June 2 – Raising kids isn’t easy. All families need support to take care of their children, regardless of socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, or geography. And we know that all kids need the support of the community around them to ensure that they are healthy, developing appropriately, and learning the skills they need to succeed in school and in life. For the average family, this means regular appointments with pediatricians; regular communication with child care and k-12 teachers; confiding in a family member, close friend or member of the clergy when times are particularly challenging.
But what happens when parents are so incredibly challenged that they can no longer provide for their kids? What happens when their children no longer have access to that community support to ensure their well-being? Unfortunately, this is what happened to Stoni Blair and Stephen Berry – the children whose story we all know from their tragic deaths when their mother used homeschooling as an excuse to keep them away from important community supports to abuse and ultimately murder them.
In response to their deaths, Rep. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) introduced HB 4498 that would provide some level of oversight for families who choose to homeschool their children. This bill would require families to register with the Michigan Department of Education so that their children would be counted on the homeschooling registry. This would put Michigan on the same level as the rest of the nation, as one of the few remaining states that doesn’t require homeschooling families to register with their education system. And the bill would require twice-a-year in-person check-ins with a community support person of the parents’ choosing that could range from a doctor to a social worker to a child care provider to a member of the clergy. This would help families and kids – regardless of whether they are educated in a school building or at home – connect to the supports they need to receive healthy, safe, and enriching educations.
The tragic deaths of Stoni and Stephen and the subsequent introduction of Rep. Chang’s bill has spurred a lot of conversation at Michigan’s Children – as the state’s co-chapter lead of Prevent Child Abuse America – about what families truly need to provide safe, stable and nurturing homes for their children. What happened to Stoni and Stephen are the anomaly. But any child’s death is a stark reminder that Michigan needs to do more to support its most severely challenged families. This means ensuring that parents have what they need to provide safe and stable homes including access to mental health services for kids and parents alike; ensuring that when families are identified by Child Protective Services as Stoni and Stephen were, that the child welfare system has sufficient resources to provide families with adequate and appropriate wraparound services; and truly acknowledging the trauma that parents and children experience and how to appropriately intervene with both in a trauma-informed way. To do this, Michigan needs adequate investment in the intensive community-based services that CPS case workers could refer families to that would help families address things like mental health conditions, deep and persistent poverty, trauma and other major stressors.
Rep. Chang’s bill is a small step to make sure all kids and families have consistent connections to community support. And we must take a closer look at the successes and challenges faced by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education to ensure that they have what they need to do their jobs well so that all families have the tools they need to adequately provide for their kids so that all children can succeed.