Finding Home, a documentary about foster care [transcript + audio]
What does it feel like to be removed from you parents’ home? From the ones who were supposed to protect you and keep you safe?
I want to introduce you to a set of siblings. Let’s start with the oldest one Andrew. He’s an intense little guy who’s 9 years old and very much into superheroes.
ANDREW: My favorite Marvel superhero is Spiderman.
AUDREY: Want to see my best friend?
That’s Audrey, his little sister, she is <
And finally, there’s Braden, the ham of the family.
BRADY: Let it Go! Let it Go! Can’t hold it back anymore
Braden or Brady as his sister calls him is four years old and the youngest of the three siblings. They have a mom and a dad, now, but for a little while there, they’d didn’t. The state had to step in and in effect, become their parent after this happened:
AUDREY: My old dad punched my old mom in the eye. Yeah and he had to go to jail. Prison. Prison or jail? Both.
When Audrey and her brothers were removed from their biological parents’ home, they became wards of the state. Andrew was 7, Audrey was 3 and Brady 2.
It’s a fate more than 13-thousand children in Michigan face every year – roughly four-hundred thousand across the country.
Overall the outcomes for these kids in care – they’re not great. They grapple with mental health issues, behavioral issues, academic issues, to name a few.
Over the next hour we’ll hear what life is like for Audrey, Brady and Andrew and other youth who have been in foster care, and what’s being done to help improve their futures.
I’m Jennifer Guerra and you’re listening to FINDING HOME – a special State of Opportunity documentary about foster care.
I first met Andrew, Audrey and Brady over the summer…
The three siblings were in foster care when they came to live with Sue and Michael Kley. The Kleys eventually adopted the kiddos, and they agreed to let me follow their family for a couple months.
The Kleys live in the country, in a big house off a dirt road in Howell, Michigan – about an hour from Detroit. There’s a giant trampoline out front, a creek in the back. Seems like a pretty ideal place for a kid to grow up…
First thing you do when you walk into the Kley house is take off your shoes. It’s one of the unwritten rules of the house. The REAL rules are written in magic marker on a poster-sized piece of paper that hangs in the kitchen, right next to the dinner table. Each rule gets its own color.
BRADY, do you know what the rules are in your house? What's the most important rule in the house?
BRADY: No picking your boogers.
KLEY: Honey, you can pick your boogers any time you want to, I don’t have a problem with that. What are we not allowed to do? Are we allowed to hurt people? No. Are we allowed to hit people? No, that’s bad. We don’t hit people, do we.
Also on the list of Kley Family Rules? No cursing, no throwing things. If someone needs space, you have to give them space. And at all times you have to respect peoples’ boundaries.
KLEY: I had an eight-year old say to me, you have way to many rules in this house! And I was like, yup buddy, that’s why you’re here, because we actually have rules and there are things that you have to do or not do because he ran the roost; he did whatever he wanted to.
The Kleys didn’t just pluck these rules out of the sky. They’ve developed them over many years of parenting. Sue Kley says being a Mom was what she was meant to do.
KLEY: I have been a mother from probably the day I was born. I remember being five years old, when I grew up I wasn’t going to go to college, I was going to be a Mom.
And she does have this kind of inherent “earth mother” quality about her. The first day we met she had on a long tie-dyed dress. When she’s not holding a giant cup of coffee in her hand, she’s bending down to scoop up a kid in her arms and give ‘em a hug.
The Kleys have two biological kids – Samantha and Josh. But when they went off to college, Sue Kley was just 42 years old and she was not ready to be an empty nester.
KLEY: And I thought, oh my gosh, I’m not going to have any kids, what am I going to do? And I was sitting at the table, crying because they were both going to be gone, I opened up to the editorial page and it said “Livingston County is short of foster home.” And I went, bingo! It’s a twofer. I get to be a Mom and they get a foster home, so that’s actually how we became foster parents.
That was a decade ago. For the first seven years as foster parents, the Kleys took in what many consider the toughest group of kids to foster – teenage boys. For a long time, Sue and Michael Kley were one of the only if not THE only foster home for teen boys in Livingston County.
MICHAEL KLEY: It’s very hard work, it’s the hardest job I’ve had. There’s no doubt about it.
SUE KLEY: I could tell stories that most people wouldn’t want to hear. I’ve always said ignorance is bliss. Most people don’t know what happens to these kids and I…their stories are really hard.
They’ve seen just about everything. They’ve taken in kids who’ve been repeatedly abused – sexually, physically, and emotionally. Many of the kids they’ve fostered have suffered from extreme neglect. The stories they could tell you are truly heinous.
Some teens stayed a few months, some longer. They actually don’t even know how many teens they fostered over those seven years. They stopped counting. Michael guesses it was somewhere between 30 and 50.
