legislators

Student Voice Experience: Testifying for a House Committee Hearing

On May 15th, 2019 I had the experience of testifying in front of a House Committee during a hearing about including trades in the Fostering Futures Scholarship. I didn’t fully understand the importance of advocating as a former youth until I got the opportunity to change the outcome of a bill that will help multiple foster youths that graduate have a chance to receive proper funding and support to achieve their goals for their future, all just by sharing my story.

For me, I am quite new to the advocating and policy work of Fostering Success Michigan and The New Foster Care. I am grateful for the opportunity to be able to influence not only policymakers and legislators but to reach out to other youth who have a chance to use their life situations to impact and change the lives and futures of other youth.

It was a bit overwhelming at first, but had I not been there, I noticed that the conversation around the actual effects of the bill, specifically how the Fostering Futures Scholarship impacts students, wouldn’t have been a part of what the legislators would learn. I believe hearing my testimony, they were able to understand from my viewpoint, the effects of the scholarship while also hearing specifically how they can strengthen the scholarship.

While the Fostering Futures Scholarship itself was the main topic, I was also able to talk a little bit about the campus-based support program that I have been significantly impacted by. The CHAMPS support program at Wayne State University offered such helpful and reliable resources. I believe it is important for youth who have experienced foster care to receive the support and benefits of campus-based support programs such as CHAMPS. Their focus is to help youth who have aged out realize their educational aspirations while also offering workshops, emergency funding, tutoring, career mentoring, life-skills training and so many other helpful resources. I believe that the legislators really needed to understand that while the funds that youth receive through the scholarship are helpful, the campus-based programs offered are also just as helpful and also offer support. I am so thankful for this opportunity and the connections and skills that I’ve gained from it.

by Arielle Duncan, guest blogger, Wayne State University student, former youth in foster care

This blog series highlights the experiences of Arielle D. as she learns about how to use her voice and story to advocate for policy change in foster care! Follow Arielle as she shares her experiences testifying before a Michigan House Committee hearing and shadowing lawmakers during National Foster Youth Shadow Day and Michigan’s first Legislative Shadow Day!

Supporting Families Isn’t Rocket Science

Child abuse and neglect cases in our state are rising. We’re seeing this not because parents have decided to care less about their children, but because the supports that families rely on for stability are failing. Many parents do not have access to the protective factors that support us when life gets really, really stressful, or to cope with trauma from their own past, and their children suffer for these unmet needs. Families are less likely to suffer the effects of toxic stress when they can access supportive relationships, knowledge about child development and parenting, and concrete supports during times of need.

We can prevent the vast majority of situations of child abuse and neglect, but Michigan’s Legislature is at risk of missing another opportunity to change the game for child abuse in our state.

The Michigan Children’s Trust Fund (CTF) provides grants for evidence-based services and local councils that work to prevent child abuse and neglect before they occur. Some problems that drive child abuse rates, like the lack of quality mental health services, affordable housing, or protections for survivors of domestic violence, will involve investment and policy changes beyond the scope of the CTF. But for families who need respite care so they can attend an important job interview, or some peer support or education to improve their parenting skills, the programs supported by the Children’s Trust Fund can mean the difference between periods of stability and periods of extreme stress.

Today the CTF is in its worst financial position in some time. Its once-robust funding streams, which include a state income tax check-off donation and a special license plate with dedicated revenues and which were meant to simultaneously raise funds and raise awareness about prevention, are quite bare. Today, the CTF plate is one of 40 fundraising license plates for causes or organizations, and programs like TurboTax make it easy to bypass the choice to make a tax donation. As a result, these revenues through the state have fallen by nearly $1 million since 2000, and federal matching grant revenues have fallen accordingly. The current year budget saw the first increase of state funding for the CTF in some time, a total increase of $500,000 in General Funds to expand its programs, but because of further declines in other revenue sources, that increase was only enough to sustain CTF’s existing programs.

