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

Typical childhood experiences don't come easy for kids in foster care. New law tries to change that.

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The occasional weekend sleepover at a friend’s house...

Playing on the school basketball team...

Going on a class field trip...

Getting a cell phone...

Posting an update to Facebook...

Sound like pretty average activities for teenagers, right?

Not for teens in foster care.

For a number of reasons - like cost, liability, and biological parental rights - young people in Michigan’s child welfare system have long had to jump through multiple legal hoops to do things most people would consider “normal” for kids their age.

"The very system designed to protect them has held them back from opportunities that their peers who are not in foster care have access to."

“The very system designed to protect them has held them back from opportunities that their peers who are not in foster care have access to,” says Todd Lloyd, a senior policy associate for theAnnie E. Casey Foundation.

That’s all about to change, and some changes have taken place already.

A federal law called the Preventing Human Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act was passed in September, 2014. It requires each state to make it easier for kids to get involved in “normal” age-appropriate activities.

The deadline for those changes is this month -- September, 2015.

Michigan’s child welfare system hasn’t always been in line with federal regulations,so it's worth asking the question: is Michigan in compliance?

A breakdown of the law

It's a pretty multi-faceted one, doubling up with efforts to increase awareness of the connection between foster care and human trafficking.

The normalcy component is based on various statewide laws already in place like Florida’s “Let Kids Be Kids” Law. Florida's law removed barriers to things like playing sports and getting a driver’s license, which kids in Michigan’s child welfare system have trouble accessing.

The federal law accomplished this by applying aReasonable and Prudent Parenting Standardin every state.

That’s quite a mouthful, so I asked Lloyd for clarification.

“The idea there is to really empower foster families to make day-to-day decisions that they would make for any other children in their home, such as biological children,” he says.

When a child in foster care is placed with a foster parent, the parent is given temporary custody and/or temporary guardianship. This means the child’s biological parent or the state of Michigan may still have final “parental rights” over that young person.

The Reasonable and Prudent Parenting Standard allows the people caring for that child to make basic day-to-day decisions, like staying at friend’s overnight birthday party or going on a class trip to Cedar Point.

Before the provisions of the law, a signature on a school permission slip required a series of phone calls between foster parents, MDHHS workers, biological parents, and sometimes even a judge.

The new ability for foster parents to make decisions have to factor in a child’s age and ability status, which leaves room for discretion, says Lloyd. Things like major medical decisions don’t apply.

Michigan's efforts

“The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) is on target to accomplish expectations outlined in the Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act,” says Bob Wheaton, director of communications at MDHHS.

“We have and will be making changes to policies and practices as a result of the law.”

According to Wheaton, caregivers are now required to provide opportunities and encouragement for kids to participate in “a variety of indoor and outdoor recreational activities that are appropriate for the child’s age and ability.”

Furthermore, if a kid in foster care is 14 or older, they get to have a voice on their case planning team.

Wheaton also reports that in July of 2015, MDHHS released an updated version of "Rights of Children in Foster Care."

“It includes updates to policy and a requirement that caseworkers will review the rights and the grievance procedure with all children or their caregiver within the first 30 days of entering care.” 

Upcoming changes...

The state is working on providing further guidance and expectations for caregivers, staff and residential providers on implementing the Reasonable and Prudent Parent Standard.

“Policy and training will assist caregivers in making careful decisions that weigh the benefits and potential risks so that they can come to a reasonable decision that is in the best interest of the child,” Wheaton says.

Though the state appears to be meeting federal requirements on paper, the only real way to know if the law is making a difference is to ask the kids and families involved in Michigan's child welfare system.

When it comes to giving kids more options, Michigan is updating its policy to say that young people 14 and older can choose two people to be included in their case planning team.

The verdict

It’s too soon to tell, says Lloyd.

Though the state appears to be meeting federal requirements on paper, the only real way to know if the law is making a difference is to ask the kids and families involved in Michigan’s child welfare system.

This is already in the works and has been for awhile.

A subprogram of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, has a statewide board in 17 states (including Michigan). It serves as a direct line from kids who have experienced care, to the researchers and policymakers that advocate for them. A review of access to “normalcy” is certainly on the agenda, says Lloyd.

Following up on this issue is also on our agenda. If you are a foster parent or young person in foster care, drop us a line and let us know if your experience has changed.

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