youth voice

Youth Voice Improving Public Policy

February 6, 2015 – Last week, we gathered a group of 18 young people who were either still in the foster care system, or who had been served by that system, to share their experiences with a group of more than three dozen local, state and national decision makers at the 2nd annual Oakland County KidSpeak®. The policymakers heard about challenges and recommendations for change directly from the people whose care is the state’s responsibility, and who experienced how our systems worked to support their success, or created barriers to that success.

Michigan’s Children has been creating opportunities like Monday’s for young people to share their stories, concerns and suggestions directly with policymakers since 1996. Their voices have changed the trajectory of policy conversation and have resulted in additional champions for youth-driven solutions in the Legislature, state Departments and other local policymaking bodies. But still, the challenges continue. We have a long way to go. In fact, the KidSpeak® testimony given has already been referenced by a member of the House Families, Children and Seniors Committee meeting this week, as legislators asked the director of the Departments of Community Health and Human Services why it appears that those departments are still failing to shift policy and practice to address needs brought up by young people in foster care.

That gives me hope. We know that we have a group of Legislators on key committees who have heard the challenges of the system, and are interested in doing something about them. I’m also hopeful that the Governor means what he says about adjusting public service delivery to be about people rather than programs. A great place to start would be in services for the young people under our guardianship. While improvements to that system have been made, the young people themselves continue to ask for more from our care, including more stability, better resources for transition, and opportunities to direct their own life planning.  We’ve highlighted more details about these on-going concerns and policy recommendations to address them in our recent Issues for Michigan’s Children, Critical Issues in Foster Care.

A recurring, and often heartbreaking theme through much of the testimony this year was about the barriers they had faced to be part of their own life planning, including their attempts to keep in touch with their siblings and other members of their birth families. Michigan’s Children will be working with officials to determine what might be done to improve this situation.

While progress has been made to extend supports beyond 18 for young people in foster care, the testimony last week clearly illustrated that it isn’t enough. Michigan’s Children will be supporting efforts to require documented stability before removing young people from the foster care rolls, regardless of age and providing certain types of needed assistance, like legal help, much longer than is currently the norm.

The young people also talked again about being punished for behaviors born of disappointment, isolation and anger directly impacting the stability of their homes, their education and career. Michigan’s Children, as part of our work with the Children’s Trust Fund as the Prevent Child Abuse America Chapter in Michigan, has joined the national effort to better understand the impact of adverse childhood experiences. Efforts toward trauma-informed care are underway, and need to be an essential component of the services we provide to children and youth in foster care.

As we’ve said time and time again, current outcomes for young people who have been involved in the foster care system are unacceptable. Multiple sectors – health, mental health, education, human services – must work together to make sure that under our care, young people are better able to rebuild what has been lost and move successfully toward supporting themselves and their own families now and in the future.

We have the experts at our disposal to help. We will be working to make sure that we have the resources and the champions to move forward.

-Michele Corey

How Can We Best Direct The Flowing River?

January 21, 2015 — Michigan families can be glad that the Governor talked so much last night in his 5th State of the State address about public resources helping individuals, rather than funding programs. Of course, this is what local service providers have been doing for a long time – often under very difficult circumstances – sorting out how to best address the multiple sets of challenges that children, youth and families face. We all know that treating single symptoms doesn’t actually provide opportunity. Service providers have been working in coalition and through collaboration to bring services together in ways that best serve families accessing them, so that the funding stream, eligibility criteria or administration aren’t apparent to the families themselves. But collaboration and coordination take time and resources to do well, and for service providers who have seen many cuts to their programs and often operate on a shoestring budget, they can prove difficult.

Michigan’s Children and others have advocated for years that public programs need to work better together, need to share data with one another, need to make things easier for organizations that know how to impact change in their communities and for the children, youth and families who are trying to move forward. Now, of course, as many people have said over the last 12 hours: the devil is in the details for the Governor’s proposals. It is clearly unnecessary to actually combine state departments or create commissions to make services work better for people, but if it these initiatives move Michigan closer to doing that, it will be a win for the most challenged among us.

Regardless of how things shake out with how public services are administered in Michigan, we will be doing what we can to help decision makers make investment decisions based on the following:

  1. What young people and families are saying about the barriers to their own success, and what they think might assist them.
  2. What research and evidence suggests about initiatives that work for children, youth and families in the most challenged circumstances.
  3. Consistent and sustainable availability of quality services throughout the state, regardless of the private economic or service infrastructure of individual communities.
  4. No gaps in services – making sure that there is seamless coordination across age groups, issue areas and eligibility criteria.