Leaders from both parties recently gathered for the annual CTF auction, an event known for its “bipartisan” spirit where legislators generously support the CTF from their own pocketbooks, but what the Legislature gives with one hand, they take with another. The Senate’s proposed FY20 budget eliminates about half of the CTF’s current funding increase, which was allocated at the end of last year as the hole in the CTF’s budget grew again, and the proposed budget in the House would cut the full $500,000 increase. A loss of that size would force severe cuts to direct service grants funded by the CTF, which include home visiting, mentorship programs, and body awareness classes that are evidence-based to prevent child abuse and neglect.

Supporting families isn’t rocket science, it’s brain science. We know that toxic stress affects people’s growth and behavior, and we know what can help prevent or mitigate family instability from toxic stress. The public’s need for, and potential benefit from, child abuse prevention far outweighs the money that an annual auction can take in.

Tell your legislators that we can prevent abuse and neglect by making a meaningful investment in Michigan’s families through the Children’s Trust Fund.

Listening When Students Speak

My grandfather has always told me, pick something you love and do it well. A wise adage that seems easy to follow but can always take a little twist or turn in life.

For example, what if you don’t have a role model or figure to give you such sage advice? What if you aren’t able to use your talents or don’t know how to identify them to help those around you? What if your skills need a refreshing or there is a cultural or language barrier that precludes you from doing that work well?

This adage came to mind along with these questions most recently at our joint Students Speak events with MACAE (the Michigan Association of Community and Adult Education). These opportunities have been so critical in helping policymakers to understand the importance of adult education, but also to hear directly from participants- their success and their struggles. Here are some highlights from me:

Dreams and aspirations can translate into real success. These dreams could be to increase their employment status or make large investments in the local community such as a home.

Highly-skilled ESL immigrants face challenges with credentialing. One of the challenges that was raised was the transference of degreed and credentials of highly skilled immigrants coming to the United States. This lack of transference can directly impact the upward mobility of students and families simply because one’s English proficiency is not on part with their highly skilled training.

Adult Education supports generational education. This direct generational education impact supports local school districts and strengthens families. In addition, it instills in future generations the importance of lifelong learning.

Adult Education offers alternative pathways to success. Adult education offers courses designed with the students in mind that help increase their academic proficiency while also giving them the direct hands-on vocabulary and context to be successful in the workplace.

Over the next few months we will continue to connect with policymakers about these issues and the importance of adult education. I firmly believe that an investment in these learners Is a return on investment that continues to strengthen families and to build resilient communities.

As neighbors, fellow citizens, workers and constituents, we have a responsibly to help others “pick something they love and to do it well”.

My grandfather would love that.

Patrick Brown is an Outreach Associate for Michigan’s Children, in partnership with the Michigan Association of Community and Adult Education

Meet Lauren, Our Newest Intern

November 16, 2018 – Hello!! I am beyond excited to be spending my final year of Graduate School at Michigan’s Children. Come May 2019, I will be receiving my Masters in Social Work with a concentration in Organizational and Community Leadership from Michigan State University, GO GREEN!

I started my journey at Michigan State in 2012 and have been here way too long (with a few degree changes) but, I have gained an incredible amount of knowledge and skills. In December, 2016 I completed my Interdisciplinary Studies in Social Sciences undergraduate degree which guided me to pursue an MSW degree.

When I was a little kid, I always wanted to be like my grandparents and my mom… a teacher. But, as time went on and I witnessed the difficulties my mom had in the public school system and I knew that teaching wasn’t the best route for me to take. I tried many different directions but ultimately end up with the same passion – to serve the children of our world. Because I have never pursued a teacher career path, I have instead interned at an after-school program, assistant taught summer school, and did community service coordination for high school students. Through all of these experiences, I have loved working with students.

