May 19, 2015 — As I was finishing up eighth grade at Grand Blanc West Middle School, my life drastically changed when I was removed from my biological father’s home and swiftly put into the care of the Genesee County Department of Human Services. Over four years, I lived with five families and attended numerous high schools, and discovered faults in the system that I was felt forced into and trapped in.
I found out quickly that no one really asked what I wanted and that my voice was not being heard by the foster parents, case workers, and lawyer in my life. I felt they didn’t hear me when I described what I wanted to happen with my life or what I thought would be a better fit for me regarding schools, foster parents, or any of the decisions that were made on my behalf. It was very hard to get anything done, as well. If I needed school clothes, there was paper work and court papers that needed to be filed out that always got lost without anyone held accountable. It felt like I was always given the run-around. I had so many different case workers that nothing was productive or got done. I was frustrated and finally decided to speak up for myself. I started going to every one of my court hearings and speaking to the judge myself.
As I got older, I was inspired to make a difference and encourage other foster children to raise their voices, also. I wanted to shed light on the difficulties and problems within the system that I had experienced. While attending Western Michigan University, I decided to take a position as a casework aide at a local private agency for foster care and adoptions one summer. This job made me come to the realization that the system was still very broken. No one is held accountable, foster care workers are not trained properly, casework and paperwork gets lost, and then you have policy which holds families up from becoming foster parents and/or adopting. Frustration and anger made me decide that while I didn’t want to work with families and foster children directly, I did want to work on policy solutions on these issues.
The next semester I took a Philosophy of Law class, and my professor came across an internship at the state House of Representatives that he thought I would be interested in. I decided to look into it, and actually got a position with one of the lawmakers, and that was Rep. Martin Howrylak, R-Troy. He hired me the next year and the year after that I went to work for newly elected Rep. Brandt Iden, R-Portage, from the Kalamazoo area.
My experiences in the Legislature included testifying before committees, including discussing the importance of expanding the eligibility age of Medicare to 21 to benefit youth in foster care. (The proposal did move to the House Floor.) I shared and expressed my concerns and helped one of my bosses prepare House Bill 5741, which proposed an interstate compact for the placement of children in foster care. Though it was heard before the committee on Children and Family services, it unfortunately was never reported out. I have attended many events with children in foster care throughout the state of Michigan and even have participated in speaking events for foster parents and children. Having this experience has made me a better legislative assistant in the House of Representatives. I can relate to constituents when they call us with issues regarding the Department of Human Services, know how they feel, and try to help them navigate through the system.
Changes do need to occur within the foster care system for all parties involved — children and the foster families. And, I am a firm believer that changes can and will happen, as long as foster care children continue to express our positions and feelings. And I encourage anyone — foster parent or child –to convey or continue to express your concerns, because nothing will change unless we do.
– Ronnie Stephenson
Besides working at the Capitol, Ronnie Stephenson, now entering her Senior year at Western Michigan University, is an intern for the national non-profit, Together We Rise, and is raising money for suitcases for Kalamazoo-area youths in foster care. Her webpage: http://www.togetherwerise.org/fundraise/HopeForKzoo. Michigan’s Children is honored to partner with Ronnie.