Ten years ago when Maura Corrigan, director of the Michigan Department of Humans Services (DHS) was a judge and first became involved with Michigan’s foster care system, there were 19,000 children and teens in care and she was horrified by the cases that came before her. All too often the system habitually let these young people down and did not do enough to ensure their safety and welfare.
Today, she is the director of the department charged with their care and that number is down to 13,000 and the future is brighter than it has ever been for those in and aging out of foster care. Because of its size and challenges, Detroit historically has had the largest number of children in foster care.
“Protecting children is at the heart of what we do and their welfare must always be front and center from a new born baby to a young person aging out of foster care,” Corrigan said.
In recent years innovations and reforms to Michigan’s foster care system has made life better particularly for those on the cusp of adulthood.
In the past too often an already rough life for a child — bumped from one foster placement to another or back and forth from their birth family to foster care — became rougher still when at 18 they were completely dropped from the system and left on their own to fend for themselves.
It often did not go well. Most teens have built in safety nets of extended family and friends including able adults to guide these young people, who still need time to figure out a plan for their future. When a young person does not have any of these supports or role models, they face much greater risks for dropping out of high school, suicide, teen pregnancy, substance abuse and violence.
Now those aging out of care are not cut off at 18 but can extend foster care support through the age of 21 and there are a number of programs available to help ease their transition into adulthood and independence.
In fact many people both inside and out of DHS are rallying to make a great college experience and, better still, a college degree a reality for young people who have been in foster care.
For example Fostering Futures has become a year round effort to raise scholarship money for those in college to go to college. DHS offices around the state compete with each other to see who can raise the most money with a variety of fundraising efforts. It culminates with a gala annual event jointly hosted by DHS and the Department of Treasury’s Michigan Education Trust (MET).
This year that event was held on Sept. 25 and it, together with the other efforts, raised nearly $220,000 and was attended by Governor Rick Snyder and first lady Sue Snyder. Also in attendance were several new foster care case workers who themselves had formerly been in foster care. One of these was Justin Flowers who now works as a foster care caseworker for the Children’s Center in Detroit.
Historically, former foster youth have been vastly under-represented in colleges and universities, primarily because they lack family resources to pay for tuition and other expenses as well as the support a family usually provides during this big life transition.
Currently 12 Michigan colleges and universities offer scholars programs for those formerly in foster care that can provide benefits annually such as 24-hour campus coaching support, leadership opportunities, career mentors and other transformative strategies. Participating schools include: Aquinas College, Baker College – Flint; Eastern Michigan University; Ferris State University; Kalamazoo Valley Community College; Michigan State University; Northwestern Michigan College; Saginaw Valley State University; University of Michigan – Ann Arbor; University of Michigan – Flint; Western Michigan University – Kalamazoo and Wayne State University – Detroit.
For example at Wayne State, 73 students enrolled for 2014-2015 are receiving support to help them navigate successfully through college.
These programs are part of a concerted effort in Michigan to increase the education opportunities and attainment for foster care youth and provide additional support to those aging out of the system. For example the Young Adult Voluntary Foster Care (YAVFC) program offers additional support through the age of 21 to help more in foster care successfully make the transition to independence and adulthood by providing a safety net of supportive services and financial benefits during this critical time in their lives.
This fall the Michigan State Legislature is considering a bill that would create a permanent endowment fund to be used for college costs for foster children who age out of the foster care system. It has passed committee and now needs to go to the full house and then the Senate.
Right now, many of those potential students are getting help from the Michigan Education Trust (MET), but under the guidelines for the trust, all the money raised for the scholarships in a year has to be spent each year. The “Fostering Futures” endowment fund wouldn’t have restrictions of that kind.
The one thing all young people in the foster care system yearn for is a forever family … people to claim as their own and a place to call home.
Michigan is making great progress on this front. There are fewer children overall in the foster care system and more children, who are wards of the state, are finding their forever homes through adoption.
Michigan’s child welfare system has been under federal oversight since 2008 as the result of a lawsuit filed by New York-based Children’s Rights. In their most recent report court-appointed federal monitors overseeing Michigan’s child welfare system noted that DHS finalized 2,361 adoptions during the most recent reporting period – 320 more than the targeted goal. The department also exceeded the federal standards for timeliness of adoptions in 2013. Last year 89 percent of the children available for adoption in Michigan were successfully placed with permanent families.
“We have come a long way but we have more to do,” said Corrigan. “We need to increase licensing in relative foster homes, increase the number of loving and capable foster families and find safe and loving forever homes for even more of our wards and improve safety for all children in the system.”