So why am I working in public policy, and am I liking it? First, I am loving it! Second, you can advocate for the best interest in children by working directly with them, and we need to improve the systems that serve them through policy advocacy and change. It is critical to understand and relate to the populations you are advocating for. At Michigan’s Children – we are working to change the odds for children. In the future, I hope to take my experience in direct care and in advocacy to continue to better the lives of children and families.

This year at Michigan’s Children I have the great opportunity to learn about election advocacy and legislative advocacy. So far this year, much of our energy has been focused election advocacy and hosting NINE amazing candidate forums around the state. These forums bring students, young adults, community members, and adults out to ask their candidates for legislative office questions about issues that they care about most. At these forums, I found myself awestruck. The personal stories, questions, and answers all drive me to continue to do this work and it is truly amazing what you can learn once you open the floor to others and listen intently. It was truly empowering to watch citizen involvement in the political process and if those who asked the impressive questions are our future leaders, I am ecstatic and ready!

A couple others things I have focused on include the Raise The Age campaign, foster care research, early childhood advocacy, third grade reading research, and our social media networks (T: @MichChildren F: Michigan’s Children).

With the elections changing our state legislature and Governor, things are changing in our office. With these changes, Michigan’s Children will focus on educating policymakers on issues that matter most and continually encouraging others to get involved in the political process. This next phase will be incredible and I can’t wait to see what I can learn!

Lauren Starke is an intern at Michigan’s Children in her final year of graduate school at Michigan State University where she is pursuing her master’s degree in social work.

A Forum for Change

“Many politicians say that they will make changes for the better and almost never or never do. How will you be different?”

Eyes widened and the candidates sat up a little straighter in their seats.

This powerful question was delivered from an adult education student at one of the four candidate forums hosted by the Michigan Association of Community and Adult Education (MACAE) and Michigan’s Children. The series of events across the state were very impactful in raising the awareness of issues facing adult education students and the programs that serve them. From Novi to Grand Rapids, Holland to Adrian, legislative candidates were asked tough yet significant questions about issues ranging from education to infrastructure, childcare costs to college tuition and beyond.

What this writer took away from the experience was the opportunity for change in our midst- each event presents a forum for change. Beyond adult ed programs helping students obtain their GED and workplace credentials, legislative candidates became more away of a population ready to be taught, trained and tooled for success.

And whether the students were eighteen-year-old single mothers working two jobs, or a fifty-five-year-old electrician looking to upskill his credentials, the message was consistent and resounding- We are here, We want to be an integral part of our local communities, and We are ready.

What was most important was seeing legislative candidates connecting with students after each forum- sharing laugh, taking pictures, but also continuing to discuss important issues.

The legislative candidates were impacted too. One said in Holland, “I have learned so much today about this issue and I’m committed to solutions”. That is encouraging at a time where educational funding is essential to keeping these programs accessible to the general population.

Another candidate in Adrian shared how she herself attended an adult education program to gain her GED, finding success for her and her family. Several students in attendance told their teacher a few days later that was a powerful moment.

I asked one student why they participated in the forum. After a moment to think she replied, “I have a voice and I want to use it because I want to have success too”.

Perhaps, if we can communicate that message of adult education being a pathway to success, we can continue this forum of change.

– Patrick Brown is an Outreach Associate for Michigan’s Children, in partnership with the Michigan Association of Community and Adult Education

Vote Like Our Future Depends On It

Sometimes we lose track of the fact that our democracy is just like a hiring process. We look at different candidates for the job of representing our priorities in decisions about how to spend tax dollars and how to best structure the many public systems we depend upon. Then, after the campaign interviews, some of us in the “hiring committee” decide what candidate we want.

