The Job Isn’t Finished: Preventing Human Trafficking
February 14, 2018 – The last few legislative sessions in Michigan have resulted in positive progress towards address human trafficking – tougher punishments for traffickers, more services for the trafficked, and Legislators should be commended for prioritizing this issue. The Governor recently proclaimed January as Human Trafficking Awareness Month in Michigan, as he has done over the past several years. Despite this attention and effort, however, there has been limited state attention to investment decisions that would help to prevent trafficking in the first place.
We know quite a bit about who is at risk of being trafficked – not surprisingly, they are our most vulnerable young people. They are current or former foster youth – The National Foster Youth Initiative reports that six in ten child sex trafficking victims had been served by the child welfare system and nearly nine of every ten child sex trafficking victims reporting to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) were in the care of social services or foster care when they went missing. They are homeless young people (sometimes the same group, but not always) – according to a recent study looking at youth in cities around the nation, including Detroit, fully one in five homeless youth had been trafficked and nearly one-third reported involvement in the sex trade.
The good news? There are things that we can do to stabilize the lives of these young people and prevent their victimization. And we can do these things right now –in the coming weeks, the Legislature will release their proposed budgets for the coming fiscal year. Here are a few things that they need to consider:
- Support Homeless and Runaway Youth by increasing funding for community organizations providing key services to this population. In Michigan, funding for these agencies hasn’t increased since 2001, despite significant increases in requests for services and needs of the youth requesting services. And there are still counties in Michigan that are not covered by these agencies.
- Stabilize Foster Care Transitions. Some young people who have been involved in the foster care system will be assisted by strengthening the network of providers serving homeless and runaway youth. But, there are a few more pieces necessary for this specific population, for whom the state of Michigan bears parental responsibility.
- Full funding for MYOI services in addition to staff. Last year the Legislature passed an increase in funding to ensure that MYOI staff are available statewide. This year, they need to include increases in service funding that when combined with private philanthropy and federal investment can provide those services to every young person in Michigan who can take advantage of them.
- Invest state resource to end the cliff between traditional and extended foster care for 18-21 year olds; do more outreach and more tracking to get kids services through that system.
- Adjust the Fostering Futures scholarship so that it is available to more young people trying to obtain post-secondary credential – flexibility, better layering with other scholarship programs to cover real costs.
- Extend the Michigan Earned Income Tax Credit to young people in or leaving foster care beginning at age 16.
- Invest in removing barriers to school attendance and graduation. We also know that young people who have successfully graduated from high school or have begun a path post-secondary are much less vulnerable to trafficking, but our failure to address young people’s traumatic experiences and their mobility has created additional barriers for many young people. We can remove these by investing in discipline systems that don’t punish behaviors borne of trauma; in attendance supports for kids without consistent residences; and in initiatives targeted toward getting more kids in care through high school successfully, including using alternative credit-bearing models and strengthening the adult education system.
- We must also sustain and improve access to other critical services for young people. Physical and behavioral health care access through the Medicaid program, including access to mental health and substance misuse services is essential, as is access to food through the SNAP program. Congress is talking right now about adding work requirements to both Medicaid and SNAP, which would have specifically adverse impacts on building stability for these young people. If Congress block grants or sends more decision making to the states for these programs, which has also been discussed, our Governor and Legislators will have to protect these young people.
Michigan’s legacy of work to address human trafficking could be strengthened by building stability for our most vulnerable young people. Over the next few months, we need to take that opportunity.
–Michele Corey is Michigan’s Children’s Vice President for Programs
I was born in 1994, on the eve of welfare reform, when our state and many others around the country cut a few too many loops in the social safety net, leaving a gaping hole in public support for, among other things, child care for families in need. For my entire life, child care has been positioned as a personal responsibility: individual families must navigate the child care market themselves. But we know that the child care market doesn’t work for all kinds of people – the demand is there, but 50% of Michiganders live in a child care desert, and the options that do exist are often unaffordable – and when markets fail, public solutions are required.
