By Lynn Monson
Michigan lawmakers, court leaders and human services providers recently celebrated a new law that extends foster care benefits to age 21, a change that state officials say is crucial to improving the lives of many Michigan children.
Gov. Rick Snyder signed a series of bills that extend financial and caseworker support for foster children who currently "age out" of the system at 18.
The state legislation mirrors a federal program, known as "Fostering Connections," that recognizes the importance of helping young adults ages 18-21 as they transition to adulthood.
The bill signing took place at the Michigan Hall of Justice in Lansing during the ninth annual Adoption Day, which calls attention to the need for and success of adoption programs that provide caring homes for children separated from their birth families.
The event was sponsored by the Supreme Court, the Michigan Department of Human Services, and the Michigan Adoption Resource Exchange.
Thirty counties around Michigan participated in the day with ceremonies finalizing about 145 adoptions.
The state's new Young Adult Voluntary Foster Care Act, summarized in Enrolled Senate Bills 435-440, provides extended benefits to age 21 if the foster child meets any of several criteria: seeking secondary education, enrolling in post-secondary or vocational education, employment training or employment of at least 80 hours a month.
The bills set out how state agencies and courts will maintain oversight of youths who volunteer to be in the extended program.
Of the 14,000 children in foster care in Michigan, about 800 will "age out" (meaning they turn 18) this year, state officials say.
They expect about 600 of those who volunteer to stay in the system as provided for in the new legislation.
Snyder said the new law is an example of the executive, judicial, and legislative branches coming together to solve a problem and improve the lives of the state's citizens, in this case primarily children.
"It is important because if you look at our young people, to say simply when they become adults and turn 18, that we can leave them on their own, that's not a good answer," Snyder said.
"If you think about where they need to go in terms of future training, of preparing for a career, or going off to hopefully college or a skilled trade, just to say they've turned 18 and they fall out of our system, (that) was not a good answer."
The new legislation extending the foster care benefits to age to 21 is just one element of the state's expansive network of programs that monitor child welfare and provide adoption solutions for children removed from their birth parents because of abuse and-or neglect.
State records show that 14,284 Michigan children were in foster care as of September 11.
That is down from 18,943 in 2007.
The number of children adopted from foster care in the state this fiscal year is 2,426, which is slightly less but comparable to each of the last several years.
Adoption assistance is available to help a family with the cost of bringing a child into their home. About 27,000 adopted children receive ongoing support subsidies, and the state pays out about $213 million annually in adoption support subsidy to adoptive families.
At the Adoption Day program in Lansing, Maura Corrigan, director of the state Department of Human Services, shared what she said was an "amazing" statistic that shows how the state is improving its foster care program's goal of finding "forever families" for children.
Of about 3,000 children available for adoption as of September 1, only 340 didn't have adoptive families identified. That prompted a new focus called Project 340 that has since reduced the number to 279 as of November 22, Corrigan said.
"The goal in Michigan is that every single child who is available for adoption will have a forever family - and that is where we're going," said Corrigan, a former chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.
Michigan's passage of the new legislation extending foster care coverage to age 21 is one of a long list of requirements the state agreed to in a new settlement agreement with a child advocacy group.
In 2006, a New York group called Children's Rights sued the state over its child welfare system, prompting courts to order sweeping changes in how the state handled foster care.
The state had struggled to meet many of the court-ordered requirements, prompting threats of more legal action late last year.
When Snyder took office in January, one of his first major decisions was to appoint Corrigan, then a justice of the state Supreme Court, to be director of DHS.
The new administration worked with Children's Rights to find a new course of action and in July both parties agreed to a 62-page Modified Settlement Agreement and Consent Order that lists dozens of success measurements and deadlines the state must meet.
They include increasing the number of state caseworkers and improving their training; more interaction with foster children and adoptive families; and more precise monitoring of successes and failures in many areas of the foster care and adoptive programs.
In an interview after the Adoption Day presentation in Lansing, Corrigan said the state has met all of the deadlines so far and is planning to meet all of the upcoming requirements.
"We're working very hard on it," she said. "I have a white board outside my office that has all the promises and the due dates on them and they have red and green on them so we know where we're going.
"The extension of foster care was one of the things we agreed to seek in the modified settlement agreement and helping the kids as they are aging out. We've met every deadline so far so we're in good shape."
Published: Thu, Dec 1, 2011