Foster care alumni pay it forward as new Mich. foster care workers

Recently 65 people gathered for a special ceremony at the Michigan Child Welfare Training Institute in Detroit to be sworn in as newly minted caseworkers by Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS) Director Maura Corrigan. What distinguished this group was that several were formerly in the foster care system themselves. "I love to learn why people go into social work it was heartwarming to hear from some who had been in foster care themselves how they want to make a difference in the lives of young people," said Corrigan. "Caseworkers are the lifeblood of what we do at DHS and I cannot remember ever having so many former foster care youth get sworn in as caseworkers, which to me signifies we are helping more of them graduate from college." Three former foster care youth in the newly sworn in class are Angela Bowman, Paris Thomas, and Justin Flowers. Bowman is working for DHS, Thomas is working for Catholic Social Services of West Michigan, and Flowers is working for the Children's Center in Detroit. Bowman, Thomas, and Flowers are among a small yet growing percentage of Michigan foster kids to graduate from college. Bowman graduated from Western Michigan University. Thomas graduated from Mercyhurst University in Pennsylvania, and Flowers graduated with a master's degree in social work from the University of Michigan. New DHS caseworker Angela Bowman spent about three years in foster care beginning at age 15 and is now beginning her career at DHS as a foster care worker in Kalamazoo. She is already thinking about how her experience can help other children in foster care have the best experience possible. Children in foster care face daunting obstacles. Many do not graduate from high school. Fewer still go to college. "I am super excited to see what assistance I can provide and obtaining a voice and platform for other foster care alumni in terms of policy creation," Bowman said. "They really are an untapped resource. They are experts on the foster care system. They went through it. They know what worked and what didn't." 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. Bowman was a Seita Scholar at Western Michigan University where she earned a bachelor's degree in social work, with a minor in criminal justice. The Seita Scholars program supports up to 160 Seita Scholars annually, and benefits include a tuition scholarship, 24-hour campus coaching support, leadership opportunities, career mentors and other transformative strategies. There are similar programs at 11 other Michigan colleges and universities including: Aquinas College, Baker College Flint; Eastern Michigan University; Ferris State University; Kalamazoo Valley Community College; Michigan State University; Northwestern Michigan College; and Saginaw Valley State. 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. Currently, the State Legislature is considering a bill that would create a permanent endowment fund to be used for college costs for foster kids who age out of the foster care system. It was unanimously approved by committee on Sept. 17, 2014, and could be taken up in the full House later this month. 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. Bowman hopes to use her education along with her own experiences as a foster child to improve services for vulnerable children as a foster care worker. Bowman said she generally had a good experience in foster care; she spent those years in the custody of her grandparents in Wayne County. But she noticed that foster care workers often focused their communications on her grandparents. She often felt left out of the process. As a caseworker, she hopes to bridge that gap by communicating more directly with foster children. "I know that future generations of vulnerable children are in excellent hands with Angela, Paris, Justin and others in this newest crop of child welfare professionals," said Corrigan. "I trust there will be more foster care alumni joining them. Right now there are more than 300 18 to 21-year-olds from the foster care system who are tapping into the current pot of educational funding. With more resources and better funding options we will be able to help even more." Flowers learned from personal experience that one caseworker can help turn a child's life around. He wants to be that person for many foster care youth on his way toward realizing his dream of one day becoming the head of the Michigan Department of Human Services. "One day, I decided I wanted to get Maura Corrigan's job," he said. "I knew what I wanted in my life. I just want to make a difference in the foster care system. I want to be that one worker who really makes a difference." Thomas graduated with a bachelor's degree in social work from Mercyhurst where she also played basketball on scholarship. In addition to her basketball scholarship, she received educational training vouchers from Lutheran Social Services but wishes she had known about other programs like the Michigan Youth Opportunities Initiative (MYOI), a partnership between DHS and the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative to help foster care youth transition out of care successfully. "I entered this field to help empower others who have struggles similar to those I encountered," said Thomas. "I also have a passion for children and given my experience, I feel that I'm able to understand how they can sometimes be misunderstood or misrepresented by being in the system." Published: Thu, Sep 25, 2014