Last week, I had the honor of attending the 30th annual child care advocates meeting, Moving Forward, hosted by the National Women’s Law Center, to learn about how the rest of the country is working to find child care solutions for those in need. While we’re still fighting to make the basic case that child care is a public issue worthy of increased public support, I left the week with two key thoughts for child care policy advocacy in Michigan: that we cannot have equitable child care without broad representation from families and providers at the decision-making table, and that the best strategy for winning a statewide child care investment will be one executed in partnership with and with the leadership of those very same providers, parents, and caregivers. These are by no means groundbreaking insights, but they’re critical nonetheless for the success of child care advocacy in Michigan.
One panel focused on the need for child care options for those who work outside the “traditional” hours of 9am – 5pm. I learned from a former restaurant worker and from a 24/7 child care provider about the scheduling difficulties that come with non-traditional-hours child care; about the need for workers who are particularly skilled at getting young children to go to sleep; about the crucial role of family, friends, and neighbors in this space; and about the ways that many industries operating at nontraditional hours are unconscionably inhospitable to parents or caregivers with child care needs. As Mary Beth Testa of the National Association for Family Child Care said, we must pay attention to “bedtime best practice!”
As a 23-year-old who can barely keep my houseplants alive and who had a unique FFN child care situation growing up, I know that I needed to learn from parent and provider voices in order to break down and rebuild my assumptions of what Michigan’s ideal child care system would look like. Understanding non-traditional hours for child care is just one example of how finding an equitable child care solution will similarly depend on whether we include at the decision-making table low-income families and providers, families and providers of color, and others in need who are underserved by our current child care system and subsidies. We need folks from every corner to have a role in improving our child care system if we want it to work.
For that same reason, child care advocacy will succeed in the long run as long as the voices and power of parents, providers, and caregivers, those who carry the daily burden of making the child care system happen, especially those who face the greatest challenges, are held at the center. Policymakers need stories and public pressure not only to understand what kinds of solutions are needed, but also to buy in to the need for child care solutions in the first place.
We seek to raise parent, provider, and caregiver voices through our KidSpeaks, FamilySpeaks, CommunitySpeaks, and candidate forums, and we will continue to eagerly partner with organizations that promote authentic voice and equity as foundational to their work. The more voices are mobilized, the more easily we’ll be able to make the case that child care is not just a personal responsibility but a cause we must collectively support. Without parents, providers, and caregivers, we will never achieve the child care solution Michigan needs.
Bobby Dorigo Jones is the Policy and Outreach Associate at Michigan’s Children.
Growing up, I had an especially close relationship with my grandfather. Next, to my parents, he was my ‘go to’ person when I was sad, afraid, or just needed a hug. He was the person with whom I had the strongest bond. I was also blessed with a large extended family of loving aunts, uncles, and cousins. Holidays were joyful, boisterous affairs with everyone gathered at my grandfather’s house. At the end of the day, I’d return home exhausted. Those were the happiest memories of my life. My own happy childhood memories helped me realize that having the support of a loving family is essential to a child’s well-being. This is one of the many reasons kinship care has become an important issue for me and why I was so excited to lead Michigan’s Children’s work on kinship caregivers.
It wasn’t until I started graduate school when I first heard the term ‘kinship care’ in one of my classes. Kinship care as opposed to foster care placement is preferred because children generally have better outcomes when they live with a loving relative rather than a stranger. This makes sense to me. If my parents had been unable to care for me, I would have wanted to live with my grandfather. He was the one person, besides my parents, who I knew would always love me, take care of me, and keep me safe. Knowing this, I could understand why children would benefit from living with a close relative.
On the first day of my internship with Michigan’s Children, I was asked to research what issues kinship caregivers face and how other states are addressing them. An integral part of being a leader is getting to know the population you serve and understanding their needs, so I started learning from kinship caregivers and others who are familiar with the issues they face. My research led me to write “Critical Issues in Foster Care: Kinship Caregivers”. I spoke with grandparents who are raising their young grandchildren and were being evicted from their home because their landlord did not allow children. Not only did they suddenly have to care for their grandchildren while dealing with the grief of their own child’s substance abuse, they were also going to be homeless in a few short weeks. Hearing their story and reading about others like them, made me more passionate about uplifting their voices by leading policy advocacy for assistance to kinship care families in need.