I have to admit that the “river of opportunity” image that the Governor used often in his address carries a connotation for me of a bunch of cool stuff flowing by children, youth and families that they can try to fish out, but not necessarily an intentional strategy to assess individual challenge, provide opportunities and evaluate the effectiveness of interventions.  We will work toward a “river of opportunity” with efficiencies that simplify access to holistic services for children, youth and families.  We will also work toward a river that transfers any costs-savings from those efficiencies to actual, high quality service delivery since we know that services for children, youth and families continues to fall far short of what is actually needed for all families to succeed.

In this Legislative session and beyond, Michigan’s Children continues to challenge the Governor and members of the Legislature to make sure that the budget that will be proposed next month and debated over the next several months includes resources adequate to build effective public programs that result in what we all want: generations of highly educated, skilled, creative children and young adults who will attract jobs, raise healthy families and support strong communities. Join us!

— Michele Corey

Cast Your Vote for Children, Youth and Families

November 3, 2014 – I came away from our youth-led candidate forums this fall feeling pretty optimistic about our democratic process. The candidates who attended our four forums around the state were well prepared, articulate, respectful and willing to prioritize the intense demands of an election season to spend 2-3 hours with groups of young people, their parents, the organizations supporting them and members of the communities where they live. Despite the fact that many of the young people weren’t of voting age, these candidates recognized that they were future voters and that their parents and other community members were voters or potential voters. The candidates also recognized, and articulated to us, the media and the young people themselves, that they had something to learn from the experience that would help them in the election and beyond.

That said, there are differences between the candidates for office. They have different opinions about the solutions to the concerns raised by the young people at our forums. They have different opinions about the role of government to be part of those solutions, and how much public resource should be invested. They have different priorities for their own work if elected, and different ways to keep in touch with their constituents to make sure that they are prioritizing what works.

I want to thank our local forum partners, who supported the young people in their preparation, facilitated the forum location, and helped Michigan’s Children convince the candidates to come and the media to cover the forums. We will be working with these partners after the election as well, to help the winners better understand critical issues and workable solutions, and to hold them accountable to make sure that their actions once elected match their commitments made.

I also want to personally thank the candidates who spent time with us at our forums. While I’m not endorsing them individually or as a group, we do want to recognize their participation. Many candidates who were invited did not participate, and those who did deserve our respect. The time that they took was so impactful to the young people involved, and helped their communities better understand their commitment to children, youth and families in our state.

Tomorrow is election day. As Matt Gillard said in his recent video on our Sandbox Party website, we are all tired or seeing all of the campaign ads, and getting the endless stream of fliers in our mailboxes and phone calls. However, decisions that will be made by the share of registered voters who show up at the polls to cast their vote will determine the path of our state for years to come. Don’t let those decisions be made by someone else, make sure that you are part of the process.

Find out more about the youth-led candidate forums, and about how you can get more information about your candidates.

Then, of course, come November 5, join us as we use our influence as voters and constituents to help and to guide the winners toward decisions that point us toward a better Michigan for children, youth and families.

– Michele Corey

A New Public Forum for Michigan’s Children

September 19, 2014 – For nearly two decades, Michigan’s Children has organized our trademark KidSpeak® forums in Lansing and around the state.  These KidSpeak® forums provide an opportunity for young people to speak before a Listening Panel of policymakers, community leaders, and other decision-makers on the issues they have struggled with and how programs and services have assisted them.  Michigan’s Children has purposefully recruited young people who have encountered particularly challenging circumstances whether it be young people who have dropped out of school, become teen parents, struggled in the foster care or juvenile justice systems, or faced other significant barriers to their success.  Their perspectives are critically important as children and youth continue to struggle in our state, particularly children and youth of color and from low-income families who face more barriers to succeed in school and in life.

Connecting the experiences of young people directly with policymakers has provided Michigan’s Children with firsthand knowledge of the challenges and opportunities that plays a key role in our policy priority setting.  In addition, linking powerful stories of young people directly with policymakers themselves has proven to be an effective advocacy strategy.  Young people have been the best messengers for key issues like foster care and educational success.  Their voices have changed the trajectory of policy conversations and have resulted in additional champions for youth-driven solutions in the Legislature, state departments and other policymaking bodies.