Sue Kley says she told each and every teen who came to live with them the same two things: one: you are loved, and two: this isn’t your fault.
Still, she says the transition is never easy.
KLEY: Think of what you’d feel like if someone picked you up and dropped you in the middle of China. This is your normal now. It’s not normal. The way you live is different than the way you live. They don’t come in and say oh you have a nice house, thank you, etc. life is grand now. Not how kids feel coming into care.
The Kleys were good at what they did, but after a while it took a toll on them and they needed a change. Instead of teens, they took in little ones. That’s when they met Brady, Andrew and Audrey – and eventually adopted them.
I ask the trio what’s the best part about living here.
BRADY: Get to sit around the campfire
KLEY: We go camping…
BRADY: And we get to roast marshmallows.
KLEY: We get to roast marshmallows. Audrey, can you use one word to say what it’s like to live? What do we have around the house here?
AUDREY: A force field.
KLEY: A force field. And why do we have a force field?
AUDREY: So no bad guys can get in.
KLEY: So it’s what here?
Safety. It's a huge thing for Audrey and her brothers and for foster kids in general.
The entire purpose of the child welfare system is to keep kids safe from harm. When a mom or dad can’t do that, the child is removed and placed in foster care.
Given that context, the big piece of poster paper with the Kley Family Rules on it make sense. It’s a visual reminder to any foster kid who walks in the door that this is a safe place.
Before we get to dinner, let's talk a little bit more about foster care.
Now if the state determines that a child’s home is not safe, the child is put in foster care. The goal of foster care is to reunite a child with his parents. If that can’t happen, if after, say, a year or so the parents can’t get their act together enough to ensure the child’s safety, then the parents’ rights are terminated.
In that case, the child stays in foster care until some kind of other permanent plan is found. Like adoption. That’s what happened with Andrew, Audrey and Brady.
Ok, back to dinner.
Sue Kley works with as a teaching assistant at a school for kids with disabilities. Michael Kley is an out of work carpenter, so he’s taken on the role of stay at home dad, picking up the kids from school, cleaning the house, making dinner. Tonight’s meal?
MICHAEL KLEY: Chicken, it's Italian chicken. Just marinated overnight in Italian dressing. It’s always juicy and they all seem to like it. I don't know about the noodles, I'm sure someone will argue about that.
Like a lot of families, dinner is constant negotiation. There are five kids in the Kley household – the three adopted siblings, and two sisters from foster care. Italian chicken is one of only two meals every kid in the house likes. The other is tacos.
Still, listening to kids whine about what’s for dinner seems minor in comparison to the other stuff the Kleys deal with every day.
Take Audrey, for example. She was just over two years old when she was removed from her birth home because of domestic violence. She’s fuzzy on the details of how it all went down but she still thinks about it a lot. Sue Kley has to constantly reassure Audrey that she’s loved and that she gets to stay with them forever and ever and ever.
SUE KLEY: We like to use the word forever.
AUDREY: Yeah, but when I lived with Samantha…
Samantha is Audrey’s birth mom…
AUDREY: I thought...I could live with her forever.
KLEY: And that didn’t happen, did it?
KLEY: So now you’re worried that it might happen again?
KLEY: But it’s not gonna cause we’re gonna keep you here forever and ever and ever…
AUDREY: Yeah, cause I already got adopted here.
And just like that, she hops off her mom’s lap, puts on her Mickey Mouse princess hat, and goes back to building a fort. It’s a scene that’ll be repeated if not that day, later in the week. Audrey often needs to be reassured that she won’t be taken away.
Nearby her older brother, Andrew, plays on a tablet. He’s got on a Captain America t-shirt, he tells me it’s his favorite Avenger.
Andrew used to try to protect his little brother and sister whenever their parents would fight. So it makes sense that he loves superheroes so much. In a very real way, he is one.
Like the majority of kids in care, Andrew and his siblings bounced around from foster home to foster home before they were adopted. Several former foster youth told me they used to carry their stuff around from house to house in a plastic garbage bag.
Along the way, you lose things.
ANDREW: I left my Paper Jamz...
That’s a toy guitar
ANDREW: ...and this sound box that makes it even louder at my Uncle Stephen’s. And Audrey lost her pink bunny from [no it was a frog] from Mama Samantha. And Brady got a duck from mama Samantha and I got a blue bunny which is still here.
Andrew carries around the trauma of his early home life much more visibly than the other two. Perhaps because he is the oldest, perhaps because he witnessed the most abuse in the home. He’s on medication. He’s been in therapy, out of therapy and back again. His adoptive mom Sue Kley says he’s better than he was when he first moved in two years ago. Back then she says things were really bad.