At a recent seminar, I mentioned the article I was writing on kinship care issues, and the legislative director for a state representative approached me. His representative had recently held a town hall meeting to learn more about kinship care issues, and he wanted to hear my recommendations. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to advocate in a way that could make a real difference for kinship care families. A few weeks later, we all met, and I provided additional information on kinship care and shared policy recommendations. We also talked for a few minutes with the representative, who shared his enthusiasm about moving forward to help address kinship care issues. While I’ve had many great days during my internship at Michigan’s Children, that day was one of my best so far.
It is an honor to lead this advocacy effort to help kinship caregivers in a meaningful way. Our work is far from done, but I look forward to seeing some of our policy recommendations through.
Sherry Boroto is an intern at Michigan’s Children and is currently in her final year of graduate school at Michigan State University where she is pursuing her master’s degree in social work. Read her “Issues for Michigan’s Children” piece on kinship care.
November 2, 2017 – I still remember the first time I ever voted – it was 2000, a waiter at a restaurant in Washington, DC passed a ballot to me, a first grader who had just learned the names of our “founding fathers”. Eager to show off my new skill, I proudly voted for my own hybrid ticket of Al Gore and Dick Cheney.
It’s probably for the best that six-year-olds aren’t allowed to vote, but their interests and, ultimately, their futures will be front and center on November 7, 2017, when communities across Michigan will vote for municipal and county officials, school board members, and a number of property tax increases, many of which would fund local public school facilities improvements.
Choosing the right local candidates is vitally important because not only will the winners make decisions that immediately impact the well-being of Michigan’s children, youth, and families, they also, more often than not, will be the people running for state house and Congress, governor or state-level office, and, maybe, even for President.
Local elected officials have the power to direct available resources towards issues of interest to local voters, including matters like education, health, and human services, and criminal and juvenile justice policy. School board members, for example, can ensure that diverse voices are included when planning facilities renovations and build relationships with community partners to bring the whole community’s resources to bear in public schools. County commissioners can allocate funds to court programs that divert youth from the criminal justice system or promote maternal and infant health. Sheriffs can work with their police departments to promote more equitable practices and build relationships with youth in their community. Simply put, local officials have a say in policies that affect the day-to-day lives of children, youth, and families.
It’s also incredibly important to elect local officials who uplift the voices and tend to the needs of children, youth, and families because, one day, those same people will run for a state-level or higher office. If you’re not satisfied with your own elected official for being out of touch with the needs of struggling kids and adults, you can begin to turn the tide by filling the benches of all political parties with candidates who truly put the interests of children first.
All politics is local, and all politicians get their start somewhere. We can ensure that youth and family voices, especially the voices of those who are struggling the most, guide policy change, and simultaneously lay the groundwork for a new generation of committed child advocates in our state and federal legislatures, by getting out on November 7 and choosing local political candidates who share these values.
– Bobby Dorigo Jones
October 11 – To fit the dark and rainy day, I spent the afternoon learning about current threats to the US federal budget and tax system; a discussion by Bob Greenstein, founder, and president of the CBPP. A lightning strike to the already dreary day hit as I learned that Michigan is at risk—42% of all Michigan spending comes from the federal government. This specifically affects the children of Michigan: if budget cuts go as planned, as the already low education budget in Michigan could be cut by 14%.
To provide some structure and clarity in regards to the state’s education budget, State Superintendent Brian Whiston spoke to address the current educational threats and issues. Whiston provided some truly innovative ideas to change schools and shared his efforts to get Michigan back on top. I was intrigued by his idea of using a ‘multiple pathway’ model for schools—an atypical learning environment for students who struggle to perform their best in a traditional classroom. Whiston’s plan would implement a school system that allows students to move up at their own pace rather than following an age-based grade system. The thinking behind a multiple pathways approach is that children who are the same age aren’t always at the same place academically, and this alternative school system would account for the individual differences among school children.
