policy

What Do We Expect For Our Vote?

May 12, 2017 – We live in a representative democracy — a republic.  We put a few things up to a full vote of the people, but those things are few and far between, and typically only happen if proposed change requires that we adjust our State Constitution.  Otherwise, we vote for people to represent our best interests, and as I’ve said so very many times before, we then work to make sure that they understand what is in our best interest and how their actions support or fail to support those things.

I’m not entirely sure why this year’s state budget process has been more frustrating to me than in year’s past.  Some of the things that have been happening that severely limit the public’s opportunity (and even the full Legislature’s opportunity) to weigh in on these most important decisions are not new and have been moving in this direction for several years now.  I think that part of my frustration has been how the Legislators themselves have been talking about it.

Chairs of several Appropriations Subcommittees, where the real nuts and bolts of budget decision making is done, have publicly talked about how their work is not the “end” of the budget process, that many of these issues are still “being discussed.”  They have also expressed frustration with the current process.  While they may feel that way, they did not take steps to continue that discussion among anyone but the very small, and rapidly decreasing, number of legislators who will be serving on budget conference committees to hash out the differences between the House and Senate versions of how we spend the billions of dollars under our control.

So, I for one don’t think that what has happened in the budget process so far is worthy of our votes.  Here’s what we expect and yes, what we must demand, for our support:

  1. An ability to share our thoughts and concerns.
  2. A path to understand the actions of our elected officials.
  3. A voice in important decisions about priorities.

If those who represent us, at the state and federal level, are not working hard to make sure that we have all three of those things, they are not worthy of our vote.  Of course, if we aren’t taking advantage of the opportunities that they are providing, then that is on us.

This state budget process provided virtually no opportunity for the public to comment on proposed spending priorities other than the Governor’s recommendations.  The House and Senate revealed their versions of the budget in subcommittees and voted them out of those committees in the very same meetings.  During the full appropriations committee meetings and on the floor of the chambers, steps were taken to limit amendments and discussion, even amongst the Legislators themselves.

This is not what we expect from those who we’ve elected to represent us.  We need to demand better.   There is still some time to express your state investment priorities to your elected officials.  But, keep in mind that the messaging now has to be how all legislators must champion their constituents’ priorities with the small number of their colleagues who will finish those decisions in the next month.  There is always time to express your expectations to your elected officials, and make sure they are well aware of what it takes to win your vote and the votes of many others in their communities.

– Michele Corey

Volunteer Your Time and Your Voice for Action

April 24, 2017 – National Volunteer Week is being acknowledged this week to celebrate the people who volunteer their time to make their communities better places to live.  Primarily, when people think about volunteering, they are thinking about connecting directly with someone or something – reading to a 3rd grader, mentoring a teen.  These things are important, and I do these things in my volunteer time too.  They change the circumstances of individual children, youth, families and communities – critically important work.

However, everyone who has done these things, read to a 3rd grader or mentored a teen, has also reflected on the barriers faced by the children and youth they are helping, barriers beyond what is possible to impact by doing those things alone.

What circumstances led to the 3rd grader not reading at their grade level?  It may have had to do with their family’s inability to access Early On services for a developmental delay that was then not caught or treated until the child was in kindergarten.  It may be that their family’s literacy levels are not adequate to help their children excel, and with limited language spoken or read to the 3rd grader as a young child, they began school behind.  It may have had to do with their family’s inability to access quality afterschool and summer learning programs, leaving the 3rd grader either home by themselves or without educational supports outside the school day.

What circumstances led to the youth needing mentoring?  It may be because the young person is in the foster care system, and has yet to find a home that lasts for more than a few months.  It may be that the young person’s parents had untreated mental health or substance abuse issues that resulted in the removal of the child from their family in the first place, and preclude their return.  It may have been that the adverse experiences (or ACEs) that the young person had in their earlier years exhibited in behaviors that proved difficult to teachers, social workers and foster parents, resulting school suspension or expulsion or multiple placements in care.