KLEY: He was, for lack of a better term, he was a mess when he came to us. He was...he cried constantly, he was very angry, he was very aggressive. He would have three to four meltdowns a day at 45 minutes at a time. He was terrified. If he heard the dog bark he would go underneath the table and he would stay there until he could calm himself down. He is functional and he's ok...no I shouldn't say he's ok...he's functional but he has a lot of issues and triggers and as he’s growing we’re seeing those things come back that seemed to be better at one point.
The littlest one, Brady, was just 14 months old when he was removed from his birth parents, but the trauma sticks with him.
AUDREY: When he was a baby, he used to slap us all in the face. Ok I’m gonna do it slow motion how he did it to me: NOOOOO.
Did you catch that? Brady, the one with the adorable toothy grin and bowl cut hairstyle, he used to slap his sister Audrey in the face. She says it didn’t hurt, but Sue Kley remembers it differently:
KLEY: He smacked his sister in the face, she was crying and I said what happened? Brady hit me. And I said why did you hit her? And he said 'because she wouldn’t shut up when I told her to.' And it’s one of those, is this organic, is this nurture or nature? He was 14 months when he was taken away, so how do you remember something that young and it’s not something that he would have heard anywhere else since that time that he had left, so. It’s a very interesting place to be. I wouldn’t want to do anything else and I love my babies, too, all of them, very much. But it’s a different life, it’s a different life to lead.
It’s hard to underestimate just how much trauma can mess us up. And the earlier it happens, the more damage it can do. There’s been an explosion of research over the past decade that shows how important the first few years of a child’s life are in terms of brain development.
In order to have healthy brain development, kids need to grow up in a stable, nurturing home. When that doesn’t happen, our bodies and brains go into overdrive and the effects can be devastating.
NADINE BURKE HARRIS: The relationship between early adversity and lifetime health is really just a major public health threat.
We’ll talk about trauma and how it can throw a child’s system out of whack.
That’s in ten minutes.
You’re listening to FINDING HOME, a State of Opportunity special on Michigan Radio.
You’re listening to FINDING HOME, a State of Opportunity special about foster care on Michigan Radio. I’m Jennifer Guerra.
Let’s return to the Kley household in Howell. On this particular morning, before I can even make my way up the driveway, there’s Sue Kley, walking towards me with her trademark travel sized coffee mug.
KLEY: Oh girlfriend, you hit the jackpot today
The jackpot, it turns out, is a young man named Jerry.
JERRY CASTER: I was Susie’s favorite kid, but I was the worst.
KLEY: He’s the one that broke me.
You mean broke you as a foster parent?
KLEY: As taking care of teen boys, yeah. Jerry was the last one. After Jer I said, can’ t do this no more, we’re gonna have to change our ways, take in little ones.
What did you do that broke her?
CASTER: What didn’t I do? It was something new every time.
Jerry Caster is 22 years old and he’s one of the Kleys “forever kids.” That’s the name the Kleys use for their former foster kids who aged out of the system.
Sue Kley wasn’t planning to see Jerry today…but then…she got a call…at five in the morning…from the Ingham County Jail. Jerry was getting out of jail, and he needed a ride.
KLEY:. So I got up and made myself some coffee and took off to Ingham County jail. Not my first time I’ve had to pick up a kid out of jail. But that’s ok, it was for Jerry.
Kley says Jerry’s been in jail twice before: once for smoking underage, and once for stealing.
This time he got picked up because he hasn’t paid his court fines.
And it’s not likely he’ll ever be able to pay them. He’s homeless, he’s mentally ill. He doesn’t have a job. But for every month he doesn’t pay, the fines just keep going up and up.
Jerry’s situation isn’t uncommon.
Young people who age out of foster care without a family face some seriously daunting odds. And the numbers bear it out.
They’re more likely to be homeless, more likely to be incarcerated, more likely to be high school dropouts.
Remember, over the 7 years the Kleys were foster parents, Michael Kley says they had about 30 or so teens come to stay with them.
MICHAEL KLEY: And out of them we had two – two – graduate from high school.
22-year old Jerry wasn’t one of them.
Jerry entered care when he was five years old, then went back to live with his Mom for a time, then was removed again. He was adopted at age 14, but two years later it fell through.
So he went back into the system and bounced around from foster home to foster home.
CASTER: Going from home to home is really hard because you really gotta learn a lot of personality traits. Because if you think about it: you start over new school, new friends, new people, new situation, new circumstances.
It kind of makes you feel disposable, and that’s not a good feeling at all.
You said you were homeless now.
CASTER: Yeah I’m homeless now.
Why is that?
CASTER: Bad decisions.
KLEY: Mental illness. Jerry finds it very difficult to keep it together for longer than about three months at a time. This last run was about six months and that was really good for Jer.
Let me jump in here for a second. Jerry’s on medication for his mental illness, and he gets disability insurance from the government. Now, there are plenty of former foster care youth who grow up to be well-adjusted adults. But there are also people, like Jerry, who went through serious trauma, and continue to struggle into adulthood.