Something that I wish would have been implemented while I was in high school is Whiston’s hope to help high school students accumulate 60 college credits (paid for) by the time they receive their high school diploma. This plan has been backed by recent research in Michigan—students who graduate high school with at least a few college credits under their belt are much more likely to go on to get a bachelor’s degree than students who graduate with no college credits. I can definitely see why; not only are half of the college credits paid for by the state, but teens would be much more motivated to finish a degree program if they had already invested so much time and energy into completing half of it.
Possibly the most impressive part of the whole event was hearing how these educators are focused on the whole-child; their view of the ‘child’ never split off into ‘student’. These educators are focused on what happens outside of the classroom that affects the child’s sphere of learning. For example, if a child isn’t eating at home, they won’t perform well at school; if a child doesn’t have access to a dentist, a cavity can distract them from paying attention. Michigan is attempting to transition to a comprehensive whole-child approach.
As always, funding is the big issue. All of these ideas sound great in theory, but will not happen without monetary support. More money needs to be in special education programs. More money needs to go to schools that are in physically bad shape. More money needs to go to after-school programs, which are proven to help students both academically and socially. Essentially, the point is that a 14% spending cut would drastically hurt an already hurting education system. Luckily, there are educators in Michigan that care about children and want to help them grow and learn.
Maybe it isn’t such a dreary day after all.
Michigan’s Children continues our policy strategies that assist the state in these education goals set out by the Superintendent. We will work again with the Department and the Legislature to prioritize investment in multiple pathways like an adult and alternative education as well as competency-based options, in addition to a focus on the whole child approaches, including some targeted resources from recent increases to the state’s At-Risk funding. Read more about our whole child asks from last year’s budget process here, and our recommendations to focus better support on family literacy.
Courtney Hatfield is a student intern at Michigan’s Children for the academic year and will graduate this May with a degree in Social Work. Courtney is from Grand Rapids and is a graduate of Forest Hills High School.
October 2, 2017 – Community leaders and advocates convened at Wayne State University for a community forum hosted by the United Way for Southeastern Michigan and the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute for Child and Family Development.
Dr. Herman Gray, CEO of United Way for Southeastern Michigan, shared an experience from his time as president of Children’s Hospital of Michigan. A child was being treated for an ailment which was not very serious but required several weeks of antibiotics. After keeping the child in the hospital receiving the medication through an IV, it was time to discharge the family with a prescription. When given directions to refrigerate the antibiotic, the child’s parent surprised the staff:
The family did not have a refrigerator at home.
I took two important lessons from this story:
- Poverty is real, and its impacts are real. How healthy can a family be if they are unable to keep perishable items at home? And, if there is no refrigerator in the house, what else might they be missing?
- Important instructions are given to parents and families every day for the care of their children. With what assumptions are well-intentioned professionals delivering these instructions and advice?
Writer and radio host Stephen Henderson, who keynoted the event, shared his experience with the Tuxedo Project, which he started in an effort to improve the quality of life in his old neighborhood by repurposing the house he grew up in on the west side of Detroit’s Tuxedo Street. The home had been abandoned in the years after his family moved out.
Based in part on conversations had throughout the past year with current Tuxedo Street residents, such as an elderly man living without power or running water and around the debris where a fire caved his second floor into his first floor, Henderson argued that urban poverty has become increasingly like rural poverty, characterized by isolation.
These stories stayed with me until later in the day, when an attendee shared information about a program run by her agency to benefit young children who have experienced trauma. When her team members began planning for the program’s implementation, they took a step back to think through and identify desired outcomes. Then, they determined what would be needed to achieve those intended outcomes for the children and families who would be enrolling in the program. It was then that I realized something I do not often hear in public discourse relating to social policy. We often hear about what the government’s role should be, how much funding should be allocated, and which programs and services should be prioritized. What I do not remember hearing much of, however, at least in bipartisan conversations, is what we actually want to see for all Michigan children.
Maybe we should start there. What do we want for kids? This is the conversation we need to be having. What do we want to see for Michigan’s children, and what do we need to do to get there? What do kids need to get to that point, and what policies, funding levels, and services will take them there? If we can start there – and truly prioritize those outcomes – we can begin to make long-term, positive improvements for Michigan’s children.
