Speaking For Kids

Learning from Heroes of Michigan’s Children

With the annual Heroes Night dinner scheduled for later this month, Michigan’s Children hit the road recently for an inside look into the work of another group of Heroes through its first ever CommunitySpeak, which builds on the success of the signature KidSpeak and FamilySpeak forums. At CommunitySpeak, the heroes highlighted were those working directly with our most vulnerable children day in and day out at two of Michigan’s premier human services agencies.

 

Lessons from the Judson Center: Building a professional service workforce and supporting parents

State legislators, Congressional staff, philanthropic representatives and others convened at the Judson Center in Royal Oak, where attendees were welcomed by Lenora Hardy-Foster, CEO of the 93-year-old agency which serves children and adults across five counties.

Hardy-Foster made clear that “when you serve people who need mental health or foster care services, the job isn’t Monday through Friday but Monday through Sunday,” and she asked that policy makers consider children, youth, and families in care while deliberating changes to public services and budgets. Despite a small increase in the foster care administration rate over the past two years, she admitted that agency child welfare programs remain financially unsustainable, and, if service providers cannot afford to provide services, what happens to the children who need them?

And the financial uncertainties described were not limited to agency budgets.

Foster parent Sean shared his personal involvement with the system, having grown up with his own biological parents who fostered 24 kids throughout his childhood. After Sean and his wife had two children, they chose to begin fostering, and their oldest son has now continued the family tradition by becoming a foster parent himself. Sean asked for legislators to consider ways of increasing pay for social workers serving in the child welfare system, sharing that high turnover has resulted in the breaking of bonds between social workers and children, often increasing feelings of insecurity in children who have already experienced trauma.

Carr particularly got people’s attention when he spoke of a conversation he had with a particularly effective social worker who had worked with one of his family’s foster children: this social worker had decided to leave the profession and return to delivering pizzas, because pizza delivery would provide him with comparable pay and significantly less stress.

I must agree with Mr. Carr that increased wages are essential if we are to attract – and retain – strong talent in this critical field.

 

Lessons from the Children’s Center: Meeting the Holistic Needs of Every Child

Following a tour of the Royal Oak Judson Center space, the group boarded a charter bus to travel together to the day’s second location: The Children’s Center in Detroit.

“All children deserve to have their basic needs met – and to be able to just be kids,” opened Debora Matthews, the agency’s CEO. “Our children have needs right now, and it takes all of us remembering that these precious babies will be making decisions for all of us very soon.”

Attendees went through a guided tour of The Children’s Center, visiting, for example, the Crisis Center, where we learned that the agency is reimbursed $300 per “crisis encounter,” despite each encounter actually costing the agency between $1,200-$1,500. We also saw the “wishing well”, where children had posted their personal wishes – ranging from heartbreaking to hilarious – as well as walls filled with impressive art created by talented children and youth.

Following the tour, attendees were able to hear from additional youth and parents. One parent advocated for mental health services to become more accessible for foster children and youth.

This sentiment was echoed by a client of the organization’s Youth Adult Self Sufficiency program, which supports and empowers youth aging out of foster care. Now a student with a full scholarship to the University of Michigan, this particular young woman shared that she had fallen through the cracks because her behavioral challenges were not viewed as severe enough to make her eligible for funded mental health services. She was unable to qualify for care, despite having been sent blindly to Detroit from California by her stepfather.

“Any child who has been removed from their home,” she stated, “has experienced trauma and should be automatically eligible for services to help them get through that trauma.”

She and others were able to provide personal insight into the power of services and the need for their increased reach.  While many of the issues discussed were related to needs for additional funding, others were around the ways in which the systems themselves are structured.

The formal and informal conversations promoted further highlighted the importance of ensuring high-level decision-makers are educated regarding the populations and services impacted by their budget and other policy decisions. Particularly with our state legislators, due to the regular turnover resulting from term limits, it is critical that this education for legislators be ongoing. The participation by the Judson Center and The Children’s Center was critical in this case, as their staff members, youth, and parents understand better than anyone what the issues are, what works, and where gaps remain. For this reason, it is essential that the voices of youth and parents are uplifted whenever these conversations arise. They can speak for themselves, and they want to. They just often are not asked.

These issues are real, they are important, and they are time sensitive. We all must continually advocate for change. As Sue Sulhaney of Judson Center asked during CommunitySpeak: if not us, then who will be there for Michigan’s children?

Kayla Roney Smith is the Executive Director of the Hazel Park Promise Zone and College Access Network. Roney Smith, a graduate of Michigan State University, played a key role in coordinating the day’s events.

