Speaking For Kids

Support Kids in Families of All Kinds

May 21, 2015 — During this year’s Foster Care Awareness Month, the National Kids Count project released a report, Every Kid Needs a Family: Giving Children in the Child Welfare System the Best Chance for Success. The report suggests that Michigan overuses congregate care options when a family setting would better serve children in our state’s foster care system. The report puts forth three simple recommendations:

  1. Expand the service array to ensure that children remain in families. Michigan has experienced several decades of disinvestment in programs that strengthen families, and has eliminated most state funding from abuse and neglect prevention programs. One bright spot – the recent focus on investments in home visiting programs, proven to identify needs early and connect families to necessary support. Better investments in preventing and intervening with some of the most common reasons for removal are essential. We need to invest more in keeping families stable in the first place, helping parents rebuild their lives, and supporting reunification once situations have improved.
  2. Recruit, strengthen and retain more foster families, and increase the utilization of family members other than parents as caregivers for foster children. In Michigan and elsewhere in the United States there have not been enough available and trained foster families or relatives; and not enough supports for family placements. The Michigan League for Public Policy, who directs the Kids Count in Michigan project, outlines this well in their blog about the recent release.
  3. Support decision making that ensures that children removed from their homes are placed in the least restrictive setting. The public and private systems in Michigan need to be held accountable for developing and maintaining appropriate placement options for children and youth depending on their needs, and adequately investing in these options. In addition, we need to reframe more restrictive care settings as a treatment option, where custody during that placement remains intact with a parent or foster parent, and remove impediments to maintaining existing caregiver relationships during those placements.

Michigan’s Children has talked to many young people over the years, some who have experience in the foster care system (see our most recent guest blog from Ronnie Stephenson, and discussions from a recent KidSpeak on the issue.) All of the young people Michigan’s Children has spoken to about the foster care system talk about the need for the stable support that comes with family ties, including a stable place to call home and adults who are committed to their success for the long-term. Many talk about the need for adequate treatment and intervention settings where necessary. They also talk about wanting to help direct their own services within the foster care system, including establishing or maintaining connections with their birth families and others in their home communities. In addition, young people want better access to the same opportunities for involvement in their learning, peer group and community that other young people do – access to what is now termed as a more “naturalized” environment – whether they are in foster homes, group homes, other congregate care or supervised in their own homes.

In part due to the powerful voices of young people expressed over the last several years, through our work, the Michigan Youth Opportunities Initiative and Fostering Success Michigan and the work of many other partners, Michigan’s Children met this week with a bi-partisan group of Legislators, staff and other advocates to begin to frame out changes that Michigan needs to make in order to better support the range of families that care for young people – their birth families, their foster and adoptive families, and other relatives who serve as caregivers. While Michigan has recognized some deficiencies in its child welfare system, there is still a long way to go before we are giving all children the best chance for success. The Departmental merger between Community Health and Human Services and the Governor’s articulation of the need to better connect services to serve families are opportunities to further this work. Recognizing that reform needs to center around providing family support in whatever way possible for those young people we are responsible for is a necessary step for moving in the right direction. Michigan’s Children is very excited to be part of this effort.

— Michele Corey

A Powerful Voice From the Field: Foster Care Policy

May 19, 2015 — As I was finishing up eighth grade at Grand Blanc West Middle School, my life drastically changed when I was removed from my biological father’s home and swiftly put into the care of the Genesee County Department of Human Services. Over four years, I lived with five families and attended numerous high schools, and discovered faults in the system that I was felt forced into and trapped in.

I found out quickly that no one really asked what I wanted and that my voice was not being heard by the foster parents, case workers, and lawyer in my life. I felt they didn’t hear me when I described what I wanted to happen with my life or what I thought would be a better fit for me regarding schools, foster parents, or any of the decisions that were made on my behalf. It was very hard to get anything done, as well. If I needed school clothes, there was paper work and court papers that needed to be filed out that always got lost without anyone held accountable. It felt like I was always given the run-around. I had so many different case workers that nothing was productive or got done. I was frustrated and finally decided to speak up for myself. I started going to every one of my court hearings and speaking to the judge myself.

As I got older, I was inspired to make a difference and encourage other foster children to raise their voices, also. I wanted to shed light on the difficulties and problems within the system that I had experienced. While attending Western Michigan University, I decided to take a position as a casework aide at a local private agency for foster care and adoptions one summer. This job made me come to the realization that the system was still very broken. No one is held accountable, foster care workers are not trained properly, casework and paperwork gets lost, and then you have policy which holds families up from becoming foster parents and/or adopting. Frustration and anger made me decide that while I didn’t want to work with families and foster children directly, I did want to work on policy solutions on these issues.

