people, thank you to the programs that support them, and thank you to the legislators that heard us all.  We will continue to ask for more support for young people experiencing foster care, but we can take a moment to congratulate ourselves on this win as well.

– Michele Corey

June 23, 2017 – Whenever possible at lunch, I like to enjoy my sandwich along Lansing’s Grand River river trail, a couple blocks from our office but, beneath shady trees on our stuffy summer days, a world enough away. The breaks help me re-focus and re-center myself for the afternoon grind. These first couple of weeks at Michigan’s Children have been busy, but they’ve hardly felt like work. It’s just so darn exciting to be here! It’s a real privilege to begin my career at an organization with such experience and authority on children’s issues, and even more of a privilege to learn the ropes from Matt, Michele, and Kali, incredibly kind colleagues who have fostered a focused and supportive environment.

I’ve always wanted to work to help future generations achieve their fullest potential. I first gravitated towards education policy, and for the last few years have had a unique seat to some of our most poisonous education debates – school finance, charter schools, standards, testing, and others. The more I worked with people at the grass roots of the system, the more I learned how little we in Michigan invest to meet the holistic developmental and social needs of children, how ideas like parent and community “engagement” are weaker in practice than they are in rhetoric, and how this leads to the savage inequalities many children face. Systems that ostensibly promote opportunity and security for children instead perpetuate inequity and strife. From education to health to family services, there is work to do on many fronts. It’s the solutions to these problems to which I hope to contribute.

Because of the need for child advocates across our state, it’s an honor to join Michigan’s Children, which has fought for children longer than I’ve been alive. Here, we focus on more than just passing laws, we are invested in building channels where anyone who wants to raise their voice for kids is empowered to do so. Achieving our mission requires more than just policy, it requires reframing and re-sparking debates around children’s issues in the public sphere and forging a deep and lasting network of champions for children who can carry the flame on those debates.

So far, my objective from day one has been learning – studying up on home visiting laws, the Lansing political scene, website analytics, the cheapest parking lots downtown, you name it. I’m excited to get to work – to grow stronger, we must reimagine how we engage with our diverse partners, how we tell the stories of the challenges Michigan’s children face, and how we highlight the most innovative and effective ideas across our issue areas so that we are always driving the conversation forward.

I’ve always called this pleasant peninsula home, and have always felt a duty to be a respectful guest, to leave this place more magnificent for future generations. For those of us privileged to call ourselves children of this great place, we have no greater obligation than to leave this land and its many opportunities open, intact, and accessible for our children. I’m up for the job, and I really hope you will join us!

Bobby Dorigo Jones is the new Policy and Outreach Coordinator at Michigan’s Children. When he isn’t working, he’s either following Detroit sports, trying out drink recipes, or playing Gordon Lightfoot on his six string.

May 12, 2017 – We live in a representative democracy — a republic.  We put a few things up to a full vote of the people, but those things are few and far between, and typically only happen if proposed change requires that we adjust our State Constitution.  Otherwise, we vote for people to represent our best interests, and as I’ve said so very many times before, we then work to make sure that they understand what is in our best interest and how their actions support or fail to support those things.

I’m not entirely sure why this year’s state budget process has been more frustrating to me than in year’s past.  Some of the things that have been happening that severely limit the public’s opportunity (and even the full Legislature’s opportunity) to weigh in on these most important decisions are not new and have been moving in this direction for several years now.  I think that part of my frustration has been how the Legislators themselves have been talking about it.

Chairs of several Appropriations Subcommittees, where the real nuts and bolts of budget decision making is done, have publicly talked about how their work is not the “end” of the budget process, that many of these issues are still “being discussed.”  They have also expressed frustration with the current process.  While they may feel that way, they did not take steps to continue that discussion among anyone but the very small, and rapidly decreasing, number of legislators who will be serving on budget conference committees to hash out the differences between the House and Senate versions of how we spend the billions of dollars under our control.

So, I for one don’t think that what has happened in the budget process so far is worthy of our votes.  Here’s what we expect and yes, what we must demand, for our support:

  1. An ability to share our thoughts and concerns.
  2. A path to understand the actions of our elected officials.
  3. A voice in important decisions about priorities.

If those who represent us, at the state and federal level, are not working hard to make sure that we have all three of those things, they are not worthy of our vote.  Of course, if we aren’t taking advantage of the opportunities that they are providing, then that is on us.

This state budget process provided virtually no opportunity for the public to comment on proposed spending priorities other than the Governor’s recommendations.  The House and Senate revealed their versions of the budget in subcommittees and voted them out of those committees in the very same meetings.  During the full appropriations committee meetings and on the floor of the chambers, steps were taken to limit amendments and discussion, even amongst the Legislators themselves.