Safe and Stable: Introduction

July 24 marked the beginning of the National Housing Week of Action. In recognition, Michigan’s Children is launching Safe and Stable, a guest blog series to shine a light on the systems and policies that keep foster-affiliated young adults from achieving safe and stable shelter. We will hear from fellow practitioners and from youth themselves to highlight how national, state, and local leaders can close the gap in housing need.

Our first guest blogger is J. Thomas Munley, who has worked as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for foster youth and is the Coordinator and Life Skills Coach for Fostering STARS at Lansing Community College. Munley has worked with many students in Fostering STARS with unstable living situations. 

***Our blog has been featured on the Voices for Human Needs blog of the Coalition on Human Needs!***

Safe and Stable: Two words that guide how we find housing for youth leaving foster care, two words that can mean the difference between an unsettled life and one that may produce a happy, fulfilling and productive life.

When I was 16 years old, my family lost our house in the recession, and with it our pride and feeling of security. I remember driving around with my mom looking for homes to rent for a family with five kids and feeling petrified that we would never find anything that was livable for that many kids. We actually found a large old house that had just been renovated and we felt so blessed to be able to rent it. My parents would later buy the house and it would be the last home my parents created before they passed away. That experience has always made me sensitive to young people who find themselves facing one of the most basic life questions and yet one of the most important; will I always have a safe and stable home to live in?

After working in various capacities with youth who have experienced foster care over the years, I am acutely aware of the elusive nature of “safe and stable” housing. Many of our youth from care often find themselves in situations beyond their control: how long will I be in placement? Will I get along with the foster family? Will I have to move again soon? Can I stay in the same school? Will I lose my friends? The very thing that our foster care system says is most important for our youth, “safe and stable” housing, can often be one of the most difficult things to come by.

The barriers to safe and stable housing faced by youth who leave care are far and wide. Housing rules change from community to community, and well-intentioned federal housing eligibility preferences can mean the end of the road for a young person who has experienced care. Strings attached to different funding sources can provide no leeway to youth who have experienced foster care. In less dense areas, youth who have experienced care are unable to get a driver’s license and, by extension, any reliable transportation. These obstacles have disastrous results – nearly 40% of youth experience homelessness within a few years of leaving foster care. All this coming at a time when student homelessness more broadly has risen 100% since 2007, reaching at least 40,861 Michigan youth who were identified by their public schools.

Homelessness is not an issue for one family, one city, or one state but for all of us. The untold cost of this epidemic on lives lost, potential squandered, education delayed, and physical and mental health tolls makes this an issue we should all care about. These are our children and youth, whom we said we would take care of when we took them from their families and placed them with strangers at no fault of the child. These are children who deserve every chance and opportunity to succeed to the best of their ability and who deserve the privilege of a stable home.

It was once said that the measuring stick of our society is how well we care for the most vulnerable among us. How are we doing?

J. Thomas Munley is a Licensed Professional Counselor (L.P.C.) working on his certification in Childhood Trauma. Fostering STARS is a program that works with youth who have experienced foster care to navigate and succeed in their Higher Education pursuits.

What Do We Expect For Our Vote? Round 2

July 25, 2017 – Here we are again, getting much less out of our elected officials than we deserve.  This time it is with our members of Congress, but similar thoughts run true to what I’d blogged about back in May related to our state Legislature.  My earlier list of what we expect and need to demand for our vote for those who represent our best interests in Lansing or Washington, DC included:  1. An ability to share our thoughts and concerns; 2. A path to understand the actions of our elected officials; and 3. A voice in important decisions about priorities.  In other words: hear us, share with us, and include us.

For the past several weeks, I’ve found myself needing to articulate a few more expectations that honestly, I didn’t think needed articulation.  We expect and deserve representation that knows the impact of a piece of legislation before voting on it, and that will share that information publicly in time for some constituent response.  In other words:  know exactly what you are voting on, and talk to us about it before you act.

So many of the discussions around repealing or replacing the Affordable Care Act, and those about some of the most significant cuts that the Medicaid program has seen since its inception, have demonstrated that neither knowledge of the legislation up for debate, nor communication about its details are required. The U.S. House of Representatives voted through a bill before the Congressional Budget Office had a chance to fully analyze its impact, and today the U.S. Senate has voted to proceed with a bill process without knowing the final details that vote will represent.

Our members of Congress, like our state Legislators, are still scheduled to be home in their districts during most of the month of August.  While they are here, we need to make sure that they better understand what we expect of them.  We can demonstrate that we understand our responsibility too – that we are here to help.  For those members of our delegation who have done what we expect, we need to make sure they know how much that matters to us.  Find out who they are and how to contact them here.

It is our votes that compel the kind of understanding, communication and partnership that we expect from those who represent us, not any other legal mandate.  As always, it is up to us to make sure that our representatives are aware of what it takes to win those votes and keep them.

– Michele Corey

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