November was celebrated as national adoption month, to raise awareness of and support for youth in the foster care system, with the goal of finding kids in the system a stable, permanent home.
In Michigan around 14,000 children are in the foster care system at any given time, according to the Department of Human Services.
Michigan’s lawsuit and system reforms
In 2006 a lawsuit was filed against Michigan by the Children’s Rights organization to tighten the rules on foster parenting and improve oversight. The lawsuit, known as Dwyane B. v. Granholm, was filed on behalf of approximately 19,000 abused and neglected children who had been in the custody of the Michigan Department of Human Services, according to the Children’s Rights website.
Kathy Yates, adoption program manager for St. Vincent Catholic Charities, spoke of the reform, “It required a lot more oversight by the state in terms of policies and procedures,” she said, adding that it was meant to protect the rights of children.
According to Yates, caseloads were lowered. “It has increased the amount of requirements for foster families and the amount of work that adoption and foster care workers have to do.”
Some of the changes include a limit of three foster children per foster home unless there is an exception and added training for foster parents, according to Susan Devon, vice president of Child and Family Charities.
Fostering Support is a program offered by Child and Family Charities that can count towards the foster parents training. The monthly meetings offer foster parents education on foster care through training videos and a chance to discuss personal issues. Devon said, “It’s just kind of an open forum where foster parents can bring up concerns, problems, questions.”
Foster care reforms also included more visits with the biological families and an added effort to give kids permanency within 12 months.
One of the major concerns for many of the foster parents was whether they would get to keep the children they were trying to adopt. In their view, the courts tended to side with the biological parents.
Foster parent Bruce Meymeiyer said, “My biggest frustration is the court system… I feel that sometimes they don’t ask themselves what’s in the best interest of the child.”
As Yates said, “ It’s always in the child’s best interest to live with their birth families if at all possible.”
Despite these reforms that try to place the child back with the biological parents or find a new permanent home within 12 months, many kids still end up in the system for longer.
More Difficult for Some
In Lansing, groups such as St. Vincent Catholic Charities work closely with both possible foster parents and foster children. Often certain age ranges have a much harder time getting adopted, according to Whitney Banks, adoption recruiter for SVCC.
“Many adults are reluctant to adopting teenagers because some feel they cannot mold them into what they want to be,” Banks said.
Prospective parents also worry that their newly adopted child might want to go back to their birth parents.
One teenager with whom Banks has worked is 15-year-old Tre’ Vone Reynolds.
Reynolds shared that he has been in the foster care system for “six or seven years” and wishes to be a part of a family “so that they can teach me how to be a family.”
Reynolds said that while many parents might not want to adopt teenagers for fear that they will do bad things, this is not always the case. He said, “Teenagers really need parents to take care of them.”
Many teenagers like Tre’ Vone are at risk of “aging out” of the system at 18 years old.
After Foster Care
“Imagine being 18 or 19 years old, on your own with no one to help you,” said Dr. John Seita, a Michigan State University professor in the School of Social Work. “It’s a terrible experience.”
Seita was describing his own experience. He aged out of the foster care system, an experience he says is shared by many today.
Foster care children face numerous challenges after they reach 18 years old. According to Seita,
“only 4 percent of kids in the foster care system go to college and about 1 percent actually graduate.”
This is a drastic contrast to the 63.3 percent of all youth who go to college from high school in the U.S., according to the National Center for Higher Education Management Services website.
This difference in college attendance could be a result of what Sieta labels as “family privilege.” He states that while many youth who come from a supportive family environment have a support group to fall back on, foster youth often struggle with post traumatic stress and are not given much of the aid others take for granted.
In order to address the uneven playing field for foster youth, a scholarship, named for Seita, was established at Western Michigan University.
The MSU School of Social Work FAME program, which stands for Fostering Academics Mentoring Excellence, aids students who come from non-traditional homes.
Andrea Martineau is the coordinator and lead life skills coach for the program. She explained that the program varies from providing mentorship opportunities for students involved to exam week survival packages.
“People expect that when students get to college, it’s an even playing field, but it really isn’t,” said Martineau. “There’s a lot of barriers and challenges that these youth continue to experience… not having a stable family support system is a huge challenge.”
She said there are around 300 MSU students eligible for the program and that FAME typically serves around 80 students per year.
Listen to the full audio interview below:
Whether it is children just entering the foster system, teens struggling to get adopted or former foster youth forced to face the world after aging out of the system, there is much need for support for foster children in Michigan. There have been reforms to the Michigan foster care system, and there are programs in place aimed at helping both current and former foster children. As Seita said, “We are doing some things better, but you’re dealing with a population that’s struggling.”