Speaking For Kids

Raising Voices for Change

October 6, 2015 – After spending the last 10 months interning for Michigan’s Children I have learned about the importance of raising community voices up to policymakers. Through this process we can all learn about the true needs of a community from the people who understand the situation best. It is this idea that inspired me to help organize and plan a FamilySpeak event where caregivers of many different forms (birth parents, foster parents, kinship parents and adoptive parents) would come to Lansing and share stories of struggle and triumph in their journey to raise the child(ren) in their care.

On September 22, 2015, 11 caregivers from across the state came to the State Capitol Building in Lansing to address a listening panel comprised of policymakers and community organizations. Watching the Speaker’s Library fill up with elected officials, representatives from DHHS, MDE, and the Governors Office I felt very excited about the policy and administrative changes that could come from this event.

Though the policymakers hold the power to make change, the real stars of this event were the families who made the extraordinary effort to travel from all across the state to share their stories at the Capitol. Few people enjoy public speaking, and even fewer enjoy public speaking about personal, and emotional struggle; but that didn’t stop the 11 caregivers from getting up and telling those in attendance about their experiences with the child welfare system – the good and the bad.

Already, only two weeks out from this event, Michigan’s Children has seen the affects of this event in the Legislature and the Departments. I recognize that policy change is usually slow and incremental, but I truly believe that positive policy change will come from this event.

From myself, and on behalf of Michigan’s Children, thank you to all who attended our FamilySpeak event. And to all the caregivers – Thank you, thank you! This event would not have been possible without your efforts.

– Cainnear Hogan

Cainnear is an intern for Michigan’s Children. She is currently completing her MSW at the University of Michigan – School of Social Work.

Support the Caregivers to Support the Kids

September 30, 2015 – As you all know, Michigan’s Children has been bringing together the voices of the most challenged young people and policymakers for nearly 20 years through our signature KidSpeak® forums, and that work has changed the trajectory of policy conversations over those years. But children and youth don’t grow up on their own, they grow up in families, in schools and in communities – often many different ones if they are involved with our foster care system. Michigan is too often not the best parent to the young people who we have taken responsibility for, but there are a lot of caregivers who are working as hard as humanly possible and against multiple odds to try to do better for kids in foster care. We heard from about a dozen of those caregivers last week, and learned quite a bit about how we could do better.

Michigan’s Children; the Michigan Statewide Foster, Adoptive and Kinship Family Coalition; the Michigan Federation for Children and Families; the Michigan Kinship Coalition and the Kinship Care Resource Center were recently joined by nearly fifty local, state and federal decision makers at our latest FamilySpeak. We were joined by Congressional staff, by Michigan Legislators and their staff, by staff from the Michigan Departments of Health and Human Services and Education, and by staff from multiple private agencies and service providers wanting to hear more about how to better support the very challenged children, youth and families that they serve.

Eleven caregivers, including foster, adoptive and kinship parents, spoke about what had brought them into the system, how their expectations differed from their reality of parenting and outlined their specific challenges. And all made recommendations for changes in policies and programs to make the system work better for their families and others. They talked so eloquently and emotionally about how the young people they were helping to raise at times just need access to the same things that other kids need– early identification of problems so that they can be addressed promptly and avoid larger problems later on. Michigan’s Children was glad to hear this recommendation coming from caregivers as it aligns with our ongoing advocacy work on ensuring a variety of early childhood programs and services are accessible that maximize future opportunities for all kids, rather than expanding equity gaps.

And they also talked eloquently and even more emotionally about how the kids in their care, and they, needed more help than they currently receive. More understanding of the impact of trauma – for themselves, to be able to negotiate it better as parents and for the systems serving their children, so that they are better served in their homes, in their schools and in their communities. More access to necessary services – better and early assessment of what is needed immediately, and consistent access to those services. They spoke a lot about how services were not available right away, or weren’t available in a way that worked for the young people they were parenting – many of whom will need supports like child care well beyond the traditional age of 12, and supports of all kinds well into adulthood, beyond 18 for sure.

