Speaking For Kids

Join With The Voices of Young People This Fall

August 26, 2016 – A couple of weeks ago, Michigan’s Children joined the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), University of Michigan Blavin Scholars Program, Eastern Michigan University MAGIC Program, Michigan Youth Opportunities Initiative, Enterprising Youth Program, Center for Fostering Success, Western Michigan University, Wayne State University, and the Student Advocacy Center in sponsoring the 2016 Michigan Young Leader Advocacy Summit, a gathering of about 70 young people who have experienced the foster care system, their supporting agencies, and decision-makers interested in building a better understanding of critical issues facing them. It was one of the most impactful days I’ve been a part of.

The Summit proceedings raised familiar issues about the barriers to young people “aging out” of foster care that are completely fixable:

  1. Our services are based on arbitrary ages and arbitrary designations (foster care, adoption, guardianship), instead of making sure that no young person is leaving the system (or coming in and out of the system) without adequate support.
  2. Work and education requirements don’t always fit the lives of young people facing the most challenges as they move into adulthood. Requirements need to be flexible enough to work for all young people under a variety of life circumstances that will likely shift over time.
  3. There are so many changes in the people responsible for helping young people as well as the services available to assist them as they move from traditional to voluntary foster care, as they move from county to county (as we would expect young adults to do.)

The fact is that we wouldn’t place arbitrary age or location requirements on our own children. If they faced similar barriers, we would work to help them remove them, for as long as it took, in as many different ways as we could. These children are also our own.

I am inspired, as always, by the knowledge I gain from these conversations, and the energy of the young people.  This fall, there are many ways for us all to utilize that knowledge.  The Michigan House and Senate need to agree on and pass the Assurance of Quality Foster Care legislation before the end of the year, or that process will have to start over again next Legislative session.  This legislation would require some additional diligence to make sure that our foster care, education and other systems are working well for all young people in the foster care system.   Summit attendees committed to take action to make that happen.  See our Act Now page for more about how you can join them.

In addition, most candidates running for office around the state have limited experience and expertise with the child welfare or foster care systems, but we think they need to build some knowledge there if they want to be elected. Take the time to find out where your candidates are going to be, get there, and ask some questions to at least raise your concerns and offer yourself as a resource.

— Michele Corey

Read more about the Summit from Fostering Success.
Read more about services for youth transitioning out of care from MDHHS.

Stories Lend Strength To Advocacy

August 18, 2016 – On Monday, August 5, Michigan’s Children held our third KidSpeak event in partnership with Wayne State University’s Transition to Independence Program (TIP). Youth ages 16-24 stood bravely and told the stories of their experiences in the foster care system to a group of panelist made up of policy makers from various organizations. The youth provided their emotionally-driven testimonies in a way in which they were advocating for change within the foster care system to impact generations to come. While some youth were still involved in the system, many had aged out and are now pursuing post-secondary degrees from Wayne State University or other Michigan institutions. Youth spoke about topics including their safety in their placements and the community, educational and mental health resources, mentorship, and the importance of remaining connected with their siblings upon separation. All of the youth’s stories gave compelling reasons as to why policy makers need to make revisions to the foster care system in Michigan.

As a listener at this event, I was moved by not only the stories of the youth but by their confidence in standing and communicating how their experience, or the experiences of their friends in the foster care system, shaped their goals and where they are now. As an advocate for systemic change for youth, I enjoyed being a part of an event where youth can be an advocate for themselves with the support of those around them. Moving forward, I challenge myself and my colleagues at Michigan’s Children to keep hearing from young people through events such as KidSpeak, while also being a voice for youth who are not presented with the opportunity to have their stories heard. Additionally, in listening to the uniqueness of every youth’s journey in that room and how they were individually effected, I would encourage policy makers to take both the commonalities and the differences that they heard in each story into consideration when advocating for policy change.