Now is the time for the job interviews, when we pay attention to what candidates are saying, and make sure that they are being asked important questions. To that end, we are working hard with partners in eight areas of the state to facilitate youth- and family-led candidate forums. This is some of my favorite work for three reasons:

  1. I LOVE working with our partners. The people we are working with for these forums do amazing things for kids and families in their communities every day AND THEN grace me with their assistance in with these forums, because they are so important. It is inspiring.
  2. I LOVE hearing what questions youth, adult students and other caregivers ask policymakers and those running for office when given the chance. Some confirm what we know to be true about the barriers people face, others are surprising and always informative to our work.
  3. And, of course, I also LOVE hearing the answers and seeing the power of direct interaction between constituent and candidate. We hear time and time again from the candidates involved that these forums are the campaign experiences that they enjoy the most.

After the job interview, we will decide who to hire. One of our staff wrote this phrase in a draft document, “Vote like our future depends on it.” I really like that, mainly because I know that it is true. We all know that decisions we make during this election will determine priorities in policy and investment for the next decade. This month, Michigan’s Children is starting our “Why I Vote” campaign. For me, voting is a huge responsibility, however, we know that many people don’t feel empowered to vote, or just aren’t able to, so we are gathering perspectives on why people around the state are taking that step to participate in the hire.

After the hiring is done, we supervise our new hires. We help them make connections between the decisions they are making and the things they said and learned from the hiring process. We help them better understand the people they are working for and how to do their job well. They need training, like most new hires, and they need support. We are there to give them that.

While I do like the job interview, and I also like the responsibility of hiring, I have devoted my professional life to the supervisory part. I know that all of our new hires (some more than others…) will disappoint us, some will not do what they said they would do during the job interview. And we will be there to gently (and sometimes not so gently) guide them back and make sure that they have all of the resources and backing that they need to help us move the state forward.

We need you to pledge with us to supervise the people we hire, beginning this November until the day they leave office. This is a pledge to follow up our vote with more action, to use our power as their supervisors to help them see the best path forward by connecting them with the most valuable resources that they have at their disposal – US, and the people who we serve.

Take this interview process seriously, vote as if our future depends on it, and then pledge to join Michigan’s Children for action.

Michele Corey is Michigan’s Children’s Vice President for Programs

Elections Are Inspiring

I’m consistently educated and inspired by constituents and policymakers alike when the two groups are brought together. I’ve been so fortunate to have been part of Michigan’s Children’s intentional creation of these opportunities for the last 18 years. They take many forms, but always include direct communication between young people, families, the people who serve them and policymakers. During the campaign season, these opportunities are so critical as our citizenry decides who will be representing us in Lansing and Washington, DC. It is important for constituents to hear what candidates for office are saying about issues of concern to them, and for candidates to hear those issues and be held accountable for articulating solutions that they will be prioritizing if elected.

This week, we kicked off our youth- and family-led candidate forum season with two forums (one in two-parts) led by families in two very different parts of the state. The first, at the Zeeland Early Childhood Center in Ottawa County, and the second at The Children’s Center in Detroit. Circle back to our Learning from Youth and Families page for more details about both of these successful events, check out what we tweeted through the forums, and here are just a couple of highlights for me:

  1. Most of the eight candidates running for the 30th State Senate and the 90th State House districts in Ottawa County looking down the table at each other and remarking about their commonalities in supporting early childhood programming and wanting to help to improve the mental health system in our state.
  2. The vast experience and enthusiasm that all five of the attending candidates running for the 13th Congressional District are bringing to that race, a race in a district that had been represented by single Congressman, John Conyers, Sr. from the time before these candidates were even born.
  3. The flexibility and responsiveness of the single candidate running for the 1st State Senate attending (though others had confirmed) to forgo the more formal forum style and just sit with constituents and answer question after question.

Of course I didn’t think EVERYTHING that the candidates said would lead to investment and policy strategies helpful to the most vulnerable children and families in our state, but I couldn’t help but be inspired by the insight provided by the families themselves in the thoughtful questions that they asked, and by the time committed by the candidates to answer them comprehensively.