Jerry and his forever mom, Sue Kley, say Jerry's troubles can likely be traced back to his original trauma, the thing that took him away from his birth parents. He was abused. He wouldn’t go into detail except to say this:
CASTER: I felt like if life were a poker game, I got dealt twos.
KLEY: There’s no doubt he was dealt one of the worst. It is amazing to me that any of our teen children are not drug addicts laying in the gutter somewhere. That you can go through and survive what they’ve been through and come out the other end and be OK is nothing short of a miracle.
You’re listening to FINDING HOME, a State of Opportunity special about foster care.
You’ve heard the word trauma now a few times this hour. And a lot of people throw around that word a lot. Like, oh that test was so traumatic, I totally failed it. That kind of thing.
Nadine Burke Harris says that’s not the kind of trauma we’re talking about here.
BURKE HARRIS: The way I would define trauma in general is really any threat that is so severe that it overwhelms our system and particularly it tends to undermine feelings of safety and tests our coping mechanisms.
Burke Harris is a pediatrician at the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco. And she says to better understand how trauma works, close your eyes…go ahead. Ok now imagine you’re walking in a forest and all of a sudden…you see a bear.
Your blood pressure spikes, your heart starts to race, your pupils dilate. Burke Harris says that’s all good! It’s a life-saving response. You’re ready to now either fight the bear or run. But here’s the catch: he fight or flight response – it was designed to be a once in a while type thing.
BURKE HARRIS: For kids who are growing up in households where they’re experiencing frequent or repeated or severe adversity, this physical response is activated over and over and over again. It goes from being adaptive to maladaptive or health damaging.
In other words, early trauma throws a child’s response system out of whack…making them impulsive and unable to regulate their behaviors.
There’s a landmark study about all this from the late 90s called the ACE study. A-C-E - adverse childhood experiences.
Researchers in California interviewed more than 17 thousand adults. For every adverse experience an adult had a kid, they got a point. Physical abuse? One point. Sexual abuse? Another point. And on and on. The more points someone had, the worse their health was.
BURKE HARRIS: So for a person who had an ACE Score of four, their risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease was two-and-a-half times that of someone with an ace score of zero. For hepatitis it was also two-and-a-half times, for depression it was four-and-a-half times, for suicidality it was twelve times. It’s pretty profound. Like, when you think about it: the relationship between early adversity and lifetime health is really just a major public health threat.
So, what do we do?
That’s where this guy comes in:
Jim Henry worked in the child welfare system for over 15 years. He now works at Western Michigan University where he runs the Children’s Trauma Assessment Center.
That’s where we are now.
The Center has one purpose: to assess how kids’ brains are affected by trauma.
Henry and his team see kids from all over the state – nearly all of them from the foster care system. The child is usually referred to the Center because he or she is acting out in some way: sexualized behavior, acts of aggressions, self-harm.
Those behaviors, Henry says – those are just symptoms.
HENRY: And what we’re trying to in our Center is to help people begin to reinterpret symptoms not as: the child is lazy or defective or emotionally disturbed; but the child has been traumatized and therefore these behaviors are consistent with a child who has experienced an overwhelming event that has taken away his or her sense of safety and continues to see the world as dangerous. That’s what we’re trying to get people to look at and consider in those behaviors.
So how does work?
Well, if you’re picturing a person in a lab coat, sitting behind a desk, asking a patient a bunch of questions… That is not how this place works.
First off, a child doesn’t just see one person. He sees a whole group of people: a social worker, occupational therapist, speech and language therapist, a pediatrician and a nurse.
And it’s very interactive. I watched them assess a four-year old boy and it looked a lot like play: lots of reading books and playing games on the floor. The whole time, the team is assessing how the child’s brain works through language, memory, attention.
After several hours, the child leaves and the team write up a lengthy report: Here’s what we saw, here are some concerns, and here’s what we can do to help the child overcome trauma.
HENRY: We’re trying to help them build the skills of regulation. Kids want to be successful. Kids want to have relationships. And so that takes ongoing practice, repetition, reminders.
He teaches children techniques on how to calm themselves down. Simple breathing techniques. How to identify triggers, things that rev them up, and ways to deal with it.
There is lots of research that this kind of trauma-informed treatment works for kids who’ve been abused and neglected. There’s just one problem: there’s a year-long waiting list to get in to see Jim Henry.
One foster care worker told me over the summer that she can’t get her client in until next May.
Henry and his team are in the process of training foster care case workers across the state, but frankly it’s a big state and they’ve got a long way to go.
Also, these kinds of in depth assessments – they’re considered the gold standard. They’re expensive. DHS just doesn’t have that kind of money to work with.