This is not what we expect from those who we’ve elected to represent us.  We need to demand better.   There is still some time to express your state investment priorities to your elected officials.  But, keep in mind that the messaging now has to be how all legislators must champion their constituents’ priorities with the small number of their colleagues who will finish those decisions in the next month.  There is always time to express your expectations to your elected officials, and make sure they are well aware of what it takes to win your vote and the votes of many others in their communities.

– Michele Corey

April 24, 2017 – National Volunteer Week is being acknowledged this week to celebrate the people who volunteer their time to make their communities better places to live.  Primarily, when people think about volunteering, they are thinking about connecting directly with someone or something – reading to a 3rd grader, mentoring a teen.  These things are important, and I do these things in my volunteer time too.  They change the circumstances of individual children, youth, families and communities – critically important work.

However, everyone who has done these things, read to a 3rd grader or mentored a teen, has also reflected on the barriers faced by the children and youth they are helping, barriers beyond what is possible to impact by doing those things alone.

What circumstances led to the 3rd grader not reading at their grade level?  It may have had to do with their family’s inability to access Early On services for a developmental delay that was then not caught or treated until the child was in kindergarten.  It may be that their family’s literacy levels are not adequate to help their children excel, and with limited language spoken or read to the 3rd grader as a young child, they began school behind.  It may have had to do with their family’s inability to access quality afterschool and summer learning programs, leaving the 3rd grader either home by themselves or without educational supports outside the school day.

What circumstances led to the youth needing mentoring?  It may be because the young person is in the foster care system, and has yet to find a home that lasts for more than a few months.  It may be that the young person’s parents had untreated mental health or substance abuse issues that resulted in the removal of the child from their family in the first place, and preclude their return.  It may have been that the adverse experiences (or ACEs) that the young person had in their earlier years exhibited in behaviors that proved difficult to teachers, social workers and foster parents, resulting school suspension or expulsion or multiple placements in care.

The volunteer actions taken in both of these situations are powerful for individual children and youth, improving their skills and giving them someone to count on and offer guidance toward success.  But, both of these stories lead us to wonder about the many others in similar circumstances.  What might be done to improve the odds for all children youth in these situations?  What might be done to prevent the 3rd grader from getting behind in school?  What might be done to prevent the family from losing custody of their child?

In both of these examples, there are evidenced investments that could have helped these two young people and many more like them.  In Michigan, often, there are great programs and initiatives that used to be funded, but aren’t any more; or that are funded for some, but aren’t available to every family around the state.  Elected officials at the state and federal level can change that situation.

Right now, discussions are taking place determining how we are investing our state and federal tax dollars.  Now is the time to invest a little more of our volunteer time to share what we know with the people having those discussions.  We are willing to take the time to volunteer our time to make individual life outcomes better.  Policymakers need to know that we are also willing to volunteer our time to let them know how to improve life outcomes for more children, youth and families in our communities.

Read more about Michigan’s Children’s budget advocacy, and commit some volunteer time this week to take action.

– Michele Corey

April 10, 2017 – During the month of April, in honor of National Child Abuse Prevention Month, people across the country come together to raise awareness about the need to better focus resource and initiative on child abuse and neglect prevention.

Child abuse and neglect are two of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) identified by the CDC as contributing to a variety of poor outcomes including costly future health problems. Get ready for the brain science segment of this blog. When young children experience adversity or trauma, their brains make more neural connections in the areas of the brain that control fear, anxiety and impulsiveness and they make fewer connections in the areas that control reasoning, planning and behavioral control. In effect, ACEs are wiring children’s brains to be more apt to respond to life circumstances impulsively through fear and anxiety rather than reasoning and control. This manifests in behaviors in adolescence that often lead to increases in school and community discipline and school failure. In adulthood, the stress on the body from this physical reaction to trauma results in increased risks of serious health problems like diabetes and heart failure.

Whew. Seems like it would make a lot of sense to try to stop these adverse experiences, including child abuse or neglect, from happening in the first place. Saving not only social costs for children, families and communities, but real dollars in the educational, justice and health systems. The cost-avoidance research is convincing and growing.

In fact, many people are already convinced. The fields of child welfare, mental health and juvenile justice have been working on better recognizing behaviors borne of trauma and building interventions that address those behaviors more appropriately for many years. Communities around Michigan, led by initiatives spearheaded by the United Way, Easter Seals and others are working to improve system responses to trauma as well.

