February 6, 2015 – Last week, we gathered a group of 18 young people who were either still in the foster care system, or who had been served by that system, to share their experiences with a group of more than three dozen local, state and national decision makers at the 2nd annual Oakland County KidSpeak®. The policymakers heard about challenges and recommendations for change directly from the people whose care is the state’s responsibility, and who experienced how our systems worked to support their success, or created barriers to that success.
Michigan’s Children has been creating opportunities like Monday’s for young people to share their stories, concerns and suggestions directly with policymakers since 1996. Their voices have changed the trajectory of policy conversation and have resulted in additional champions for youth-driven solutions in the Legislature, state Departments and other local policymaking bodies. But still, the challenges continue. We have a long way to go. In fact, the KidSpeak® testimony given has already been referenced by a member of the House Families, Children and Seniors Committee meeting this week, as legislators asked the director of the Departments of Community Health and Human Services why it appears that those departments are still failing to shift policy and practice to address needs brought up by young people in foster care.
That gives me hope. We know that we have a group of Legislators on key committees who have heard the challenges of the system, and are interested in doing something about them. I’m also hopeful that the Governor means what he says about adjusting public service delivery to be about people rather than programs. A great place to start would be in services for the young people under our guardianship. While improvements to that system have been made, the young people themselves continue to ask for more from our care, including more stability, better resources for transition, and opportunities to direct their own life planning. We’ve highlighted more details about these on-going concerns and policy recommendations to address them in our recent Issues for Michigan’s Children, Critical Issues in Foster Care.
A recurring, and often heartbreaking theme through much of the testimony this year was about the barriers they had faced to be part of their own life planning, including their attempts to keep in touch with their siblings and other members of their birth families. Michigan’s Children will be working with officials to determine what might be done to improve this situation.
While progress has been made to extend supports beyond 18 for young people in foster care, the testimony last week clearly illustrated that it isn’t enough. Michigan’s Children will be supporting efforts to require documented stability before removing young people from the foster care rolls, regardless of age and providing certain types of needed assistance, like legal help, much longer than is currently the norm.
The young people also talked again about being punished for behaviors born of disappointment, isolation and anger directly impacting the stability of their homes, their education and career. Michigan’s Children, as part of our work with the Children’s Trust Fund as the Prevent Child Abuse America Chapter in Michigan, has joined the national effort to better understand the impact of adverse childhood experiences. Efforts toward trauma-informed care are underway, and need to be an essential component of the services we provide to children and youth in foster care.
As we’ve said time and time again, current outcomes for young people who have been involved in the foster care system are unacceptable. Multiple sectors – health, mental health, education, human services – must work together to make sure that under our care, young people are better able to rebuild what has been lost and move successfully toward supporting themselves and their own families now and in the future.
We have the experts at our disposal to help. We will be working to make sure that we have the resources and the champions to move forward.