So what are we doing when a child comes into the foster care system?
FRANK VANDERVORT: The initial assessment tends to be pretty superficial. That is, it doesn’t really look in depth at the child, the parent and then how they interact together.
Frank Vandervort is a University of Michigan law professor and he specializes in child welfare.
VANDERVORT: The way we run the foster care system, it would be as if you went to your doctor and they took temperature and your blood pressure and your pulse and then they immediately put a cast on your right leg and then they send you away. And then about three months later you come back and they figure out and they actually take some x-rays and they figure out it was your left wrist not your right ankle that was broken all the time. And we do that in child welfare as a matter of practice.
He says after the initial assessments, parents have to go through a number of steps to get their kids back. And he says those steps are pretty standardized: some combination of parenting classes, counseling and drug treatment if needed.
Now, many of the foster care workers I spoke to for this report – they are busting their butts to try and provide the best services they can for their families. But…
VANDERVORT: We know for a long time that some of the services we provide are not effective, but we continue to provide those services.
DHS is moving towards more evidenced based practices – using research and data to decide which programs work and which don’t. But it’s a slow moving ship. Michigan’s foster care system is the eighth largest in the country.
And really there’s only so much DHS can do. Poverty plays a huge role in the child welfare system. And it’s not like DHS can come in and wave a magic wand. Poof! The cycle of poverty is broken, now let’s help your kids. That’s just not realistic.
Now let’s take a minute and talk about the elephant in the room.
SARAH ALVAREZ: the LAWSUIT
ALVAREZ: Hi Jen.
Sarah Alvarez is a reporter with State of Opportunity and she’s been following the lawsuit for a while now. A little explainer: Eight years ago an advocacy group called Children’s Rights sued the state and its Department of Human Services for the way it was treating its foster kids.
The list of grievances against the state is long. Too long to list here. But Sarah, do you want to give us a couple bullet points?
ALVAREZ: Sure. Foster care workers didn’t have enough training and they had more work than they could handle. Kids were languishing in the system for years on end and shuffling around to home after home. They weren’t getting enough health care for physical or mental health needs. And too many foster kids were abused or neglected under the state’s watch.
Ok, so after the state was sued in 2006, they were monitored – and they've been continuously monitored since then. Now if the goal of foster care is to keep kids safe, how are we doing?
ALVAREZ: Well we're doing better than in 2006, that's for sure. And those court monitors, the ones that keep tabs on the system, they give a lot of credit to DHS Director Maura Corrigan for really cleaning things up. But our state foster care system was such a mess in 2006 that even though we’re doing better it’s still not a rosy picture.
So for example in the last monitoring report there were over 1,000 kids who were abused or neglected again within six months of having contact with the child welfare system. What we're talking about here is the number of children who were abused or neglected in the child welfare system in general, not just in foster care. The court said the state needs to make sure that at least 95-percent of kids in the child welfare system aren’t being abused or neglected again within a short period of time, and the state is not there.
So what do you see as the biggest problem with the child welfare system?
ALVAREZ: The court monitors have a lot of concerns about the system. But overall I'd say the number one issue is that the state is still not keeping track of kids well enough to know if they’re doing ok. There is just not good information on the well-being of these kids. So all of these things that the state's not tracking – things like education and medical treatment – those things can be incredibly important in the life of a child, and really important to their future success.
To be fair, the state earlier this year rolled out this giant data system. It’s basically this big computer system that lets a bunch of different agencies talk to each other and share information about kids in foster care.
I'm told they spent something like 70 million dollars on this thing. There are lots of kinks, lots of workers still need to be trained on how to use it, but the goal is to be able to track all the kids in care more effectively. But you're saying we're not there yet.
ALVAREZ: We're not, and there’s still a lot of data missing from the database.
And I want to be clear here: it doesn’t mean individual case workers aren’t tracking these things. They are. But right now, at the state level, we can’t track a lot of it. So let's go through a quick check list here:
Do we know if kids in care are in school? We don't.
Do we know if kids have health care? No.
Do we know the types of medication kids in foster care are taking? We don't.
Do we know if they’re being separated from their siblings? No.
Do we know if or how many times they get to visit their siblings? We don't know that either.
Now one of the things we are tracking, the number of visits that case workers make, how's that going?
ALVAREZ: Well that is getting better. Case workers because of this lawsuit have fewer kids on their case loads. But during this last monitoring period kids were still not being visited by their caseworkers as often as the state said they would be.
Ok, to hear what the state is doing right in terms of foster care – and there are a number of things - let’s turn to Maura Corrigan. She runs the Michigan Department of Human Services, which oversees the foster care system.
MAURA CORRIGAN: Is it as good as it could be? No. Is it better than it was? Yes indeed.