The Michigan Association of Health Plans launched the Michigan ACE Initiative in late March intending to support current efforts by building more public awareness of the impact of ACEs, our ability to counteract them with proven interventions and the urgency of devoting more public and private resources to prevent them. Michigan’s Children co-chairs the Initiative’s advisory committee and is excited to re-affirm hard work around the state and help to mobilize more champions to marshal resources necessary to prevent ACEs and intervene more effectively when they do occur.

We are also glad to be working closely with our Prevent Child Abuse America Michigan co-chapter lead, the Children’s Trust Fund and other local partners on Child Abuse Prevention Month activities, messaging and action. Despite unparalleled evidence of the costs of failing to act, Michigan has disinvested almost entirely from abuse and neglect prevention programs.

Join us in celebrating Child Abuse Awareness Month by taking advantage of new opportunities to build champions for ACE prevention work at the community, state and federal levels and to let Michigan policymakers know that our lack of resource commitment is unacceptable. Supporting community initiatives and investing in proven practice is what is required to avoid the costly results of ACEs.

– Michele Corey, Vice President for Programs, Michigan’s Children

April 5, 2017 – Michigan’s Children helped to facilitate two FamilySpeak opportunities at the State Capitol in February, continuing our long tradition of helping policy makers learn directly from the experiences of youth and families.

Families spoke about their need to improve their basic literacy and other skills in order to be able to help their children successfully navigate education and life.  Another group of families came to share their heart wrenching experiences trying to care for children and youth in the child welfare system.

I admire the people who speak about their experiences and cannot thank them enough for taking time from their families and their jobs to build the kind of understanding that leads to improved public investment and policy.  And, honestly, I admire the policy makers who prioritize listening to them over all else that they have on their busy agendas.  The challenge, as always, is about how we make sure that the families were listened to and that their advice doesn’t get lost in the policymaking din.

Our role continues to be to connect the dots between what families are saying and current policy conversation.  We have followed up with legislators, reminding them of what was discussed; we have distributed information about the FamilySpeaks in our e-bulletin; and have had several follow up conversations with Departmental staff since the events about issues that were raised.  So, why blog now?  Because we are in the middle of the state budget process, and because Legislators are spending time over the next two weeks at home in their districts.

The families who talked about the critical importance of raising their own basic skills in order to help their kids – they are out of luck in the current year’s budget recommendations so far, which don’t increase adult education, and don’t include family literacy as a strategy in recommendations for improving 3rd grade reading.  But they could.   Appropriations subcommittees from both the House and Senate gave their recommendations for the School Aid budget last week.  They still have plenty of time to recommend some additional funding.

The families who talked about how they, as foster and adoptive parents, needed more training and support, have a couple of things to be glad about in the current budget recommendations, including some additional investment in new staff for foster parent recruitment.  However, the issues that were raised about lack of timely services and difficulties with the court system are not part of any recommended investments.   Appropriations subcommittees looking at the Department of Health and Human Services didn’t finish their recommendations before they left for their spring break.  They need to keep recommendations moving in the right direction and still have time to add things that are missing.

My favorite part of FamilySpeaks and KidSpeaks is the opportunity for policymakers to make commitments to work toward better policy and practice directly to people who have participated.  We all have this opportunity over the next couple of weeks while Legislators are at home to share your stories and get commitments of your own.  We are here to help, now is the time.

– Michele Corey

Wow, I have rarely seen so many legislators embracing March as National Reading Month as I have this year. I have seen lots of their newsletters highlighting their trips to their communities’ pre-schools and elementary schools to take the time to read to young children. At Michigan’s Children, we are thrilled with the focus on making sure every child can read, and are glad that so many members of our legislature are having direct, impactful experiences with their constituents focused on this issue.

Appropriately, March is also Parenting Awareness Month – what an amazing intersection. Parents continue to be children’s first and best teachers and their ability to consistently read to their children has certainly been proven over time to make a huge difference in educational outcomes. Along with the classroom scenes, legislators could have had other experiences with parents during Reading Month as well, maybe looking something like this:

  • A mother who had to give up her children to the foster care system was provided the parenting skills, substance abuse treatment, mental health or domestic violence services that allowed her to regain custody of her children. She was then able to read to her children, possibly even for the first time.
  • A parent who was not ever able to read to his or her children before because of low literacy levels themselves was provided adult basic education or services for English Language Learners (ELL) that allowed them to read to their children.
  • A young parent who was struggling with their own educational challenges was given support through an alternative education program that connected their need for a quality early education program opportunity for their child and a quality high school completion program for themselves. Because the services were co-located, the parent could take time to read to their child during their own school breaks.
  • A parent who had been unable to effectively reach their young child with a developmental delay, like speech and hearing, was given skill-building and support through Early On to adjust their strategies and learn how work on their child’s literacy skill-building.
  • A foster or adoptive parent who had not been able to access support for a child with significant trauma was able to access training for themselves and appropriate mental health services for their child and could then employ the parenting skills that they used with other children in their home to read consistently.