And, in a society where very few decision-makers have personally experienced poverty and its effects, it is critical that we think carefully about which voices are at the table when discussing solutions to these issues.
If we fail to include the voices of those most impacted, we risk wasting time and resources providing solutions which will not address the complete problems and therefore fail to be impactful – or, in other terms, we risk continuing to provide medications needing refrigeration to people without refrigerators.
Kayla Roney-Smith, Executive Director of the Hazel Park Promise Zone and College Access Network, attended the “Families First for 100 Years” community forum at Wayne State in Detroit. Here, Roney-Smith shares what major lessons she took from the event.
September 27, 2017 – As a child, I developed a love for singing. I joined my first church choir at the age of 5 and I’ve been singing ever since. What I love about being a vocalist is that it allows me to be a part of something greater than myself. Music is a beautiful thing. It’s the language everyone speaks. It brings people together, provides inspiration, and is even used as a vehicle for raising awareness of social injustice. Like music, advocacy is about being a part of something greater and bringing people together to raise awareness of social injustice. It’s about changing lives for the better and bringing more justice to an unjust world. It was my belief in a more just society that inspired me to change careers and work toward becoming a social worker.
When I started graduate school at Michigan State University (Go Green!), I had no idea what an incredibly rewarding journey it would be. It’s been a challenge at times to be sure, but every minute has been worth it. Now that I am in my final year, I’m amazed by what I’ve learned. One of the most surprising things I’ve learned is that I love policy work. I never imagined I would find it interesting, but after my first policy class, I was hooked. Another big discovery was that I’m passionate about children’s issues.
For several years, I’ve been a volunteer for an agency that provides services to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse, and I’ve seen first-hand how unjust the world can be. This is especially true for children who experience trauma. Seeing the effects of trauma instilled in me a deep desire to protect the interests of children. Reading the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study strengthened my resolve. The ACEs study identified a strong connection between childhood trauma and issues such as impaired neurological and cognitive development, social and emotional impairment, substance abuse, poor physical health, shortened lifespan, and an increased likelihood of exhibiting violent or criminal behavior in adulthood. The more traumatic events a child experiences before the age of 18, the more likely they are to develop these issues.
Children often don’t have a voice or a choice when it comes to their circumstances. They are one of our most vulnerable populations yet they are often overlooked. From poverty to abuse, children have no control over their situations. I believe it is our responsibility as adults to be their voice.
When I was offered an internship that combined two of my passions, children’s issues, and public policy, I was beyond excited. This is my opportunity to be a part of helping policymakers see the value of investing in children. This investment will not only improve the lives of children, it will also decrease the number of adults with substance abuse and other major health issues in the future. I’m thrilled to have the privilege of being a part of Michigan’s Children and hope that my work as an intern will be an asset to the organization.
Sherry Boroto is a native Pennsylvanian who transplanted to Michigan in 1999. She has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Phoenix and is currently in her final year of graduate school at Michigan State University where she is pursuing her master’s degree in social work. Her focus is on children’s issues and public policy.
September 11, 2017 – Contrary to most college students, I thrive off of the idea of having my own desk within a coffee scented office space. But while I do love a good cup of coffee (more than most things) and having my own desk, it’s not why I’m excited about joining Michigan’s children.
As a senior in the BASW program at Michigan State University, I have found a love for all things policy. My experiences of macro social work began in the classroom but grew as I witnessed the effects of policies in everyday life. Working in a residential home for adults with mental illnesses intertwined with my budding awareness of policy and it started to change the way I saw things. Suddenly those daunting terms mentioned on the news were relevant in my life – Social Security wasn’t just money taken off my paycheck and Medicare wasn’t something only the elderly had to worry about. Not only was I becoming aware of the struggles these clients were facing, I was realizing that they had very little voice to change it.
The next obvious move for me was to find out how I could help. I met up with a professor and he pointed out that there are actually careers dedicated to policy – how cool is it that there is a field of work that can influence so many different people’s lives? From that moment I have been researching and learning about laws and their impacts on real people; knowledge is something I love to gather, but experience is the next step. I’m thrilled to be an intern at Michigan’s Children because it gives me the opportunity to gain first-hand experience at advocacy and action in the lives of children statewide. I am passionate about helping people on a broad basis and advocating for people who help people on an individual basis – this is a priority of Michigan’s Children, and one that will positively impact the community for many years to come.
