Speaking For Kids

When Parenting Extends Beyond Mom and Dad: Many Deserve to be Valued, Supported when They Step up

March 4, 2016 — Cradling my first child hours after her birth in a haze of sleeplessness and awe, I was overcome with the responsibilities of raising a new human being. A difficult birth left her under close medical watch for five days, and I spent many hours wondering over the unknowns, and if I would be up to the task. With each mistake and triumph in the months and years to come, I learned to parent aided with knowledge from others around me – my own parents, spouse, child care professionals, teachers and pediatricians. I learned parenting a child often involves an entourage – a team made up of various supporting specialties with mom/dad the quarterback calling the plays.

Parenting, like many disciplines, is both learned and a fine art. Over time, we grow as they grow. In March we observe Parenting Awareness Month in Michigan with the knowledge that this work is seldom effortless or accomplished without support from others. Parenting, as we know, often extends beyond mom or dad, to extended family, adoptive and foster families, even the state. “The village” in which our children are raised include schools, child care facilities, institutions and organizations we rely on and hope are also up to the task of supporting the growth of healthy and happy children, including and especially the most vulnerable among us.

Through March, Michigan’s Children is spotlighting a variety of parenting issues and partners we’ve worked with to highlight the critical nature of raising children with the community supports and services necessary to meet the challenges of 21st Century life. Our advocacy and work is rooted in improving our communities to do that with policies made in the best interest of children, youth and families. We believe supporting parents – a child’s first and best teacher – as they become the best parent they can be is a major part of public policy that results in stronger families, stronger communities and a more prosperous Michigan.

You will read about the importance of parents improving their own literacy and academic skills through adult education programs that recognize not just the economic benefits of a high school diploma and advanced training, but that parent literacy is a major factor in 3rd grade reading skills and a child’s own success in school and life.

We will spotlight the need for expanding services with additional state revenues for Early On Michigan, an early intervention program designed for families with children birth to 36 months who have developmental delays or medical conditions that can result in developmental delays. This home-based program has had great success in working with parents and their children for better outcomes.

Other pieces will describe the necessity for improving supports for foster, adoptive and kinship families in a state that has not invested adequately in those caregivers. Improved mental health services for children who have experienced trauma and better access to services in general are two issues we hear families discuss at our sponsored FamilySpeak events. It’s a timely topic as new foster care legislation is working its way through the state Legislature. Additionally, we will look at pilot programs aimed at family reunification that will help parents become better parents for their children.

Take this journey with us this month. It’s our hope parenting Michigan’s children gains new advocates not just this month but year-round.

Parenting Awareness Month is a Michigan initiative to promote awareness, education, and resources – through state outreach and local efforts – emphasizing the importance of effective parenting in nurturing children to become healthy, caring, and contributing citizens. Parenting Awareness Month is unique to Michigan and has been celebrated since 1993.

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

Advocates See Opportunity in Changing Media Climate

February 22, 2016 – Personal experience often generates the most compelling arguments for change. The real challenges ordinary people face provide the human connection that resonates strongly with the public, policymakers including elected officials and the media.

That’s what makes Deb Frisbie an effective advocate for kinship care and grandparents raising grandchildren in her adopted hometown in Northern Michigan. (See related article.) Forthright and open, Frisbie, her husband and two grandchildren recently became the subject of a front-page news article in Traverse City that explored the rising trend of grandparents raising grandchildren.

As a former newspaper reporter, I know how powerful these real-life stories can be. Made public, stories such as Frisbie’s also have the power to reach others who are fighting similar battles and offer them the courage to come forward to seek help. And equally importantly, they have the ability to grab public attention and grow support for changing policies that help families.

The downsizing of traditional journalism in the past decade has left far fewer staff with the time and expertise to ferret out stories to tell. But with change, opportunity arises. For those of us who work on behalf of the children, youth and families in our communities and state, it is even more important than ever to reach out to local media, and bring attention to relevant stories that could help improve the policies and investments that matter to our children and families.