All of these parents (and all of their child readers) are impacted by decisions being made over the next few months in the state budget process. Providing adequate funding for those pre-school and elementary school classrooms is, of course, necessary. As are providing resources for family reunification services and all that is necessary to support that work; for adult and alternative education opportunities; for expanded learning; for Early On; for speedy and appropriate mental health services; and for trauma training in all arenas.

Legislators will be spending time with their constituents over the next couple of weeks while they are on their own spring break. It is up to us to make sure that they have a good understanding of parents, families, children and youth in their communities, and the programs that help them.

Find out who they are. Find out where they will be. Find out what Michigan’s Children is talking with them about. Lend your voice to the work of building better investments so that all families can thrive.

– Michele Corey

The Center for Michigan released their most recent community conversation report this week, which evidenced some pretty extreme distrust of the public sector and public systems intended to work for the people of Michigan. Of course, this result is heightened, and should be, by the tragedy in Flint, where there was such a horrendous failure of local, state and federal public systems that thousands of people were poisoned – the ramifications of which we will not truly know for many years to come. And, we just lived through the kind of election season that I hope we don’t live through again, with hateful, divisive rhetoric intended to divide the nation on economic, gender, racial and geographic lines.

Fortunately, the report also highlighted a need to help fix what we believe is wrong. Well, that’s the crux of it. We live in a democracy, a democracy where people are elected (or NOT), where laws are made (and laws are CHANGED) based on the will of the people. Yes, the people. This democracy is our privilege and our (you’ve all heard me say it before…) RESPONSIBILITY. We don’t have the luxury to just sit back, our system requires participation. ALL policy makers, including those who we like or dislike, trust or don’t trust, decide things based on what they have heard, from their friends, from their constituents, from the people who take the time (yes, and effort and resources) to talk with them about the things that concern them – not just once, but many times.

Yes, investments made with our hard earned tax dollars are not always made in the best interest of children, youth and families. That is true at the federal level, where we rely more significantly than MANY other states. That is true at the state level, the county level, municipal level, yes. And, our system requires that we do something about that.

Almost every elected official offers consistent opportunities to talk with them publicly. AND, there are endless opportunities to share with them via phone, email, snail mail, their social media feeds, etc. If you sign up for your elected officials’ electronic newsletters, you will get notice of their coffee hours – those times when they are at a local business or church, or somewhere else in their district just waiting to hear from their constituents. If the people we elect don’t know what we know and what we think they should do differently, how can we really blame them for decisions that we disagree with? How can we not trust them if we haven’t even talked with them?

We all need to make sure that we have done all that we can to make sure that our elected officials are well informed, understand that their constituents are paying attention to what they are doing and that those same constituents are going to hold them accountable for those actions: in the media (read: letters to the editor); at the ballot box (read: attend candidate forums and VOTE); and elsewhere. Now is the time, when we feel the most frustrated about it, TO ACT.

Okay, I know, you have jobs, you have kids, you have LIVES. It is easy for me to say, take time to talk with your elected officials. But, really, take time to talk with your elected officials. Michigan’s Children can help. We can work with you to bring policymakers, youth and families together; we can help you with contact information and talking points.

We can all agree that our elected officials need help – they need help to earn back our trust, and they need help to make the kinds of decisions that we can be proud of. Let’s commit to helping them, and making things better for children, youth and families in Michigan.

– Michele Corey

This blog was originally published in Bridge Magazine.

February 10, 2017 – An old friend of mine died this week, her funeral was today. Louise Sause lived to be 104 years old, (wow, right), and I was blessed with several decades of both professional and personal relationships with her. For those of us who work in the Lansing area, and throughout the state honestly, on building better public policy for kids, we knew Louise. When I first met her, she had long since retired from a long career at Michigan State University as a professor, and was spending most of her time at that point working to get more people involved in the policy decision making process through the League of Women Voters. I was inspired by her expansive knowledge and her generosity in time and talent with those of us who worked hard to learn as much from her as we could.

While I could go on and on about Louise, what made me think to write about her was her commitment to this work over the long haul. As a person less than half her age, with so many fewer decades of work under my belt, I’ve been thinking about how important it is to stay the course. Despite challenging times to come at the federal, state and local policy levels, I know, so cliché, but true: this is a marathon, not a sprint, and we have to approach it as such.