The volunteer actions taken in both of these situations are powerful for individual children and youth, improving their skills and giving them someone to count on and offer guidance toward success.  But, both of these stories lead us to wonder about the many others in similar circumstances.  What might be done to improve the odds for all children youth in these situations?  What might be done to prevent the 3rd grader from getting behind in school?  What might be done to prevent the family from losing custody of their child?

In both of these examples, there are evidenced investments that could have helped these two young people and many more like them.  In Michigan, often, there are great programs and initiatives that used to be funded, but aren’t any more; or that are funded for some, but aren’t available to every family around the state.  Elected officials at the state and federal level can change that situation.

Right now, discussions are taking place determining how we are investing our state and federal tax dollars.  Now is the time to invest a little more of our volunteer time to share what we know with the people having those discussions.  We are willing to take the time to volunteer our time to make individual life outcomes better.  Policymakers need to know that we are also willing to volunteer our time to let them know how to improve life outcomes for more children, youth and families in our communities.

Read more about Michigan’s Children’s budget advocacy, and commit some volunteer time this week to take action.

– Michele Corey

Child Abuse Prevention Awareness and Action

April 10, 2017 – During the month of April, in honor of National Child Abuse Prevention Month, people across the country come together to raise awareness about the need to better focus resource and initiative on child abuse and neglect prevention.

Child abuse and neglect are two of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) identified by the CDC as contributing to a variety of poor outcomes including costly future health problems. Get ready for the brain science segment of this blog. When young children experience adversity or trauma, their brains make more neural connections in the areas of the brain that control fear, anxiety and impulsiveness and they make fewer connections in the areas that control reasoning, planning and behavioral control. In effect, ACEs are wiring children’s brains to be more apt to respond to life circumstances impulsively through fear and anxiety rather than reasoning and control. This manifests in behaviors in adolescence that often lead to increases in school and community discipline and school failure. In adulthood, the stress on the body from this physical reaction to trauma results in increased risks of serious health problems like diabetes and heart failure.

Whew. Seems like it would make a lot of sense to try to stop these adverse experiences, including child abuse or neglect, from happening in the first place. Saving not only social costs for children, families and communities, but real dollars in the educational, justice and health systems. The cost-avoidance research is convincing and growing.

In fact, many people are already convinced. The fields of child welfare, mental health and juvenile justice have been working on better recognizing behaviors borne of trauma and building interventions that address those behaviors more appropriately for many years. Communities around Michigan, led by initiatives spearheaded by the United Way, Easter Seals and others are working to improve system responses to trauma as well.

The Michigan Association of Health Plans launched the Michigan ACE Initiative in late March intending to support current efforts by building more public awareness of the impact of ACEs, our ability to counteract them with proven interventions and the urgency of devoting more public and private resources to prevent them. Michigan’s Children co-chairs the Initiative’s advisory committee and is excited to re-affirm hard work around the state and help to mobilize more champions to marshal resources necessary to prevent ACEs and intervene more effectively when they do occur.

We are also glad to be working closely with our Prevent Child Abuse America Michigan co-chapter lead, the Children’s Trust Fund and other local partners on Child Abuse Prevention Month activities, messaging and action. Despite unparalleled evidence of the costs of failing to act, Michigan has disinvested almost entirely from abuse and neglect prevention programs.

Join us in celebrating Child Abuse Awareness Month by taking advantage of new opportunities to build champions for ACE prevention work at the community, state and federal levels and to let Michigan policymakers know that our lack of resource commitment is unacceptable. Supporting community initiatives and investing in proven practice is what is required to avoid the costly results of ACEs.

– Michele Corey, Vice President for Programs, Michigan’s Children

Democracy is not a one-way street. Unhappy? Start talking about it.