During the next four months, people are vying for the jobs that we will be hiring them for in November. On August 7, in the primary election, our first round of job interviews will be completed, and the field of applicants will significantly drop. Our elections matter. The people who we hire by electing them to office matter. Expressing our priorities and helping others to express theirs to the people who are tasked to represent those priorities matters.

We will continue to create and assist with opportunities to express those priorities around the state, and if you are interested in partnering with Michigan’s Children in your community, let us know. Personally, I can’t wait for the next one!

–  Michele Corey is Michigan’s Children’s Vice President for Programs

Kinship Caregivers Need Support Too

March 29, 2018 – Over the past several months, I’ve been researching kinship care and talking to advocates to learn more about the issues caregivers face. I recently had the opportunity to meet with some informal kinship caregivers (not licensed foster parents) and hear about their challenges first-hand. Reading about the issues and hearing second-hand stories gave me an abstract overview of the situation. However, listening to caregivers tell their stories and imagining what it might be like to face their daily struggles made a much greater impact on me. Conversations often focus on the needs of children, and it’s vitally important that they do, but they don’t always focus on the needs of their caregivers. A child’s well-being is affected by the well-being of the entire family, so the needs of caregivers are important too.

As I listened to kinship caregivers tell their stories, some major themes began to emerge – feelings of isolation, loss of identity, lack of respite, and financial strain. These individuals spend most their time caring for children and have very little if any, time for themselves. Caregivers noted that one big barrier to relieving these stressors is the lack of affordable childcare, which prohibits them from working, finding respite, and interacting with other adults. Caregivers also expressed frustration over the amount of time spent talking with DHHS staff who were unwilling to assist them or were unfamiliar with the types of assistance available to children in informal kinship care. Trying to navigate the system without the support of knowledgeable staff prevented some caregivers from accessing available services.

Overall, the lack of support kinship caregivers receive is discouraging. These individuals are entrusted with the care of one of our most vulnerable populations, yet they cannot access the resources they need to ensure they and the children in their care thrive.

In a recent article about kinship care, I outlined some recommendations for addressing issues kinship families face. One recommendation was to learn more about the needs of this population. In addition to collecting and studying data, I urge legislators to meet with kinship caregivers and listen to both their stories and their suggestions on how to address the issues they face. Data only tells part of the story. The people living these experiences are essential in completing the narrative.

Another recommendation I made was to establish a statewide Kinship Navigator program. A recently passed federal act called the Family First Prevention Services Act would allow the state to develop one of these programs. The act provides federal funding for states to implement Kinship Navigator Programs that provide support to kinship caregivers, helps them complete paperwork, and links them with available services and other resources. The state would have to develop and fund the program, but the federal government would reimburse the state for up to 50% of the cost. It is imperative that any such program is available to both formal and informal kinship caregivers as both types of caregivers need support. Additionally, the program should provide the options for kinship caregivers to call and speak to a trained navigator or schedule a face-to-face meeting if needed. Now is the time to urge Michigan legislators to fund the development of this essential program.

Sherry Boroto is an intern at Michigan’s Children and is currently in her final year of graduate school at Michigan State University where she is pursuing her master’s degree in social work.

Leading for Kinship Caregivers

Growing up, I had an especially close relationship with my grandfather. Next, to my parents, he was my ‘go to’ person when I was sad, afraid, or just needed a hug. He was the person with whom I had the strongest bond. I was also blessed with a large extended family of loving aunts, uncles, and cousins. Holidays were joyful, boisterous affairs with everyone gathered at my grandfather’s house. At the end of the day, I’d return home exhausted. Those were the happiest memories of my life. My own happy childhood memories helped me realize that having the support of a loving family is essential to a child’s well-being. This is one of the many reasons kinship care has become an important issue for me and why I was so excited to lead Michigan’s Children’s work on kinship caregivers.

