ESCANABA – When five children suddenly left their school and community in 2011, members of the Delta-Schoolcraft Great Start Collaborative decided to take action.
The young siblings were removed from their home by the Department of Human Services and placed into foster care. While the state strives to keep siblings together and in their schools, a lack of licensed providers in the area made that impossible. The siblings were separated and taken to a neighboring county.
“These kids were taken from their homes, their school, their friends, each other, everything they knew. How much worse could it get for them?” said Delta-Schoolcraft Great Start Collaborative Director, Tara Weaver. “We were very troubled by this and wanted to do something to help make sure it didn’t happen again.”
The Collaborative and Delta-Schoolcraft Great Start Parent Coalition partnered with local DHS offices and private agencies that license foster homes, as well as community groups to recruit more foster parents. What they found though was that they also needed to develop more supports for foster families.
“We couldn’t just charge forward with recruit, recruit, recruit,” Weaver said. “We found real fast that we didn’t have families because there wasn’t enough support for them and if we didn’t have support for the families we would lose them. This isn’t an easy process to go through nor is it an easy thing to take on. We needed to make sure there were services and supports available to help them.
“It really turned into us learning about the system and how we can support it and in turn support the families and children in our communities. That’s what we are here for: to support families and children.”
The two-pronged recruitment and support effort led to the creation of a parent café and a foster parent association for foster parents to discuss issues and lend support to each other. Additionally, a mentoring program connecting experienced foster parents with potential or new foster parents, a clothing closet of donated items for foster children, and a program to give children removed from their homes a backpack filled with clothes, personal hygiene items, and a comfort item such as a stuffed toy or book.
The group also has sponsored a diaper and clothing drive to build community support for foster parents, and launched a public awareness campaign with T-shirts, brochures, radio ads, a Facebook page and numerous community presentations to highlight the need for more foster homes and more support for them.
Alicia Burke, a children’s service specialist with DHS and member of the Collaborative, said the efforts have had a significant impact in the community.
“For me as a worker, it’s really opened my eyes to how to get the community involved in supporting families,” Burke said. “And it’s critical when recruiting to have a lot of community involvement. We’ve become much more public with what we’re doing and people are noticing. The overall support shows.”
The number of licensed foster homes has increased, too. In 2011, the year the siblings were removed, Schoolcraft County had seven children placed in out-of-home care, according to the Kids Count in Michigan Data Center, but only one licensed foster home. It now has three homes. Delta County added 11 new foster homes in 2013, bringing the current total to 46, Burke said.
Still, more homes are needed so the recruitment and support efforts continue, said Russell Sexton, director of the local Department of Human Services office.
“It’s a constant struggle to try to keep kids in the community, so it’s a constant effort to recruit more homes,” Sexton said. “Ideally we’d like 20 homes in every school district so all kids can stay in their communities.”