They also talked about themselves – how they are workers and citizens and how both of those roles are at times compromised because of a lack of available support or understanding on the part of employers and workers in the systems. And some caregivers – particularly those family members who are caring for their grandchildren, their nieces and nephews – are often left out of access to critical services that their children need as much as others who have come into the child welfare system through other ways. In addition, it is clear that once children and youth have been adopted, there are far fewer services available to families, which also needs to be remedied.

Michigan’s Children is working with policymakers to see the connections between what we hear from young people in the system, and what we hear from their caregivers. So much of what young people experience as instability in their world and lack of services toward their eventual independence and adult success stems from exactly the same issues that caregivers articulate as lack of access to services and support so they can best care for their children.

We thank all of the amazing young people and parents who have taken the time to talk with us and to policymakers about their very personal experiences so that we can make sure that the state is taking its job as primary caregiver of children and youth in foster care as seriously as is required. Michigan needs to be the best parent to the children, youth and families in our care and we need to adequately support those who are helping with that effort.

– Michele Corey

September is a Time to Tackle Root Causes of School Absenteeism

September 10, 2015 – While working as a student teacher in a local high school some years ago, I was introduced to the mind-numbing business of taking attendance before each class hour. The routine process, involving some quick key board clicks on a digital report across 156 student names and six class hours, wasn’t itself time-consuming except for assembling lesson materials that needed to be set aside for absent students each day. Doing so gave them and their families some sense of what took place in the classroom that day. But in reality, it didn’t entirely replicate the learning process, the active exchange of questions, discussions, ideas and those wonderful unexpected ah-ha moments that come from the daily teacher-student experience. And not everyone was able to take advantage of take-home material.

Even though I frequently shared the importance of keeping up by coming to class with the teens and parents I worked with, I knew the problems some kids faced attending regularly were varied and complicated by their personal challenges. Chronic asthma; sick parents at home; early morning jobs teens took to support their families; struggles with mental illness and family trauma. Rarely could skipping school be explained by teen obstinacy alone. But absences did cause them to struggle in school and ultimately put roadblocks to their post secondary schooling and career training. Now, new information from Attendance Works and the Healthy Schools Campaign this month gives a deeper look into chronic school absences – an issue gaining priority in education as a national crisis.

Released this September during Attendance Awareness Month, the report, “Mapping the Early Attendance Gap: Charting a Course for Student Success,” spotlights a problem bigger than many people would expect with 7.5 million students missing nearly a month of school a year. It’s a problem that can be tracked to preschool and kindergarten whose absentee rates are nearly as high as teen’s rates, according to the report. The life-long consequences are serious, too. Children who are repeatedly absent in kindergarten and first grade are less likely to read proficiency by third grade. In middle school, students with chronic absences are more likely to drop out in high school. School testing and performance measures are negatively impacted, resulting in limited opportunities for success as students move on.

Using survey data taken during national testing of 4th and 8th graders, the report also pinpoints who is missing school, and in Michigan it doesn’t bode well for children of color, children with disabilities and children from low-income families. Once again, a national educational issue is hitting our vulnerable populations hardest and the numbers are compelling.

  1. The report found 32 percent of Michigan’s African-American 4th graders missed three or more days in a given month compared to 22 percent nationally. The rate was the same for Michigan 8th graders, 32 percent, compared to 23 percent across the country.
  2. Michigan’s Hispanic children also missed more school than the national average: In 4th grade, the Michigan rate was 28 percent compared to 21 percent nationally and in 8th grade, 26 percent compared to 22 percent.
  3. And Michigan children with disabilities also missed more school then peers nationally: 31 versus 25 percent in 4th grade, and 34 vs. 28 percent among 8th graders.

Attendance and truancy have gotten attention from political leaders in Michigan in recent years. Gov. Snyder’s Pathways to Potential program launched in 2012 as a means to reduce truancy by co-locating Department of Health and Human Services staff in schools. Some communities have developed successful strategies that are seeing progress in attendance, like the Kent School Services Network and others. Michigan needs to learn from success and build whole-community approaches statewide.

The State Board of Education and School Superintendent Brian Whiston are taking a serious look at what’s needed to make Michigan a top 10 state in education. Addressing the causes of school absenteeism should be a part of those conversations as we set our sights on helping all kids learn and achieve in Michigan.

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

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