A major part of the conversation was the lack of awareness of the availability of higher educational resources available to youth in foster care upon graduating high school. Youth also spoke about the need for mental health and counseling resources in their high schools. As a strong advocate for equity in schools and for youth being able to access a higher education, both of these conversations stuck with me. They inform my current work to better explain to policymakers what trauma-informed education looks like for foster youth, or any youth experiencing adverse experiences in their school, familial, or community lives. The testimony reminded the panelists of the importance of considering whole-child approaches when making policy decisions about the educational structure, opportunities, and resources for foster youth.

The KidSpeak event seemed to have resonated with many of the panelist as well as the audience, and I hope it encouraged the youth to continue to tell their stories so that society understands the complexities of the issues that these youth are facing.

– Briana Coleman

Briana is an MSW intern at Michigan’s Children.

Famous Foster Care Story Brings International Attention to the Value of Grandparents

Aug. 11, 2016 – By now, those of us tuned into the Rio Olympics have heard of Simone Biles’ remarkable journey as the world’s most celebrated gymnast and as a child from foster care adopted by her grandparents.

As is the case of many great Olympians, the story behind the making of this Gold-medal winner can be as equally powerful and instructive as her athletic performance. Biles’ childhood story has struck a chord with many foster, adoptive and kinship families across the continents because it is so familiar.

After her biological mother and father couldn’t care for her because of their struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, Biles and her sister spent four years in foster homes until her maternal grandfather and his wife, Ron and Nellie Biles, adopted them. By Biles’ own account, the couple created a loving and secure home and one that provided her with opportunities to hone her extraordinary abilities on display before the world today. They also kept the sisters together, an issue raised time and time again by young people in the foster care system at our most recent KidSpeak.

In Michigan, the new role that grandparents assume when their children can no longer care for their own children is far from unordinary. It is estimated that nearly one-third of children in the state’s welfare system are placed with grandparents and many others are cared for by grandparents outside the system. This has become a growing trend in our society for a variety of social and economic reasons. Lack of parental support services to address drug and alcohol addiction, mental health concerns, and financial distresses leading to circumstances unconducive to child rearing continue to upend families and fuel this change in family structure.

Last October we highlighted the experience of one grandparent-turned-mom again, Deb Frisbie from the Grand Traverse area, after she joined other caregivers and policymakers in Lansing and shared what makes their situation work and how our public policies could better support families like Frisbie’s. I returned to Frisbie recently to discuss grandparent needs and found her continuing to work as an advocate for other grandparents and older adults raising young children who are facing foster care or in foster care.

Near or in retirement, older adults who are starting over as parents have financial limitations and frequently health concerns that make child-rearing more than an Olympic feat, even when the desire to raise one’s own kin is best for the children and all involved, Frisbie says. Once children are adopted from foster care, adoption subsidies are non-existent except for children with special needs, and those are often limited. Providing basic needs and health insurance for children often drains retirement accounts leaving adults’ own future well-being at risk. Because of such struggles, it may be advantageous for families to remain as guardians because of new assistance resources available, but those are again inadequate, Frisbie says.

Delays within state systems continue to be raised as a barrier by young people and caregivers. Frisbie has worked with one friend recently who assumed care for her three granddaughters when their mother was imprisoned. She was advised to seek a foster care license in which public support would enable her to raise the girls. After entering the review process six months ago, she continues to wait for that assistance while caring for the children. She’s already drained her savings account and is now worried she won’t make her next house payment.

Another barrier: We don’t have good information about grandparents and other family members raising children. According to Frisbie and other family advocates, better support is needed for the many families who are offering the best, loving support for children, and ultimately saving society the financial and personal costs of maintaining too many children and youth in a system without a permanent caregiver.

But to do that, we need to have a much better sense of who the caregivers are, in the child welfare system and out of it, and know more about their circumstances and challenges. Without a more consistent and reliable accounting of these families and their struggles, we are turning a blind eye to real needs and future solutions.

Teri Banas is a communications consultant working for Michigan’s Children.

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