STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Program aims to keep kids safe in homes and out of foster care

user Childrens Book Review

More than 400,000 children are currently in foster care in the U.S. Once a child has entered the system, they remain there on average for nearly two years, according to a federal report. As part of our State of Opportunity project, we looked into a unique program that’s working to prevent kids in Michigan from even entering foster care in the first place.

When all five of your children are placed in foster care, who do you call?

Roughly 14,000 children are in foster care in Michigan at any given time. At one point, all five of Nancy Vivoda's children were in foster care.

"In 2004," says Vivoda, "I was in a domestic violence situation that resulted in removal and placement of children in foster care."

Her children ranged in age from six-years old to six-months old. They were each placed in separate foster care homes, and Vivoda says her kids were traumatized by the experience. After a year, she was reunited with her children. But Vivoda firmly believes her kids would never have ended up in foster care in the first place if she had had help navigating the court system.

"Because I would’ve had the support of an attorney who would’ve helped me deal with the legal issues, like what can we do to remove the perpetrator from home? And the help of the social worker assisting me" to relocate me and my children.

Now Vivoda is a part of a team working to make sure what happened to her and her children doesn’t happen to other families.

Meet the team: A lawyer, a social worker and a parent advocate

It's called the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy, and it's made up of a lawyer, a social worker and a parent advocate - someone who has personal experience with the foster care system. Their goal is to provide free legal and social work help to keep kids in Wayne County safely in their homes and out of foster care.

Here’s how it works: First, the Michigan Department of Human Services screens hundreds of cases where children’s safety is potentially in jeopardy. If the child is unsafe because of some unresolved legal issue, DHS lets the Center know, and the folks at the Center step in to help. 

Vivek Sankaran is the founder of the Center for Family Advocacy, which is affiliated with the University of Michigan Law School. 

"In all the cases we deal with," says Sankaran, "there’s no doubt that the parent loves for and is providing proper care for the child. But there is sort of a third party that may be interfering with the parents ability to provide care for that child."

Steve Yager is director of DHS Children’s Services. He calls the Center for Family Advocacy a "valuable partner" and says his agency "has a positive collaborative working relationship with CFA as we work to ensure the safety, permanency and well-being of Michigan’s children."

Let's take a housing issue, for example, where the housing conditions are deplorable because the landlord isn't fixing the house as he/she should be. "What we do," explains Sankaran, "is we’ll go and take the landlord to court, or work and negotiate an arrangement that will then allow the family either to remain in the premises with the issues addressed or get their security deposit back and go elsewhere."

Sankaran says the Center also works to expedite kids out of foster care as soon as possible. So if there’s a relative or foster parent who’s ready and willing to care for a child, the Center will help those clients resolve whatever legal issues are keeping them from making adoption or reunification a reality.

So why the emphasis on keeping kids out of foster care?

Sankaren compares foster care to chemotherapy. It’s there for very serious cases when you need it, but it has drastic side effects.

"So first, kids will be separated from their birth families, which all the psychological literature shows would cause long-term emotional side effects to the kids: increased aggression, separation anxiety; really inflicting a serious amount of trauma on these kids," says Sankaran.

And for those who age-out of foster care, the outcomes are pretty bleak – they often end up homeless, unemployed or in jail.

The Detroit Center for Family Advocacy is the only program of its kind in the country…for now. But a handful of states are looking to replicate the model. That’s because the Detroit Center has a proven track record. Since it opened in 2009, not one of the kids who was served by the team entered foster care. And for those already in foster care, 95% of the kids were adopted or reunified with a family member thanks to the Center’s help. Which, in turn, has likely saved the state hundreds of thousands of dollars in foster care expenses.

Foster Care by the Numbers:

  • 13,266 = number of children in foster care as of May 2013*
  • 7,700 = number of children who entered foster care per year over the past five years*
  • $27,020 = average annual cost per child in foster care*

*Datasupplied by the Michigan Department of Human Services

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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