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

Michigan's foster care system has some successes, but still needs to improve.

Patrick M

The Department of Human Services Office in rural Van Buren County is pretty indistinct. There's a waiting room with a toddler crying. Through double doors and down the hall there is a sea of cubicles. Rows and rows of them where case workers take calls. It’s a big operation, some would say a big bureaucracy that exists, at least in part, to do right by kids like Durwin.

He introduces himself like this, "I'm just a foster youth."

Durwin is, of course, much more than that. He’s 18 now and hoping to go to college soon. He’s very active in his church, and he’s a leader in a county group for teenagers in foster care. It's called the Michigan Youth Opportunity Initiative, but everyone calls it MYOI. It's part support group, part job, part school. As Durwin describes, "Kids call them classes because that's sort of what it is. We've learned about how to cook food, we've learned how to fill out a resume. A lot of things we would need to live on our own."

That description makes it sound simple, maybe even boring. But MYOI is actually one of the more innovative and effective programs run by Michigan’s Department of Human Services. It's a way kids in foster care can make real connections with each other and with a supportive adult who can help them through their transition to adulthood. Those connections are hugely important for young people in foster care. 

Cathy Cushman runs the MYOI program that includes Durwin. She knows that without her and her program, many teens in foster care are stuck trying to navigate both basic and complicated things on their own. She thinks MYOI can help in both those areas. It provides opportunities and a shepherd through DHS, but it's also about adding to the list of people these kids "can call if they need to change a tire or something like that."

Many kids I've talked to have say MYOI is one thing that is great about the foster care system. But these programs are still a pretty small portion of what DHS does, they're exceptions. The success stories, like Durwin's, are still the exception too.

Michigan is making it's foster care system better. But the federal courts say it has to improve safety and a host of other things. One area for improvement is how many kids in foster care stay with relatives instead of in licensed foster care placements.

That's what Durwin did. He moved in with his grandparents-who were unlicensed at the time. Later, his grandparents did get licensed to be a foster home. But according to court monitors, they are bucking a trend. The number of informal placements is up, too high for court monitors and the lawyers who brought suit against the state over the foster care system almost a decade ago. 

"We want the state, and urge the state, to take an extra look at that," Sara Bartsotz said in 2013. She's the lawyer in charge of this case for the nonprofit organization Children's Rights. "In fact, to redouble its efforts to get the vast majority of relative homes licensed," she added.

When a child enters foster care, it is usually better, and less traumatic, if they can live with a relative. The other option would be a family that meets the state standards and is licensed. In the best case scenario, the relative gets licensed.

There are plenty of kids who live with licensed relatives. But many don’t. It's been a consistent issue in the ongoing legal back and forth. The most recent court monitor report says, "data shows that as the number of relative caregivers grew overall, the number and proportion of relative caregivers with a license decreased." That monitoring report is a snapshot of a moment in time, but it's clear that the issue of unlicensed relatives is not near resolution. 

It matters for two reasons. Unlicensed placements don’t get any foster care payments from the state to help with the cost of raising a child, which can be a strain, and since these placements don't go through the licensing process, where the state looks closely at many things in these families and homes, the court monitors have more concerns about the safety of kids in unlicensed placements.

For it's part, DHS says they're doing what they can but can't force relatives to get licensed. The issue therefore, seems at a bit of an impasse. According to court monitors, there are some areas that have improved in the last few years. Adoption is an example.

Kriss Faasse is a Senior Vice President at Bethany Christian Services in Kent County. It’s a private agency that handles adoptions for the state. In Michigan, private agencies handle all the adoptions from the child welfare system. That's been the case since well before the lawsuit. Private agencies being involved in adoptions from foster care is common throughout the country.

Faasse thinks her agency is doing a good job. "We've been able to do it efficiently," she says. She does add however, that kids from foster care have a lot of needs, so it's not uncommon that her organization needs to do additional fundraising to cover the cost of supporting these kids and the families that adopt them. But, overall, Faasse says her organization is getting what they need from the state. "We've had the state do what they could to make sure reimbursement rates were increased," she says.

The adoption side of the child welfare system isn't perfect, something my colleague Jennifer Guerra will take a deeper look into next week. But the state has been responsive to the needs of these agencies. Together, the state and these agencies have delivered outcomes the court want to see.

One major difference between private adoption agencies and the foster care system is that the agencies lobby for better reimbursement rates to meet the costs of the services they need or want to provide. They also advocate for adoptive parents in a way that just doesn’t happen on the foster care side of the system.

Foster families aren’t that organized. Despite programs like MYOI, kids in foster care aren’t that organized either. So they just kind of wait for things to get better.