The Center for Michigan released their most recent community conversation report this week, which evidenced some pretty extreme distrust of the public sector and public systems intended to work for the people of Michigan. Of course, this result is heightened, and should be, by the tragedy in Flint, where there was such a horrendous failure of local, state and federal public systems that thousands of people were poisoned – the ramifications of which we will not truly know for many years to come. And, we just lived through the kind of election season that I hope we don’t live through again, with hateful, divisive rhetoric intended to divide the nation on economic, gender, racial and geographic lines.

Fortunately, the report also highlighted a need to help fix what we believe is wrong. Well, that’s the crux of it. We live in a democracy, a democracy where people are elected (or NOT), where laws are made (and laws are CHANGED) based on the will of the people. Yes, the people. This democracy is our privilege and our (you’ve all heard me say it before…) RESPONSIBILITY. We don’t have the luxury to just sit back, our system requires participation. ALL policy makers, including those who we like or dislike, trust or don’t trust, decide things based on what they have heard, from their friends, from their constituents, from the people who take the time (yes, and effort and resources) to talk with them about the things that concern them – not just once, but many times.

Yes, investments made with our hard earned tax dollars are not always made in the best interest of children, youth and families. That is true at the federal level, where we rely more significantly than MANY other states. That is true at the state level, the county level, municipal level, yes. And, our system requires that we do something about that.

Almost every elected official offers consistent opportunities to talk with them publicly. AND, there are endless opportunities to share with them via phone, email, snail mail, their social media feeds, etc. If you sign up for your elected officials’ electronic newsletters, you will get notice of their coffee hours – those times when they are at a local business or church, or somewhere else in their district just waiting to hear from their constituents. If the people we elect don’t know what we know and what we think they should do differently, how can we really blame them for decisions that we disagree with? How can we not trust them if we haven’t even talked with them?

We all need to make sure that we have done all that we can to make sure that our elected officials are well informed, understand that their constituents are paying attention to what they are doing and that those same constituents are going to hold them accountable for those actions: in the media (read: letters to the editor); at the ballot box (read: attend candidate forums and VOTE); and elsewhere. Now is the time, when we feel the most frustrated about it, TO ACT.

Okay, I know, you have jobs, you have kids, you have LIVES. It is easy for me to say, take time to talk with your elected officials. But, really, take time to talk with your elected officials. Michigan’s Children can help. We can work with you to bring policymakers, youth and families together; we can help you with contact information and talking points.

We can all agree that our elected officials need help – they need help to earn back our trust, and they need help to make the kinds of decisions that we can be proud of. Let’s commit to helping them, and making things better for children, youth and families in Michigan.

– Michele Corey

This blog was originally published in Bridge Magazine.

Staying the Course

February 10, 2017 – An old friend of mine died this week, her funeral was today. Louise Sause lived to be 104 years old, (wow, right), and I was blessed with several decades of both professional and personal relationships with her. For those of us who work in the Lansing area, and throughout the state honestly, on building better public policy for kids, we knew Louise. When I first met her, she had long since retired from a long career at Michigan State University as a professor, and was spending most of her time at that point working to get more people involved in the policy decision making process through the League of Women Voters. I was inspired by her expansive knowledge and her generosity in time and talent with those of us who worked hard to learn as much from her as we could.

While I could go on and on about Louise, what made me think to write about her was her commitment to this work over the long haul. As a person less than half her age, with so many fewer decades of work under my belt, I’ve been thinking about how important it is to stay the course. Despite challenging times to come at the federal, state and local policy levels, I know, so cliché, but true: this is a marathon, not a sprint, and we have to approach it as such.

As we begin a new legislative session, I tend to think about what didn’t get done in the last session. While this can be frustrating, particularly to people who are newer to advocacy and policy making, it is the wrong tact to take. One example is the Quality Assurance of Foster Care Act – a legislative package that had broad bi-partisan/bi-cameral support and still didn’t make it to the finish line before time ran out last year. While frustrating, that package of bills is in the process of being reintroduced by some of the original legislators and a few new ones. The package got a little better last session, after having been introduced the session before that. This session, it will be even better. We will be again proud to work on its passage.