They system is providing good in some cases life-saving care for kids, and many say Corrigan has been instrumental in making things better for kids in care. I ask her what she’s most excited about when it comes to improvements to the system:
CORRIGAN: Probably the most exciting thing that I’ve seen, I call it the equivalent of a cure for cancer, is what we’re doing with quote-on-quote predictive analytics.
I know, I know, it sounds like a total snooze fest but stick with me here for a minute because it’s actually quite stunning.
Parts of Tampa, Florida had real problems with child abuse and neglect. After a series of children’s deaths, they decided to do something about it.
Basically, they looked at the data and came up with a list of factors that made it more likely a child would be abused or neglected. Factors like age of the parent, age of the child, if there’s a history of mental health or domestic violence in the home. And then here’s what they did with that information:
CORRIGAN: They took those factors and they went then at every live birth in Tampa to determine whether those factors existed in those cases. And they had case worker interventions where those factors appeared that effectively brought Tampa to zero deaths from abuse and neglect both inside and outside of the system.
Corrigan was so impressed, she sent a team to Florida to see the work in action. They liked it so much, the state is now piloting a similar program in Ingham County.
So, in addition to what will hopefully be a very successful pilot program in Ingham County, there are several other improvements director Corrigan is proud of: The number of adoptions are up, the number of children who remain with their parents is up, and foster care workers’ case loads are significantly down.
We’ve talked a lot about what life is like *in* foster care, but what happens when you “age out” of foster care?
JASMINE UQDAH: It was pretty scary to be honest. Every 18 and 19 year old thinks they’re ready, but you’re not. No.
Making it on your own as a former foster care youth. That’s in 10 minutes. You’re listening to FINDING HOME, a State of Opportunity special about foster care on Michigan Radio.
Hi, I’m Jennifer Guerra and you’re listening to FINDING HOME a State of Opportunity special on Michigan Radio.
If you’re just joining us, this hour we’ve been talking about youth in foster care.
Now at its core, the whole reason for the foster care system is to keep kids safe. Sometimes – actually pretty often – that means removing the child from their parents’ home. The child becomes a ward of the state, which means the state – effectively – becomes the child’s parent.
Before the break we heard from Michigan Department of Human Services director Maura Corrigan. I ask her if the state is really set up to be a good parent?
MAURA CORRIGAN: The state can never really be a good parent, can it? That’s why we have so much focus on getting children to permanency. What the state is assigned to do by law it should do as well as it can and then we should get out of the way and let parents do the job of parenting.
So how do we do that?
Well, turns out reporter Sarah Alvarez knows a guy who has a plan.
His name is Jim McCormick and he figured out how to teach parents from the foster care system how to be better parents.
SARAH ALVAREZ: Before we get into too many details, you ought to know a little bit about Jim McCormick. He looks like Santa Claus without the beard. Rosy cheeks, wire-rimmed glasses, a white mustache. You know, jolly.
McCormick retired a few months ago from his job in Michigan’s child welfare system. He worked there for 38 years. Working in the child welfare system is stressful. McCormick says he’s still recovering from his old job.
JIM MCCORMICK: I was on a lot of prescription medication. I was not sleeping. I would take too much work home, not physical work but emotional work. And I tell you the fear that every DHS employee worth their salt has, and that’s that a kid dies on your watch. And thank the stars I did not have that happen.
ALVAREZ: Last year, 16 kids died in Michigan’s foster care system – many from abuse or neglect. The number seems to be going down, but it’s still too high.
McCormick spent most of his career up north as a DHS director for Newago and Lake Counties. Both counties are super rural and very poor.
But the counties had some success stories – programs that helped children and their parents function as a family. I took a ride with McCormick to where one of those programs used to be.
MCCORMICK: We’re going to go about a block south and a block west. To our parking lot.
ALVAREZ: That’s right. A parking lot. But back in the early 90s, the parking lot was a building, a house called Smalligan House. Parents who were this close to losing their kids to the system came here to learn the basics of how to be a parent.
MCCORMICK: We’re talking people that didn’t even know about having an alarm clock so their kid could get to school on time. I mean, people were very disabled socially.
ALVAREZ: McCormick leased the house from the county for a little over a year. Every month a new family moved into the house. But they weren’t alone. A DHS staffer also lived with them full time.
MCCORMICK: And she became their mentor during those 30 days. She taught them how to cook, worked on employment skills, worked on relationship skills, and generally just helped heal the family.
ALVAREZ: And it worked! All the families that went through the program at Smalligan House – McCormick says none of their kids wound up in the foster care system or even had any more contact with the child welfare system.
MCCORMICK: It was an incredible 13 month run. Unfortunately as happens in bureaucracies somebody in Lansing decided they had a better use for the money and we were no longer able to secure our own federal funding, and the program had to shut down.