It wasn’t until I started graduate school when I first heard the term ‘kinship care’ in one of my classes. Kinship care as opposed to foster care placement is preferred because children generally have better outcomes when they live with a loving relative rather than a stranger. This makes sense to me. If my parents had been unable to care for me, I would have wanted to live with my grandfather. He was the one person, besides my parents, who I knew would always love me, take care of me, and keep me safe. Knowing this, I could understand why children would benefit from living with a close relative.

On the first day of my internship with Michigan’s Children, I was asked to research what issues kinship caregivers face and how other states are addressing them. An integral part of being a leader is getting to know the population you serve and understanding their needs, so I started learning from kinship caregivers and others who are familiar with the issues they face. My research led me to write “Critical Issues in Foster Care: Kinship Caregivers”. I spoke with grandparents who are raising their young grandchildren and were being evicted from their home because their landlord did not allow children. Not only did they suddenly have to care for their grandchildren while dealing with the grief of their own child’s substance abuse, they were also going to be homeless in a few short weeks. Hearing their story and reading about others like them, made me more passionate about uplifting their voices by leading policy advocacy for assistance to kinship care families in need.

At a recent seminar, I mentioned the article I was writing on kinship care issues, and the legislative director for a state representative approached me. His representative had recently held a town hall meeting to learn more about kinship care issues, and he wanted to hear my recommendations. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to advocate in a way that could make a real difference for kinship care families. A few weeks later, we all met, and I provided additional information on kinship care and shared policy recommendations. We also talked for a few minutes with the representative, who shared his enthusiasm about moving forward to help address kinship care issues. While I’ve had many great days during my internship at Michigan’s Children, that day was one of my best so far.

It is an honor to lead this advocacy effort to help kinship caregivers in a meaningful way. Our work is far from done, but I look forward to seeing some of our policy recommendations through.

Sherry Boroto is an intern at Michigan’s Children and is currently in her final year of graduate school at Michigan State University where she is pursuing her master’s degree in social work. Read her “Issues for Michigan’s Children” piece on kinship care.

Casting A Vote for Kids and Families

November 2, 2017 – I still remember the first time I ever voted – it was 2000, a waiter at a restaurant in Washington, DC passed a ballot to me, a first grader who had just learned the names of our “founding fathers”. Eager to show off my new skill, I proudly voted for my own hybrid ticket of Al Gore and Dick Cheney.

It’s probably for the best that six-year-olds aren’t allowed to vote, but their interests and, ultimately, their futures will be front and center on November 7, 2017, when communities across Michigan will vote for municipal and county officials, school board members, and a number of property tax increases, many of which would fund local public school facilities improvements.

Choosing the right local candidates is vitally important because not only will the winners make decisions that immediately impact the well-being of Michigan’s children, youth, and families, they also, more often than not, will be the people running for state house and Congress, governor or state-level office, and, maybe, even for President.

Local elected officials have the power to direct available resources towards issues of interest to local voters, including matters like education, health, and human services, and criminal and juvenile justice policy. School board members, for example, can ensure that diverse voices are included when planning facilities renovations and build relationships with community partners to bring the whole community’s resources to bear in public schools. County commissioners can allocate funds to court programs that divert youth from the criminal justice system or promote maternal and infant health. Sheriffs can work with their police departments to promote more equitable practices and build relationships with youth in their community. Simply put, local officials have a say in policies that affect the day-to-day lives of children, youth, and families.

It’s also incredibly important to elect local officials who uplift the voices and tend to the needs of children, youth, and families because, one day, those same people will run for a state-level or higher office. If you’re not satisfied with your own elected official for being out of touch with the needs of struggling kids and adults, you can begin to turn the tide by filling the benches of all political parties with candidates who truly put the interests of children first.

All politics is local, and all politicians get their start somewhere. We can ensure that youth and family voices, especially the voices of those who are struggling the most, guide policy change, and simultaneously lay the groundwork for a new generation of committed child advocates in our state and federal legislatures, by getting out on November 7 and choosing local political candidates who share these values.

Bobby Dorigo Jones

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