As we begin a new legislative session, I tend to think about what didn’t get done in the last session. While this can be frustrating, particularly to people who are newer to advocacy and policy making, it is the wrong tact to take. One example is the Quality Assurance of Foster Care Act – a legislative package that had broad bi-partisan/bi-cameral support and still didn’t make it to the finish line before time ran out last year. While frustrating, that package of bills is in the process of being reintroduced by some of the original legislators and a few new ones. The package got a little better last session, after having been introduced the session before that. This session, it will be even better. We will be again proud to work on its passage.

One thing that we know is going to happen every single February: new state budget proposals, from the Governor and then the Legislature, to decide how we spend the money that we’ve gotten from taxpayers to benefit the children, youth and families who face the most challenges in our state. While an annual fight, and a quick one – the whole state budget process begins now and will likely be finished by early June – it is also a conversation for the long haul. The years that Michigan’s Children has been entering into that conversation and working to persuade policymakers that evidenced investments are the way to go, has mattered and will continue to matter. Even in the years where we feel like all we’ve accomplished was to stave off something more dire. I’m sure Louise had many of those years, as have I.

So, we move forward in 2017 with a purpose. For some, that represents decades of work. For others, just the beginning of their commitment. For all of us, who work to build better public policy in the best interest of children, youth and families in our state, it is our marathon to run. I only hope that I can run it as long as Louise did. Thank you for the inspiration!

– Michele Corey

February 6, 2017 – This week marks my last week at Michigan’s Children.  As I reflect back on my time at this incredibly important organization, I am so proud of the work of this agency and our advocacy community.  I’m a firm believer in the essential nature of Michigan’s Children because of our holistic, cradle to career focus; and I’d like to highlight a few things that I’ve been privileged and honored to be a part of.

I’m proud that Michigan’s Children worked collaboratively with other early childhood advocates to see a $130 million increase in our state’s Great Start Readiness preschool program.  Sure, Michigan’s Children would’ve liked to have seen a focus on infants and toddlers in addition to the four-year-old investment, but I know our willingness to be committed as an advocacy coalition and to not muddy the proverbial advocacy waters led to the historic increase our state saw for preschool programming.

I’m proud that Michigan’s Children has continued to stand firmly by the needs of the lowest-income working families who depend on the state’s child care subsidy so that parents can work while their children learn.  And even more so, I’m proud of our dedication to the families who utilize unlicensed family, friend and neighbor care as they are an integral part of our child care system that we must continue to support.

I’m so proud that Michigan’s Children helped lead the way for Early On advocacy when there were no other independent voices in Lansing talking about this important system.  Without support from amazing Early On partners including administrators, providers, and families; Michigan’s Children wouldn’t have become a leading advocacy voice on this and it demonstrates the critical nature of our partnered work.  Because of our work, children in Flint who were impacted by the water crisis have seen additional resources in their community specifically for Early On.

Finally, I’m so proud of Michigan’s Children’s strategic focus.  We are a small but mighty team that provides an important independent voice for children, youth and families in Lansing and at the federal level.  With the new U.S. Presidential Administration, a lot of energy and attention has been focused inside the Beltway, and I’m admittedly a bit anxious about the work that lies ahead.  But I know Michigan’s Children’s commitment to equity is paramount and will continue to be a guiding force.  The team’s dedication to public policy and investment opportunities that best support the kids and families who face the most significant structural barriers to success is unwavering.

So you’re probably wondering where I’m going.  I accepted a position at the University of Michigan as a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Project Manager in the Division of Student Life.  After the last election season and the horrific rhetoric on the campaign trail – that is unfortunately continuing into this new Presidential Administration through policy action – diversity, equity and inclusion work feels essential for advocates to see more equitable public policies and investments.  This opportunity to foster the next generation of leaders in Michigan and the U.S. who understand the significance and value of our diverse society, the need and demand for equitable opportunities (including policies!), and the importance to ensure the inclusion of all people is essential for the success of our State and our Nation.

I know this is getting wordy but I have to end with a huge THANK YOU.  Thank you for being my partner and Michigan’s Children’s partner in advocacy work.  Our successes would have been failures without your support, your work, your communications with your policymakers.  Thank you for your unwavering commitment, and then some, for all you do for children and families in our state.  Your ongoing work continues to be essential and I will be continuing to fight the good fight with you from Ann Arbor.

Thanks again.  And Go Blue! (I can’t help myself!)  🙂

-Mina Hong

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