The expansive list of opportunities provided to me by Michigan’s Children further proves that this is an organization that is doing its part in the community. I can’t wait to help serve children in Michigan by learning more about policy and the interconnectedness of it all.
Courtney Hatfield is a student intern at Michigan’s Children for the academic year and will graduate this May with a degree in Social Work. Courtney is from Grand Rapids and is a graduate of Forest Hills High School.
With the annual Heroes Night dinner scheduled for later this month, Michigan’s Children hit the road recently for an inside look into the work of another group of Heroes through its first ever CommunitySpeak, which builds on the success of the signature KidSpeak and FamilySpeak forums. At CommunitySpeak, the heroes highlighted were those working directly with our most vulnerable children day in and day out at two of Michigan’s premier human services agencies.
Lessons from the Judson Center: Building a professional service workforce and supporting parents
State legislators, Congressional staff, philanthropic representatives and others convened at the Judson Center in Royal Oak, where attendees were welcomed by Lenora Hardy-Foster, CEO of the 93-year-old agency which serves children and adults across five counties.
Hardy-Foster made clear that “when you serve people who need mental health or foster care services, the job isn’t Monday through Friday but Monday through Sunday,” and she asked that policy makers consider children, youth, and families in care while deliberating changes to public services and budgets. Despite a small increase in the foster care administration rate over the past two years, she admitted that agency child welfare programs remain financially unsustainable, and, if service providers cannot afford to provide services, what happens to the children who need them?
And the financial uncertainties described were not limited to agency budgets.
Foster parent Sean shared his personal involvement with the system, having grown up with his own biological parents who fostered 24 kids throughout his childhood. After Sean and his wife had two children, they chose to begin fostering, and their oldest son has now continued the family tradition by becoming a foster parent himself. Sean asked for legislators to consider ways of increasing pay for social workers serving in the child welfare system, sharing that high turnover has resulted in the breaking of bonds between social workers and children, often increasing feelings of insecurity in children who have already experienced trauma.
Carr particularly got people’s attention when he spoke of a conversation he had with a particularly effective social worker who had worked with one of his family’s foster children: this social worker had decided to leave the profession and return to delivering pizzas, because pizza delivery would provide him with comparable pay and significantly less stress.
I must agree with Mr. Carr that increased wages are essential if we are to attract – and retain – strong talent in this critical field.
Lessons from the Children’s Center: Meeting the Holistic Needs of Every Child
Following a tour of the Royal Oak Judson Center space, the group boarded a charter bus to travel together to the day’s second location: The Children’s Center in Detroit.
“All children deserve to have their basic needs met – and to be able to just be kids,” opened Debora Matthews, the agency’s CEO. “Our children have needs right now, and it takes all of us remembering that these precious babies will be making decisions for all of us very soon.”
Attendees went through a guided tour of The Children’s Center, visiting, for example, the Crisis Center, where we learned that the agency is reimbursed $300 per “crisis encounter,” despite each encounter actually costing the agency between $1,200-$1,500. We also saw the “wishing well”, where children had posted their personal wishes – ranging from heartbreaking to hilarious – as well as walls filled with impressive art created by talented children and youth.
Following the tour, attendees were able to hear from additional youth and parents. One parent advocated for mental health services to become more accessible for foster children and youth.
This sentiment was echoed by a client of the organization’s Youth Adult Self Sufficiency program, which supports and empowers youth aging out of foster care. Now a student with a full scholarship to the University of Michigan, this particular young woman shared that she had fallen through the cracks because her behavioral challenges were not viewed as severe enough to make her eligible for funded mental health services. She was unable to qualify for care, despite having been sent blindly to Detroit from California by her stepfather.
“Any child who has been removed from their home,” she stated, “has experienced trauma and should be automatically eligible for services to help them get through that trauma.”