ALVAREZ: McCormick can rattle of even more examples of local programs that worked really well, only to have them be de-funded or discontinued. McCormick is a parent himself. What he thinks is so central to being a good parent is something he thinks the state can’t or won’t do for the kids in their care: respond to their kids’ ever changing needs.
MCCORMICK: You have to be adaptable and flexible in order to parent well. And so shall be the government. If they’re going to be the parent, if they’re the family, then they've got to be able to adapt as well for each individual child's needs. And we need to find some way to unshackle the bureaucracy and hold people accountable for the outcomes, no question about that. But we’ve got to let local innovations rise.
You’re listening to FINDING HOME, a State of Opportunity special on Michigan Radio. I’m Jennifer Guerra.
We’ve spent a lot of this hour talking about what life is like for youth in foster care. But there’s an expiration date on foster care. In most states, you age out when you’re 18. Think about that: 18 years old and you’re totally and completely on your own.
Michigan is one of the few states that gives you the option to stay in foster care until you’re 21, which can be helpful for a lot of youth.
Jasmine Uqdah wasn’t so lucky. She aged out of Michigan’s foster care system five years ago, before Michigan extended its age limit for foster care. Uqdah was just 19 years old when she was thrown into the real world.
UQDAH: It was pretty scary to be honest. Every 18 and 19 year old thinks they’re ready, but you’re not. No. You’re not ready for shutoff notices, you’re not ready for eviction notices, you’re not ready for car repossessions.
Well let me ask you a couple, let’s do a little checklist here. When you aged out at 19 did you have a job?
UQDAH: When I first aged out, no.
Did you have a checking account?
So I’m guessing you didn’t have a savings account either…
Did you have a car?
UQDAH: No. I didn’t even know how to properly fill my refrigerator, honestly.
Like what did you think went in your refrigerator?
UQDAH: I bought a bunch of snacks and junk that I never could really have as a child. I bought everything that was horrible for me, so.
You didn’t have your mom saying more broccoli! Put more broccoli in there and apples and milk and orange juice…
UQDAH: No, I didn’t. I had like ten boxes of cereal and one gallon of milk. And some hot pockets. [LAUGH]
Jasmine Uqdah can laugh about it…now. But back then, she was really upset about the whole thing went down when she aged out. The state had set her up with some transitional housing, but it fell through after a few months. She had nowhere to go. So she went to the only place she knew: her mom’s house. A place child protective services had removed her from...twice.
UQDAH: The system does set you up, not for failure, but it sets you up to be a statistic – either to be in jail or to do some type of criminal activity or to go back where you came from. So I feel like the system set me up to go back to my biological mother, back to the person that the state felt like you never should have been with in the first place.
Uqdah was placed in foster care when she was seven years old. She went back to live with her mom when she was 12, but wound up back in foster care by the time she was 16 and stayed there until she aged out.
During that time she says she went to 15 different schools, and lived in 24 different foster homes – the older she got, the more times she had to move:
UQDAH: A lot of people did not want to deal with teenagers, so I was put in something called temporary placements - just about every week of my life. These parents didn’t want a teenager, they preferred children.
You mean you would stay there and then if they said, oh we have a two year old who needs a place, they would get you out of there and take the two year old?
UQDAH: Exactly. It made me feel like no one actually wanted me, to be honest.
Jasmine Uqdah has had more bad things happen to her than many of us will experience in our lifetimes. But Uqdah – at 24 years old – is the very definition of tenacious. And she says overall, being in the foster care system was good for her.
It doesn’t hurt, she says, that the state will help her pay for college.
Let me explain. Michigan is now one of the better states when it comes to aging out of foster care. Not only are youth allowed to stay in care longer, Michigan, in conjunction with its colleges and universities, is also one of the few states to offer what is essentially a full ride to college for youth who’ve aged out of the system.
When Uqdah found out about the Fostering Futures scholarship, she applied. She didn’t get it.
UQDAH: But, it took a lot of determination and I think a lot of my determination came from being in the system where I don’t take no as an answer. I called the main CEO of the program and asked why did you guys deny me? I didn’t get one, so here’s info saying I didn’t, and finally got my scholarship, so I’m thankful for that.
She’s two months away from finishing up her associate’s degree, and then she’s off to the University of Michigan in Flint to get her bachelors in social work.
Nationwide, 97 percent of former foster youth do not graduate college. Uqdah is determined to graduate, and she has big plans.
UQDAH: I would like to develop my own non-profit. My goal is to buy a lot of houses in Detroit and have them available for aged out foster youth because I’m realizing that homelessness is a really bad thing that’s going on. It’s a lot of young people there are stooping down to levels where they have to sell their bodies, sell drugs, do illegal activities, just to survive, and it’s like if I could just help with just a little bit of those barriers so they don’t become the statistics that they think that foster youth are, then I know that I’ve accomplished something.
