Alicia Guevara Warren: Time for action and change in our child welfare system

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At a recent seminar, I was challenged to think differently about strategies we use to get results for kids and families.

Earlier this year, I was selected to be a Class 11 fellow with the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Children and Family Fellowship program. Over the course of a week, we had time to reflect on ourselves as leaders and on why we got into this work in the first place.

As I thought about what led me to advocate on behalf of kids and families, I kept coming back to the interactions I had had over the years with so many bright young people, whether as a dance instructor at the Foster Community Center in Lansing, as an intern with the Detroit Initiative at Harms Elementary in Southwest Detroit, working with Vista Maria for a year and half, or as a volunteer at the Washtenaw County Juvenile Detention Center.

The vast majority of the children I worked with had either been failed by one or more of our systems or their families had faced institutional barriers to opportunity.

I remember thinking that our kids deserved better and their voices weren’t being heard. My dedication to this work was — and still is — based on the belief that all kids should have equitable access to opportunities to reach their full potential.

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So as I prepared for the 2019 Kids Count in Michigan Data Book release, it weighed on me heavily that the rate of children confirmed as victims of abuse and neglect went up by 30 percent and the share of kids placed in out-of-home care (i.e. foster care) has been steadily rising over the last handful of years.

The data also show that African American kids are significantly overrepresented as child victims and in foster care. These data come on the heels of several other damning reports of our child welfare system from the Office of the Auditor General and court monitoring report from the 2006 Children’s Rights lawsuit that became Dwayne v. Snyder.

These are some of our most vulnerable children and we are not doing enough to protect and support them and their families.

The good news is that Congress took steps in the right direction last year with the passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act, which makes needed reforms to provide services to those who are at risk of contact with the child welfare system. It also focuses on reducing the number of children placed into foster care and improving the well-being of children in foster care.

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The state, however, still has a lot of work to do to prevent child abuse and neglect and care for kids in the foster system.

While Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s budget recommendation includes investments to support parent-child visitations when a child is removed from their home, it neglects to recognize the importance of preventing child abuse and neglect and supporting youth transitioning out of foster care.

The data clearly show that children and families are in need here — and in many other ways that cannot be addressed without raising new revenue.

The data book highlights that while 10 percent of all kids in foster care age out of the system, 58 percent of youth 14 and older in foster care age out.

We’ve all been young people before, and we all know that it’s incredibly important to have a connection with a caring adult who we can seek guidance from as we transition into adulthood. We also know that having the ability to access resources is important.

Yet the recent court monitoring report shows that Michigan is not anywhere close to meeting its commitments to these young people in regards to accessing supportive services like housing, employment and education. We can and must do better.

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Although it may seem that the annual Kids Count in Michigan data book brings the “doom and gloom” every year, the data is clear about how our kids are doing and where we need to focus our efforts.

Our hope is that policymakers at all levels of government will use the information and demand action on behalf of our kids who need it most.

Alicia Guevara Warren
Alicia Guevara Warren joined the Michigan League for Public Policy in 2014 as tax policy analyst, and became the Kids Count in Michigan Project Director in June 2015. She has worked with Michigan’s Children, Community Economic Development Association of Michigan, and School-Community Health Alliance of Michigan.

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