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"It takes more than love:" Why Michigan foster families need more help

Jun 5, 2015

Credit .imelda / Flickr

THIS STORY WAS UPDATED ON 6/15/15

If you’re tired of reading articles about how Michigan’s foster care system needs to improve, bear with me. This one has a happy ending. A recently released KidsCount report says Michigan isn’t placing enough kids in foster care with families, causing many to end up in group homes instead. Of course, one part of the solution to this problem is recruiting more foster parents. But the other part is making sure that kids who are placed with these families have the support they need to stay there.

Betsy Boggs says right now, that’s not happening.

Eight years ago, Boggs and her husband saw a newspaper article about a girl looking for her “forever family.” They weren’t foster parents, nor were they trying to be, but the article caught their attention. Jaclyn (name has been changed) was 10 years old at the time. She loved science and wanted to live in a home with pets – and a pond, if at all possible.

“If that isn’t a clear picture of who we are, I don’t know what is,” says Boggs. Not only do they have pets and a pond, Boggs’ husband is a science teacher. A year later, the Boggs family welcomed Jaclyn to their home and finalized her adoption. “I had a very strong feeling we were both supposed to be in each others lives.”

But actually parenting a child who has been in foster care hasn’t been that easy or intuitive for Boggs. “So many people go into this thinking all it takes is love. You absolutely have to have that, but it takes so much more.”

Boggs had just sent her youngest son off to college when Jaclyn came to live with them, so she wasn’t inexperienced on the parenting front. She even studied child development in college and worked as the Executive Director of the Adoptive Family Support Network. But none of this could prepare her to take care of a kid who had been through the kind of trauma Jaclyn had.

Boggs did receive some help at first, mostly from Jaclyn’s school. Jaclyn had an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and was doing really well. So well in fact that after a year, her school said she didn’t qualify for it anymore. Boggs spent the rest of Jaclyn’s high school years trying to advocate for her to get more assistance. “School personnel don’t understand the issues of trauma and how they affect a kid long-term. It’s not like other disabilities that stick out.”

The effects of trauma are well documented. The push to implement trauma-informed care is gaining more momentum, especially in Michigan. But foster and adoptive families still lack the support they need. These parents don’t just need information about trauma, says Boggs, they need to be trained on how to parent kids who have experienced trauma.

Boggs also says these families need more connection to one another. That’s why she is trying to unite foster parents across the state. According to Boggs, Michigan is one of the few states in the country that doesn’t have a statewide parent coalition of foster, adoptive, and kinship families. This group would seek to protect the rights of kids in care and advocate for increased resources for families. 

Unfortunately, not all adoptions work out. Being a foster or adoptive parent can be incredibly challenging, especially without the services these families need. But for people like Boggs, it’s totally worth it. The day I spoke with her, she had just gotten an important call – Jaclyn is going to graduate from high school this year.

“I just couldn’t be any more proud of her,” exclaimed Boggs. “[Jaclyn] is a survivor and she has overcome so much that most of us can never even conceive of. For her to have achieved this, especially over the course of everything she’s been through this last year, my heart is full.”

UPDATE: After the publication of this story, we were contacted by the Michigan Association of Foster, Adoptive and Kinship Parents (MAFAK) which indicates its mission is to be a collective voice for the entire state. Their website is here: http://mafak.co/