With the success of our KidSpeak® forums, Michigan’s Children is looking to expand these opportunities to also capture the voices of families with young children to ensure that public policies take a multi-generation approach to ensure that families can succeed.  As the importance of the early years continues to gain recognition, and as the educational attainment and opportunities facing parents and the impact that has on their children is well documented, policymakers must hear from families on how they can best be supported.  This year, for the first time, Michigan’s Children is organizing two FamilySpeak forums to do just that.  Modeled after our signature KidSpeak® forums, FamilySpeak will provide a venue for families who have struggled for a variety of reasons to speak before a listening panel of policymakers and decision-makers.  These FamilySpeak events will focus on two-generation strategies that take into account the needs of children and their parents to ensure that families can thrive.

Our first FamilySpeak forum will be on Monday, September 22nd at the Michigan Association for Community and Adult Education (MACAE) annual conference and will be held in partnership with MACAE and the Goodwill Industries of Southwestern Michigan.  This particular FamilySpeak will highlight an innovative program in Kalamazoo and Allegan Counties called the Life Guides Program, a program of Goodwill.  We are excited that this FamilySpeak will be showcasing this innovative, long-term program – modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone – that works to move low-income families to economic self-sufficiency.

Our second FamilySpeak forum will be on Monday, October 13th at the National Black Child Development Institute (NBCDI) annual conference in Detroit and will be held in partnership with NBCDI and their Detroit Chapter.  That FamilySpeak will highlight multiple two-generation programs that serve families – ranging from programs that focus on health needs, mental health needs, human service organizations, and others.

To learn more about the FamilySpeak events, feel free to email Mina Hong.

-Mina Hong

Building Champions for Education and Life Success

January 28, 2014 – Bridge Magazine released their ranked list of Academic State Champions – the Michigan schools considered to be over-achievers, that is that their students have better test scores than other schools with similar student and family demographics. We applaud the Bridge and Public Sector Consultants in their efforts to examine student achievement a little bit differently, acknowledging that different schools serve different families and students, and that success for schools with higher educational resources available to them and higher resources available to their families needs to be measured differently from that of schools and families with fewer resources available. And beyond resource and demographics, we also need to listen to young people themselves on the challenges they face and how well their schools and communities assist them in overcoming those challenges.

I just emceed a YouthSpeak event yesterday at the Washtenaw County Chambers. Michigan’s Children, the Washtenaw Alliance for Children and Youth, the Washtenaw Intermediate School District and State Representative David Rutledge brought together State Representatives, County Commissioners, School Board members and administrators from several school systems in the area, and 18 young people from a variety of geographies and circumstances together to talk about building more educational success in their communities. As always, the young people articulately expressed their concerns and recommendations.

Based on this and many other conversations with young people, in addition to the Bridge’s evaluation of success, we would like to see Michigan evaluate and congratulate school systems on several other essential components:

  • On their ability to provide alternatives to disciplinary practices that cause young people to miss educational opportunity and access community resources to assist.
  • On their ability to reconnect with young people who have disconnected – through support of programs for the 5th and 6th year of a diploma path, and through support of GED and other alternatives for students with extremely challenging circumstances to continue on their post-secondary paths.
  • On their ability to individualize educational strategies to accommodate life challenges, and their ability to support real and consistent supportive relationships between adults and students inside the classroom and beyond.
  • On their ability to connect their students with extended learning opportunities beyond the school day that help young people better see their own strengths and build on their own successes and leadership potential.
  • On their ability to assess early issues outside the school walls that impact educational success like mental or behavioral health needs, homelessness and mobility challenges and intervene with the help of community partners.
  • Finally, and maybe most importantly, on their ability to consistently involve the voices of the most challenged young people in policy decisions and priority setting.

None of these suggestions are new. They come up every time we allow young people to tell us about strategies that matter to them and to their success. Let’s listen and act. Policy conversations are happening right now about the state budget, about teacher evaluation, school discipline and “any time, any way, any pace” learning opportunities. Michigan can prioritize resources and options for the most challenged children, youth, families, schools and communities in proven effective ways that can make a difference in our state’s success. We will continue to work with policymakers to help them see those policy options and we need your help to show policymakers that you support those decisions.

-Michele Corey

Seventeen Years of Expert Testimony

December 16, 2013 – Decision-makers gathered last week, representing the Governor’s Office, a bi-partisan group of 17 members of the Michigan Legislature, the State Board of Education, the Departments of Community Health and Human Services, philanthropy, municipalities, law enforcement, education associations, after-school, school health, researchers, and other youth advocates to listen to some Michigan experts.  Young people from a dozen communities around the state came to the Capitol to share their challenges, successes and recommendations for improving program and policy.   Programs that serve some of the most challenged young people in the state braved the snow and cold weather to bring these articulate young people before our listeners.