The next semester I took a Philosophy of Law class, and my professor came across an internship at the state House of Representatives that he thought I would be interested in. I decided to look into it, and actually got a position with one of the lawmakers, and that was Rep. Martin Howrylak, R-Troy. He hired me the next year and the year after that I went to work for newly elected Rep. Brandt Iden, R-Portage, from the Kalamazoo area.

My experiences in the Legislature included testifying before committees, including discussing the importance of expanding the eligibility age of Medicare to 21 to benefit youth in foster care. (The proposal did move to the House Floor.) I shared and expressed my concerns and helped one of my bosses prepare House Bill 5741, which proposed an interstate compact for the placement of children in foster care. Though it was heard before the committee on Children and Family services, it unfortunately was never reported out. I have attended many events with children in foster care throughout the state of Michigan and even have participated in speaking events for foster parents and children. Having this experience has made me a better legislative assistant in the House of Representatives. I can relate to constituents when they call us with issues regarding the Department of Human Services, know how they feel, and try to help them navigate through the system.

Changes do need to occur within the foster care system for all parties involved — children and the foster families. And, I am a firm believer that changes can and will happen, as long as foster care children continue to express our positions and feelings. And I encourage anyone — foster parent or child –to convey or continue to express your concerns, because nothing will change unless we do.

– Ronnie Stephenson

Besides working at the Capitol, Ronnie Stephenson, now entering her Senior year at Western Michigan University, is an intern for the national non-profit, Together We Rise, and is raising money for suitcases for Kalamazoo-area youths in foster care. Her webpage: http://www.togetherwerise.org/fundraise/HopeForKzoo. Michigan’s Children is honored to partner with Ronnie.

Take Action during Child Abuse Prevention Month

April 16, 2015 – April is Child Abuse Prevention Month.  It’s a time to cast a light on the important services and programs that families with many significant challenges need to provide safe and stable homes for their children.  April is also a time when the Legislature is putting together the state budget for fiscal year 2016, which begins on October 1 of this year and ends September 30 of next year.  There are a couple of things related to the budget that we think are important for Michigan residents to realize and to take action on.

First, Michigan relies heavily on federal funds to support our abuse and neglect prevention services.  This is because state investment in those programs has been virtually eliminated as our state was dealing with a structural budget deficit in addition to an increased focus on investing in much needed improvements in the state’s foster care system, as required by the Children’s Rights settlement agreement.  And this investment has paid off, since many of our goals to improve the foster care system have been met (though we still have a long way to go with others).  But with this focus and investment to improve our foster care system, abuse/neglect prevention funding has not kept pace and has in fact declined.  Couple that with our persistent, unacceptable, and rising child poverty rate; it’s no surprise that child maltreatment has been on the rise too.

In light of all of this, a recently approved budget by the House Appropriations Subcommittee for the Department of Human Services actually removed $2.75 million of federal TANF funding currently supporting child abuse/neglect prevention and family preservation programs to replace state general funds in the Family Independence Program – the state’s cash assistance program.  Ensuring that very low-income working families have access to cash assistance is critically important so that they can meet their children’s basic needs.  Ensuring that maltreated children who have been removed from their homes or are at imminent risk of being removed have access to intensive family-focused services is also important so that children can stay or be reunified with their parents and have a stable and safe home environment.  Supporting parents with the tools they need to provide a nurturing and safe home provides the foundation for their children’s future success.

There is still time to influence the state budget.  These budget bills will next head to the full appropriations committees in each chamber before going to the full House and Senate before differences are negotiated.  We can and should be talking to our elected officials about the Senate version that maintains funding for these critical abuse/neglect prevention programs.  It should be noted that the Senate version also maintains FIP cash assistance without reducing state investment in that program.

Another important thing to point out is that the House’s shuffling of federal TANF funds illustrates what will likely happen if the May 5th ballot proposal fails.  That’s right, I’m talking about the ballot proposal to fix our state’s roads.  Proposal 1 provides an opportunity for new revenue – including new state general funds – to fix our roads, increase funding for schools and local municipalities, and reinstate the EITC.  If Proposal 1 fails, the Legislature will likely go back to the drawing boards for the FY2016 budget to see where they can pull out the over $1 billion needed to fix the roads.  If the ballot proposal fails, Michigan’s most challenged children and families will most likely face even more hardships as our state tries to shuffle around federal dollars as state funds are diverted to fix our roads.

During Child Abuse Prevention Month, and on May 5th, please be sure to take action for Michigan’s most challenged families and their children.

-Mina Hong

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