One thing that we know is going to happen every single February: new state budget proposals, from the Governor and then the Legislature, to decide how we spend the money that we’ve gotten from taxpayers to benefit the children, youth and families who face the most challenges in our state. While an annual fight, and a quick one – the whole state budget process begins now and will likely be finished by early June – it is also a conversation for the long haul. The years that Michigan’s Children has been entering into that conversation and working to persuade policymakers that evidenced investments are the way to go, has mattered and will continue to matter. Even in the years where we feel like all we’ve accomplished was to stave off something more dire. I’m sure Louise had many of those years, as have I.

So, we move forward in 2017 with a purpose. For some, that represents decades of work. For others, just the beginning of their commitment. For all of us, who work to build better public policy in the best interest of children, youth and families in our state, it is our marathon to run. I only hope that I can run it as long as Louise did. Thank you for the inspiration!

– Michele Corey

Turning Frustration Into Opportunity

November 9, 2016 – As disheartened as I am with the rhetoric of this year’s presidential campaign, the results clearly point to the extraordinary level of frustration on the part of people around the state and nation that our public systems are not working for them. That frustration was let out at the ballot box, as it should be.

The trickier task for me, as an advocate for better public policy investment in what really works to improve the lives of children, youth and families, is to tease out the reality from the rhetoric – from the winning candidates as well as from the voters. Frustration is borne of situations where you believe you are getting a bad deal, where you believe that something different should be happening. The frustrations that came out during this presidential election had to do with feeling left behind in the current economy and the impact of those economic losses on quality of life. They also had to do with feeling like the political construct of this nation was being led by people who don’t understand lived experience.  Some of the frustration came out as fear.

I would never justify any of the statements made over this election season that were, honestly, horrifying and unbelievable in their disrespect of women, of Muslims, of immigrants, of Latinos, of differently abled people, and of others.  And now, we need to move forward. We must harness the frustration that has spilled out and work together in creating opportunity to change the things that need changing.

I have worked my whole professional life to help people realize that there is a path for their frustration. That we own this democracy, this state and this country. That the decisions that have disenfranchised us and failed to support us can be changed. As we move forward, Michigan’s Children and many others will be working hard to listen to the frustrations expressed around the state and help to redefine those frustrations into policy strategies. We will continue to provide opportunities for people to express their frustrations directly to decision makers and use those conversations to build relationships that support champions for change.

We are frustrated too. Let’s use it to move Michigan children, youth and families forward.

– Michele Corey

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.

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.

Boosting Michigan’s Literacy: No Time Like the Present

July 29, 2016 – This week, Governor Snyder signed an Executive Order creating the Michigan PreK-12 Literacy Commission. Like many previous efforts, this Commission is charged over the next two years with assisting the K-12 system to improve student literacy skills. The group will be determined through appointments by the Governor, the Superintendent and legislative leadership from both parties.

The focus on literacy is warranted, and clearly not new. It is obviously a gateway skill – that is, the poorer your reading skills, the harder all classes are for you as you progress through the grades. Michigan students don’t test well on literacy compared to their peers in other states; in fact, at the same time that the nation as a whole has improved on 4th grade reading tests, Michigan’s performance worsened, resulting in a national rank on that indicator that places us solidly below 42 other states. And, some specific populations of kids continue to test more poorly than others – Black and Hispanic kids, kids from low-income or homeless families.

It isn’t as if we have not acted at all on this situation. There have been numerous initiatives within our K-12 system and the state Department of Education, including current Top 10 in 10 efforts. In the current legislature there has definitely been increased attention to the problem, and we even saw some investment in the last two state budgets, driven by concerns and efforts around improving our status. This investment was not enough, and some of it could have been better focused, as we’ve talked about before. Now we have yet another effort tasked with pinpointing strategies.

For candidates in this election year, for new legislators in 2017, for the Governor and for the new Commission members, here are some key facts. They are well known, and well researched.

