Speaking For Kids

Ensuring All Students Have Community Connections

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.

-Mina Hong

Goal Setting=Good; Investing Toward Goals Starting Now=Better

May 26, 2015 – Last week the new State Superintendent-elect and the Education Trust Midwest announced new educational goal-setting priorities in Michigan. The purpose of these new state efforts is to improve educational outcomes that in recent years have moved further and further away from the most successful states. The new educational goal-setting priorities aim to put Michigan back on a trajectory that will lead to more success for our kids, schools and communities.

Statewide goals for improving education?  Great, let’s give that another try. There have been many state and federal goals for improving educational outcomes over the years – most recently, those goals have come with both carrots and sticks for the schools and communities who serve those lowest performing students. The Ed Trust’s Michigan Achieves initiative suggests that we continue some current efforts that have shown success, and that we also take a closer look at the efforts of states who have better outcomes than we do.  And the new Superintendent publicly agrees.

A great step, right? You set a goal for improvement, and then you shift your program investments to be able to meet that goal. Michigan’s Children is all in. As I’ve certainly said too many times to count, we absolutely know what it takes to improve educational and other life outcomes for children, youth and families. We have decades of research, we have innovative and effective practice from other states and from within our own. What we have not had is appropriate investment in what works to improve equity in these outcomes.

Relatedly, members of Congress introduced a bill that would require the U.S. to set goals for reducing child poverty – similar to what took place in the U.K. over the past several years with impressive results. The impact of economic insecurity on the well-being of children, youth and families can not be overstated. Research has shown that poverty (particularly extreme poverty and living in poverty for many years) is tied with nearly every negative outcome. Everyone from all ends of the political spectrum recognizes this. Some members of Congress are suggesting that instead of wringing our hands and continuing to pay for the consequences of those outcomes, we set a goal and move to change the situation.

What really struck me here was the intimate connection between these two goals – the clearest path to better economic security is educational success, so we won’t reach the poverty goal without focusing on the education goal. In addition, we are unlikely to move the needle on educational goals without tackling challenges that families face outside of the school building, day and year as well.

Let’s start now, in the current budget conversation. There are stark differences in state budget proposals that will be decided on by small numbers of legislators over the next few weeks. Three that we’ve pulled out that will take us closer to both goals:

  1. Investment in 3rd grade reading. The Senate included additional investments in 3rd grade reading success. Particularly important for equity is the Senate recommendation for $10 million to expand learning opportunities for the most challenged kids. This isn’t enough (we’ll be going for at least $50 million moving forward), but it is certainly a start.
  2. Investments in the most challenged kids, schools and communities. The Senate included an additional $100 million to fund programs specifically for learners with identified barriers. The House didn’t include this increase.
  3. Investments in family literacy. We will not reach either poverty or education goals if we don’t make sure that every parent can assist every child as their first and best teacher. With 34,000 young adults in Michigan (ages 18-34) without even a 9th grade education we need more investment. The Senate included an increase in the adult education program, while the House eliminated it all together.

Let’s keep talking. Moving beyond the current budget year, our Legislature and Congressional Delegation need to prioritize many supports for the most challenged, including: services that prevent later problems like child abuse and neglect prevention, home visiting support and Early On; services that improve outcomes for young people in the state’s care through the Foster Care and Juvenile Justice systems and their families; and services that best support college and career success like early learning, expanded learning, family literacy and integrated student services.

Let’s talk about setting goals and let’s keep working to meet them.

— Michele Corey

Support Kids in Families of All Kinds

May 21, 2015 — During this year’s Foster Care Awareness Month, the National Kids Count project released a report, Every Kid Needs a Family: Giving Children in the Child Welfare System the Best Chance for Success. The report suggests that Michigan overuses congregate care options when a family setting would better serve children in our state’s foster care system. The report puts forth three simple recommendations:

  1. Expand the service array to ensure that children remain in families. Michigan has experienced several decades of disinvestment in programs that strengthen families, and has eliminated most state funding from abuse and neglect prevention programs. One bright spot – the recent focus on investments in home visiting programs, proven to identify needs early and connect families to necessary support. Better investments in preventing and intervening with some of the most common reasons for removal are essential. We need to invest more in keeping families stable in the first place, helping parents rebuild their lives, and supporting reunification once situations have improved.
  2. Recruit, strengthen and retain more foster families, and increase the utilization of family members other than parents as caregivers for foster children. In Michigan and elsewhere in the United States there have not been enough available and trained foster families or relatives; and not enough supports for family placements. The Michigan League for Public Policy, who directs the Kids Count in Michigan project, outlines this well in their blog about the recent release.
  3. Support decision making that ensures that children removed from their homes are placed in the least restrictive setting. The public and private systems in Michigan need to be held accountable for developing and maintaining appropriate placement options for children and youth depending on their needs, and adequately investing in these options. In addition, we need to reframe more restrictive care settings as a treatment option, where custody during that placement remains intact with a parent or foster parent, and remove impediments to maintaining existing caregiver relationships during those placements.

Michigan’s Children has talked to many young people over the years, some who have experience in the foster care system (see our most recent guest blog from Ronnie Stephenson, and discussions from a recent KidSpeak on the issue.) All of the young people Michigan’s Children has spoken to about the foster care system talk about the need for the stable support that comes with family ties, including a stable place to call home and adults who are committed to their success for the long-term. Many talk about the need for adequate treatment and intervention settings where necessary. They also talk about wanting to help direct their own services within the foster care system, including establishing or maintaining connections with their birth families and others in their home communities. In addition, young people want better access to the same opportunities for involvement in their learning, peer group and community that other young people do – access to what is now termed as a more “naturalized” environment – whether they are in foster homes, group homes, other congregate care or supervised in their own homes.

In part due to the powerful voices of young people expressed over the last several years, through our work, the Michigan Youth Opportunities Initiative and Fostering Success Michigan and the work of many other partners, Michigan’s Children met this week with a bi-partisan group of Legislators, staff and other advocates to begin to frame out changes that Michigan needs to make in order to better support the range of families that care for young people – their birth families, their foster and adoptive families, and other relatives who serve as caregivers. While Michigan has recognized some deficiencies in its child welfare system, there is still a long way to go before we are giving all children the best chance for success. The Departmental merger between Community Health and Human Services and the Governor’s articulation of the need to better connect services to serve families are opportunities to further this work. Recognizing that reform needs to center around providing family support in whatever way possible for those young people we are responsible for is a necessary step for moving in the right direction. Michigan’s Children is very excited to be part of this effort.

— Michele Corey

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