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

Here's what one foster family does to help make life a little easier for kids in care

Sue Kley

State of Opportunity aired a documentary yesterday on foster care. All this week, we're publishing a series of articles that explore specific aspects of the foster care system, and some of the challenges kids within that system face.

Imagine being removed from your home, from the only place you've really ever known. You're taken away from your parents, your toys, your bed, maybe even your siblings, and told that you have to live here, in this new place with these new people. Imagine what that must feel like.

For the nearly 400,000 foster youth across the country, it's a scene that's all too familiar.

Sue and Michael Kley have been foster parents for a decade, so they have intimate knowledge about how strange and disconcerting and scary the whole removal process can be for kids. Here's how Sue Kley describes it:

"Think of what you’d feel like if someone picked you up and dropped you in the middle of China [and said] 'this is your normal now.' It’s not normal. The way they live is different than the way you live."

The Kleys have 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.

For the first seven years they mostly took in teenage boys – arguably the toughest group of youth to foster. Some teens stayed a few months, some longer. The Kleys don’t even know how many teens they fostered over those seven years. They stopped counting. Michael Kley guesses it was somewhere between 30 and 50.

Many foster parents have rituals, things they like to do to help make their foster children feel welcome: Ask them what their favorite meal is, let them choose a paint color for their new room, take them on a tour of the neighborhood, etc. The Kleys didn't have a ritual per se, but 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. That's where the KleyFamily Rules come in.

The 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. So what's on the list? No hitting, 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.

"I had an eight-year-old say to me, you have way too 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," says Sue Kley. 

And while it's not written on the Family Rules poster, there is one other detail that's worth noting about the Kley household: the force field. That's right, a force field. Sue and Michael Kley tell their youngest foster children that the house is surrounded by a force field so that it's "safe" and "no bad guys can get in."

Safety is a huge thing for foster youth. 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.

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.