She and others were able to provide personal insight into the power of services and the need for their increased reach. While many of the issues discussed were related to needs for additional funding, others were around the ways in which the systems themselves are structured.
The formal and informal conversations promoted further highlighted the importance of ensuring high-level decision-makers are educated regarding the populations and services impacted by their budget and other policy decisions. Particularly with our state legislators, due to the regular turnover resulting from term limits, it is critical that this education for legislators be ongoing. The participation by the Judson Center and The Children’s Center was critical in this case, as their staff members, youth, and parents understand better than anyone what the issues are, what works, and where gaps remain. For this reason, it is essential that the voices of youth and parents are uplifted whenever these conversations arise. They can speak for themselves, and they want to. They just often are not asked.
These issues are real, they are important, and they are time sensitive. We all must continually advocate for change. As Sue Sulhaney of Judson Center asked during CommunitySpeak: if not us, then who will be there for Michigan’s children?
Kayla Roney Smith is the Executive Director of the Hazel Park Promise Zone and College Access Network. Roney Smith, a graduate of Michigan State University, played a key role in coordinating the day’s events.
July 24 marked the beginning of the National Housing Week of Action. In recognition, Michigan’s Children is launching Safe and Stable, a guest blog series to shine a light on the systems and policies that keep foster-affiliated young adults from achieving safe and stable shelter. We will hear from fellow practitioners and from youth themselves to highlight how national, state, and local leaders can close the gap in housing need.
Our first guest blogger is J. Thomas Munley, who has worked as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for foster youth and is the Coordinator and Life Skills Coach for Fostering STARS at Lansing Community College. Munley has worked with many students in Fostering STARS with unstable living situations.
***Our blog has been featured on the Voices for Human Needs blog of the Coalition on Human Needs!***
Safe and Stable: Two words that guide how we find housing for youth leaving foster care, two words that can mean the difference between an unsettled life and one that may produce a happy, fulfilling and productive life.
When I was 16 years old, my family lost our house in the recession, and with it our pride and feeling of security. I remember driving around with my mom looking for homes to rent for a family with five kids and feeling petrified that we would never find anything that was livable for that many kids. We actually found a large old house that had just been renovated and we felt so blessed to be able to rent it. My parents would later buy the house and it would be the last home my parents created before they passed away. That experience has always made me sensitive to young people who find themselves facing one of the most basic life questions and yet one of the most important; will I always have a safe and stable home to live in?
After working in various capacities with youth who have experienced foster care over the years, I am acutely aware of the elusive nature of “safe and stable” housing. Many of our youth from care often find themselves in situations beyond their control: how long will I be in placement? Will I get along with the foster family? Will I have to move again soon? Can I stay in the same school? Will I lose my friends? The very thing that our foster care system says is most important for our youth, “safe and stable” housing, can often be one of the most difficult things to come by.
The barriers to safe and stable housing faced by youth who leave care are far and wide. Housing rules change from community to community, and well-intentioned federal housing eligibility preferences can mean the end of the road for a young person who has experienced care. Strings attached to different funding sources can provide no leeway to youth who have experienced foster care. In less dense areas, youth who have experienced care are unable to get a driver’s license and, by extension, any reliable transportation. These obstacles have disastrous results – nearly 40% of youth experience homelessness within a few years of leaving foster care. All this coming at a time when student homelessness more broadly has risen 100% since 2007, reaching at least 40,861 Michigan youth who were identified by their public schools.
Homelessness is not an issue for one family, one city, or one state but for all of us. The untold cost of this epidemic on lives lost, potential squandered, education delayed, and physical and mental health tolls makes this an issue we should all care about. These are our children and youth, whom we said we would take care of when we took them from their families and placed them with strangers at no fault of the child. These are children who deserve every chance and opportunity to succeed to the best of their ability and who deserve the privilege of a stable home.
It was once said that the measuring stick of our society is how well we care for the most vulnerable among us. How are we doing?
J. Thomas Munley is a Licensed Professional Counselor (L.P.C.) working on his certification in Childhood Trauma. Fostering STARS is a program that works with youth who have experienced foster care to navigate and succeed in their Higher Education pursuits.