One young man brought out his specific concerns about the family he was planning to have – concerns that he would be successful enough to support them and that the education and other systems would be able to serve them better than they had served him.  He is a young adult now, part of an amazing program that gets young people back on track to a high school credential and onto a post-secondary path.  Reflecting that he had been out of school for several years, realizing that his future was compromised, there was a program that re-engaged him.  Instead of a path of unemployment and potentially criminal justice, he is now on a path to personal success and building success for the next generation.

This same experience was repeated over and over – young people who had been failed by and often pushed out of those systems that are charged with moving them toward adult success, often with personal consequences that were difficult for our listeners to hear.  Also repeated was the experience of these young people, who our public and private sector dollars had failed, finding a path to success.  These programs blend together different funding sources and share a commitment to providing many paths to success and many chances for moving down those paths.  What they also share is a space to make up for the failures of other systems.

As we move into the next budget year in Michigan, and try to keep up with federal budget decision-making, the testimony of the sixteen young people can provide some guidance:

  1. 2nd and 3rd chance programs for successful movement toward high school completion/post-secondary paths are not consistently available across this state, nor are they consistently accessible for all young people who need them.  As Michigan’s Children says all the time, resources need to be devoted to alternative, adult and community education to provide these chances to everyone.  This requires innovative strategies to utilize resources from a variety of sectors.  We can learn much from current programs who successfully serve our most challenged young people, families and communities.
  2. While we are making strides in how we serve the young people under our guardianship – those who the state removed from their challenged families and often their communities as well because of abuse, neglect and delinquency – we are still not successful enough.  These kids deserved better from us, and their stories continue to shock and dismay us.  This also requires multiple sectors working together to make sure that under our care, they are better able to rebuild what has been lost and move successfully toward supporting themselves and their own families now and in the future.
  3. Both of those intervention strategies scream for more investment in the prevention of poor outcomes in the first place.  This includes focusing resources on fragile families early on, and taking steps early and often to ensure young people can make it through high school successfully the first time.

If we take nothing from KidSpeak, we must take that we must do better.  I heard a great quote yesterday that fits perfectly here.  “Better is possible.  It doesn’t take genius.  It takes diligence.  It takes moral clarity.  It takes ingenuity.  And above all, it takes a willingness to try.”  Atul Gawande

We look forward to working with our experts, our listeners and others in the new year to invest in strategies that can change the trajectory of more young people, their families and their communities in 2014 and beyond.

– Michele Corey

Opportunities Toward Empowerment

In the last two months as Michigan’s Children’s new intern, opportunities toward empowerment have surfaced as a main theme that permeates the work I have witnessed here.

One of Michigan’s Children’s key advocacy strategies is to participate in the education of constituents and community leaders all over Michigan. On our webpage we offer budget breakdowns, arrange overviews on gaps in educational and racial equity, and provide resources for contacting legislators.  We create opportunities for empowerment of youth voice such as our annual KidSpeak© event, which brings youth to the Capital and provides a space for their perspective and opinion to be heard by legislators.

We also meet with community groups or organizations and present on a variety of topics concerning children’s issues.  In a recent meeting with The Coordinating Council of Calhoun County (TCC), a community group centered on promoting optimum well-being of all people in their county, the dynamics of cooperation, knowledge and collaboration give way to an impressive response.

During a presentation by Mina Hong, our senior policy associate, TCC was encouraged to gather into groups and create an advocacy strategy.  From a knowledge that only comes with an eagerness to be involved in the multiple issues facing their community, TCC members identified key issues, they came together and brainstormed multiple people in power that they could influence, and they identified community members with strengths that could be effective at communicating. What I saw that morning was a group of community leaders come together, cooperate, communicate and build on one another.

After a couple of weeks of observing policy being created and interviewing mothers of disadvantaged children (stay tuned for a publication based on those interviews in the following weeks), it can be easy to feel a little weighed down by the inherent complexity of advocacy work and the stories of struggle of some of our most vulnerable children. But of course, as we often find out, these are not the only stories being told in Michigan.  TCC demonstrated that and I learned a valuable lesson, that there is a wealth of strength and power in our communities and in our people.

This brings me back to my reflection on our work, that through the encouragement and provision of information to constituents, we have the opportunity to build upon what was already there: strong people doing hard things for the benefit of their neighbors. 

-Ben Kaiser

Ben is a BSW student at Cornerstone University completing his practicum with Michigan’s Children

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