Fact One: Gaps in literacy emerge as early as nine months. Some kids have stronger nutrition and better health, some kids are ready to more often, some kids are spoken to more often, some kids experience more stress and trauma in their early years. All these things impact literacy skill-building, and their impact starts right away. Efforts to support families early are critical to the state’s literacy success.

Fact Two: There is ample evidence (and common sense) that says that the educational success of parents has everything to do with the literacy success of their children. Family literacy efforts targeted toward building the skills of parents and other caregivers are critical to the state’s literacy success.

Fact Three: The 6,000 hour learning gap, experienced between lower income children and their financially more better off peers, contributes to a variety of skill gaps, including literacy, by the time young people are in middle school. As I’ve already stated, starting early and maintaining opportunities that expand learning through elementary, middle and high school are critical to the state’s literacy success.

Fact Four: Kids have to be in school in order to take advantage of even the most effective school-based literacy programming. Making sure barriers to attending school are addressed for families and young people, including unsafe streets, unsupportive school climates and exclusionary school discipline practices are critical to the state’s literacy success.

We have many effective strategies at our disposal inside and outside the school building to improve literacy, and it never hurts to focus efforts on learning more about what can be done. However, we hope that the Governor and Legislature don’t have to wait for this Commission to finish its work to continue to recognize and commit to needed investments in literacy. 2017 will bring shifting legislative leadership and the Governor’s final two years of legacy. There is no time like the present to reiterate what needs to be done, marshal the resources and take action!

– Michele Corey

Pack Up Your ‘Asks’ and Prepare for Your Capitol Day Visit

April 11, 2016 – If you’ve never sat on a crowded bus or taken a carpool at sunrise to the state Capitol for one of the many time-honored Legislative Education (substitute Action) Days, you really should add it to your bucket list. As one who wants Michigan to become the very best place to grow up and raise a family, you owe it to yourself and your state to help raise awareness about issues policymakers have the power to change. Organized by advocacy groups and professional organizations, an advocacy creates synergy fueled by the power of numbers bringing together strong, united voices to educate and move action.

The 2016 Michigan Kids Count Data Book gives us a county-by-county look at where child well-being stands and a great opener for talks with decision-makers on where we’ve been and where we still need to go. An upcoming opportunity to talk about child well-being and ways to prevent child abuse and neglect is happening on April 19 in Lansing. Organized by the Children’s Trust Fund of Michigan, it’s just one of many opportunities for ordinary people to come together and collectively draw attention to how we can build healthy families and communities.

Whether you’re attending this or another legislative day, here are some tips to help you before you go. Begin by knowing that speaking out is taking responsibility for living in a participatory democratic society. It’s in our national DNA. Your voice, your experiences, your take on life in your community is critically important for elected leaders to hear so they can make informed decisions on policy and budget deliberations. Research shows that only 10-20 percent of voters ever contact their elected officials. If our elected leaders are going to make decisions based on our best interest, they must hear from more of us and especially between election cycles.

What do they need to know? Use data, information and stories to inform lawmakers about what’s happening – good and bad – at home. Raise real-life success stories about programs that help kids and families and identify issues of concern. Stories are often most memorable with lawmakers and help support a case for maintaining funding for the good work at home. Identified concerns help recognize where new efforts should be applied. Consider how you want them to think and feel about what you’re saying. Anticipating the outcome will help you choose what you say and how you say it. Helping to educate decision-makers within a framework for change and providing solutions for problems can be powerful persuasive strategies.

Know your legislator. Know the committees they work with, especially if these are useful to moving your issues. Learn about the issues they’ve championed. Their office and campaign websites are a good starting point for those insights. Also become familiar with knowledgeable staff members who can serve as points of contact after the visit is over. Afterward, also make sure you leave behind something to remind them of your message, whether it’s a description of a particular program, a fact sheet or summary of key points. Lastly, leave them with a plan for next steps. And do take a photo you can share back home or with the lawmaker so they can include it in their communications with constituents. Ultimately, these visits can be the start of opening lines of communications and a solid relationship that will serve you, your issues and your community well long past the legislative visit.

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

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