Only those like Jasmine Uqdah who’ve gone through foster care can really know what the experience is like. So I asked a bunch of young men and women who’ve aged out of the system to give us a call and share their thoughts. They called in from all over the state – most of them from college – to answer these two questions: What advice would you give current youth in foster care? And what, if anything, would you change about the system?
Hello Michigan Radio. My name is Marie Fleming. I’m of Grosse Pointe, Michigan. I entered into foster care when I was 15 years old and I aged out at 21 years old.
Yes hi my name is Alex.
My name is Lilly, I’m from Grand Rapids, Michigan.
My advice would be to never give up and to always have faith.
My name is Devin Jones and I was in foster care for about seven years.
My biggest advice to current foster care youth would be…
They need to age out with a job, being in school and having a stable place to stay.
Ok, hey, this is Orlando Brown, I’m from Detroit, Michigan and I went into foster care in December 2000. I was 8 years old. Being in care kind of opened up more doors and opportunities for me because it kind of took me out of the inner city. I got to see another part of life, which kind of helped me stay motivated to go to college. Where I’m from a lot of people didn’t really finish high school, so.
My name is Sheila Van Wert, I’m 23 years old. I entered care right before I was 12 years old.
If I were to change anything as far as the foster care system, I would change the aging out process.
Good things can happen.
Just making sure the foster parent is going to treat them like their own kid, like they’re not going to play second best or downgrade the kid if they’ve got their own kid still living in the house.
Focus in school because you have to prove to those that doubted you that you couldn’t make it, that you couldn’t get a high school diploma, that you couldn’t get a college degree, like, prove them wrong for sure.
Hi, my name is Jessica, I live in Traverse City, Michigan. I was in foster care for four years. I personally think it’s good except case workers change a lot and it’s kind of unsteady.
It’s never every kids dream to go into foster care, but, you know, it’s not your fault that the kids went through what they went through. You can’t help your parents’ choices. So, yeah, remember guys: never give up and good luck to you guys. Bye.
Before we close out the hour, let’s check in one last time with the Sue Kley, the woman who adopted three siblings from foster care: Andrew, Audrey and Brady.
All three witnessed domestic violence in their birth home before they were adopted, and they’ve been in and out of therapy to work through the trauma.
Hey Sue, it’s Jennifer. How are you doing?
KLEY: I'm good.
So, um, I wanted to check in with you since the kids have been in school for I guess now a month, right? How's it going?
KLEY: [LAUGH] How's it going? Our lives are falling apart at the seam actually. It’s quite an interesting…I shouldn't say interesting....
Sue Kley tells me that her oldest son, Andrew, is having some real problems in school. He’s back in therapy. And they changed up his medicine, which seems to be working a little better now.
KLEY: He’s had two good days at school, no, maybe three, but prior to that we were suspended three out of the last six days for striking our teacher.
So you’re saying Andrew hit his teacher?
KLEY: Yeah, I'm sorry, Andrew hit his teacher, or attempted to hit his teacher. And so he was suspended for a day for each time, and so now he’s on a stronger, um, medication to help control his behavior. It’s a mood stabilizer. And so he’s actually had three good days.
Brady, the youngest one, got bumped back to pre-kindergarten, or beginnergarten. Sue Kley says intellectually he was ready for kindergarten, but emotionally he just wasn’t there.
As for Audrey, his older sister, she’s back to thinking that Sue and Michael Kley don’t love her anymore, and she thinks they want to get rid of her.
KLEY: You know, I wanted to make sure, we just reassure her that’s never going to happen, she’s going to stay with us forever. And so it’s an uphill battle, but we’ll keep working on it…we’ll keep working on it.
And that’s really all they can do. Keep reminding Audrey that she and her siblings are the Kley family’s forever kids. That no one’s coming to take them away. That they are kids worth loving and keeping.
You’ve been listening to FINDING HOME, a STATE OF OPPORTUNITY documentary about foster care on Michigan Radio.
Today’s show was written and produced by me with additional reporting by Sarah Alvarez. Thanks to Zak Rosen and Brittany Bartkowiak for production help. Sarah Hulett edited today’s show. Tamar Charney is the executive producer of State of Opportunity.
This program is a production of Michigan Radio, a broadcasting service of the University of Michigan.
I’m Jennifer Guerra.
Support for State of Opportunity comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a partner with communities where children come first.
NOTE: We clarified a part of this transcript to make it clear that the number of children who witnessed repeat episodes of maltreatment were in the child welfare system as a whole, not just in foster care. Also, a previous version of this story incorrectly put the Ingham County jump in confirmed abuse or neglect cases between 2005 and 2011 at 92 percent. That percentage is specifically for confirmed cases linked to poverty. The overall increase in abuse and neglect cases in that county is 64 percent.