foster care

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.

Beyond the Bickering to What Matters

I was so proud today to see the culmination of hard work from two members of our Congressional Delegation – yes, our Congressional Delegation, those guys in DC who are responsible for either coming to some budget conclusion today or partially shutting down the federal government.  In Michigan, we have some pretty important folks who represent us in DC.  Congressman Dave Camp, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee – you know, that committee responsible for coming up with government spending priorities – and Congressman Sander Levin, who is the ranking Democrat on that very same Committee.  While more often than not, the ideological gridlock in the U.S. House of Representatives seems unbearable, every now and then, there is a glimmer of bi-partisan leadership about something that really matters to the most challenged children and families in our state and nation.  This is one of those glimmers, and the leaders responsible need to have that work acknowledged and celebrated, even in the midst of larger and more polarizing conversations about how we will be spending our public resources in this nation.

Two Democrats and two Republicans, including our two delegation members mentioned above, today introduced the Promoting Adoption and Legal Guardianship for Children in Foster Care Act, which reauthorizes the federal Adoption Incentives program through 2016 and makes improvements in how the program works to help some of the kids who tend to stay in foster care longer than others – those who are older, who are over-represented by children of color.  This program was originally created by the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 to help states increase adoptions by giving them some additional resource to do so.  (I shouldn’t forget the two other bill sponsors – a Democrat from Texas and a Republican from Washington state.)

In Michigan, we are again looking at the over-representation of children of color throughout our child protective services system.  This disparity begins at the time that complaints are investigated and continues to increase through removal of children from their families through permanent placements with guardians and adoptive parents or aging out of foster care with no placement option.  Incentives to target adoption and guardianship supports so that they benefit the kids who need them the most are critical.  The fact that two members of our delegation were able to overcome their disagreements on a host of issues, to work together on this critical issue, is worthy of celebration.  Now, they start working on all of their colleagues on the Hill and we are poised to assist.

Michigan’s Children is part of a national network called SPARC – the State Policy Advocacy and Reform Center – that brings advocates from around the country together to insist on better public policy for children, youth and families in a variety of areas including protecting our most vulnerable.  As Congressmen Camp and Levin work across the partisan aisle to build support for this reauthorization, we will be working with our colleagues in other states to encourage constituent pressure and support to assist.

Please, acknowledge this good behavior – too often our elected officials only hear from us when we are expressing disappointment for what we see as poor decision-making on their parts.  Right now, we think that Congressmen Camp and Levin need to know that their constituents appreciate their efforts, and the rest of our delegation needs to understand that we expect similar bi-partisan work to be done on behalf of the most challenged children, youth and families in our state – today, tomorrow and every day.

-Michele Corey

Steps Forward, Steps Backward on Michigan’s Responsibility

As we debate public responsibility for many things, there cannot be any argument about our public responsibility for the children who we have removed from their families and placed in the care of the state.  In 2008, a Federal court oversaw a settlement agreement between the Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS) and a national children’s rights group who asserted that we were not fulfilling our end of this bargain with children and families involved in our child protective services system.  This month, the sixth settlement progress report was released, assessing efforts made over the first six months of 2012.

We need to commend DHS for progress made, as cited in the federal monitors’ report:

  • Increased placements with relative guardians.  Under pressure to improve our record for permanent placements for children and youth removed from their families, DHS has stepped up their use of guardianship.  In fact, 70% of the children permanently placed out of foster care were placed under guardianship with relatives.  We know from research that when kids are removed, placement with relatives is generally less traumatic and more successful than placement with non-relatives.
  • Supporting youth “aging out” of foster care:   Continuing earlier practice, DHS committed to maintaining Medicaid coverage to youth after leaving foster care as independent – over 97% of the eligible youth were covered after their foster care case was terminated.  In addition, Michigan Youth Opportunity Initiative (MYOI) programs continue to operate in counties around the state, funded and supported by the Jim Casey Foundation and other partners.  Though MYOI results in the three counties reviewed by the monitors were mixed, efforts to coordinate services and increase skill sets for older foster youth are essential.  The work of these initiatives is to provide information, training and supportive services related to education, employment, housing, physical and mental health, permanency, and social and community engagement.  Though MYOI results in the three counties were mixed, efforts to coordinate services and increase skill sets for older foster youth are essential.

Unfortunately, monitors noted that Michigan did not improve on the following crucial pieces:

  • Timeliness of reunification.   Often the best option for kids is placement back into the family after services are provided.  Michigan fell behind other states when it came to timeliness of reunification with the family following removal from home.
  • Length of stay in foster care.  Michigan kids stay an average of 11 months in foster care, compared to the national average of less than 8 months.
  • Opportunities for contact.  For children in foster care, there are few elements more critical than visits between caseworker and child, caseworker and parent, and child and their parents.  Michigan failed to meet agreed upon standards pertaining to frequency of these visits.
  • Availability of out-of-home placement options.  Michigan is lagging in licensing relative homes for placement, and is having difficulty meeting the standard of no more than three children placed in any single foster home.

The goal of the Department of Human Services, also demanded through the lawsuit settlement is to quickly connect families to services following a child’s removal to strengthen connections that result in either a child’s timely return home or safe placement as soon as possible.   Support for families must come from various community-based sources – sources whose support from state resources has been cut almost entirely over the last ten years.  In addition, the fact remains that the child welfare system continues to serve a disproportionate share of children from families living in poorer communities and from families of color.

According to the latest Kids Count in Michigan Databook, confirmed victims of child abuse or neglect rose by nearly 30% between 2005 and 2011, and over 80% of those cases involved neglect.  For families who struggle the most to provide a safe and healthy home environment for their children, the need for early prevention programs has never been more critical.  The lack of adequate funding for home visiting and other family support programming and behavioral health services for adults and children, as well as the dismantling of basic financial support programs like food, cash and child care assistance runs contrary to what is necessary to improve outcomes in the child welfare system.

Fueled by the lawsuit, private philanthropic resources, and good administrative decision-making, DHS has made positive steps towards improving child protection services; but without adequate funding, Michigan cannot ensure that all families have the supports they need to provide a safe and healthy home environment for their children.  The Governor did increase resource in his budget recommendation for DHS staffing, but did not increase investments in other areas of that budget.  The Legislature went on spring break without giving us a glimpse of what they are planning for DHS funding, but they have the opportunity when they return to promote investments that have proven track records in halting child maltreatment, particularly for those families most challenged by their circumstances.

To learn more about DHS’s progress towards improving the child welfare system, visit the DHS website.

To keep posted on the state budget process, see Michigan’s Children’s Budget Basics.

-William Long

William is the former Interim President & CEO of Michigan’s Children, former Executive Director of the Michigan Federation for Children & Families, and current Eaton County DHS Board member.

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