Michigan’s Children has a strong tradition in helping raise up authentic voices to spotlight the needs of children, youth and families, whether caregivers such as Frisbie, young adults from foster care, or students needing a second or third chance at a high school diploma. We’ve seen how outspoken advocates build needed public awareness. We’ve learned that personal stories matter and that their lessons tend to stick with policymakers who have the authority to provide new investments or system changes that assist families. Equally important, we’ve seen how personal experiences shared by advocates such as Frisbie offer expertise to an issue.

There’s no mystery to becoming a voice for change in the media. Post views on social media and in letters to the local newspaper. Write opinion pieces. Lawmakers look to the media for information and pay attention to what their constituents are saying there.

Frisbie’s article in January has been a boon to her work, leading to other media inquiries to spread the word about grandparent issues in Northern Michigan. Her article also led to a follow-up opinion piece from Michigan’s Children published in that same paper, helping us to connect the dots between Frisbie’s conversation and current policy work.

Know that being an advocate means using all tools at your disposal, whether it’s reaching out through social media postings through professional organizations or getting to know the media who cover your community. Seeking the journalists in your community to educate them about what’s important to those we represent is a valuable service. Be a great source of information about kids and families in your community – and a source for change.

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

Moms’ Mental Health Matter

February 3, 2016 – Last week, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force updated its recommendations on depression screening to include all adults and specifically all pregnant and postpartum women.  The recommendation also states that “screening should be implemented with adequate systems in place to ensure accurate diagnosis, effective treatment, and appropriate follow-up.”

The national recommendation for universal depression screenings for pregnant and postpartum women makes perfect sense.  We have known for some time that moms who are depressed will have a harder time bonding with their babies to support optimal development.  We have also known that maternal depression is a significant risk factor for child maltreatment and that children growing up with a family member with an untreated or poorly treated mental illness are more likely to struggle into adulthood.  In fact, many adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that might stem from maternal depression are closely linked to the Centers for Disease Control’s ACE score and poor adult health outcomes stemming from those experiences.  This leads to long-term health costs down the road.

The well-being of parents has lasting consequences on the well-being of their children, positive and negative.  During the earliest years of life, a parent’s emotional capacity to provide the nurturing care their children need for optimal development is crucial.  I recently had the opportunity to collaborate with some infant mental health experts at the University of Michigan School of Social Work and learned a tremendous amount about how early life experiences influence brain wiring for life.  While advocates have known this for a while, what has not been as widely discussed is the parent-child relationship which creates those experiences.  When you stop to think about this, it’s clearly a no-brainer (no pun intended).  It is those early parent-child interactions that build the foundation for healthy social-emotional development from which all other learning and experiences stem from.

Unfortunately, current public services for young children have not consistently included appropriate support for parents and other caregivers who may struggle with mental health issues, creating potential barriers to a strong parent-child bond.  Our expectation of new moms returning to work after just a few weeks is reflected in a lack of paid leave at many low-wage jobs, as well as the two-month work exemption from Michigan’s Family Independence cash assistance program, making it more difficult for low-income moms to be their child’s first and best teacher.  Michigan has increased public investment in evidence-based parent coaching and support programs through home visits that would target new moms with certain risk factors, yet we still only reach about 20% of eligible families.  And while these programs may be effective in looking for symptoms of mental health concerns, they are not equipped to provide those more intensive services when depression is identified.  Instead, we rely on access to public and private mental health services to provide necessary intervention and treatment for moms and children – services like infant mental health that focus on eliminating barriers to a strong parent-child relationship like parents’ mental health issues – yet those services continue to be inadequately funded and supported in both the public and private sectors.

The research is clear.  Children of moms with depression face more challenges, and our systems that provide mental health services to children and families with the most risk factors must do more.  Investing in the emotional health of women is truly one of those early investments that will pay-off in the long-term for them and for their children.

-Mina Hong

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