By JULIE MIANECKI
Capital News Service
LANSING – Kathy Dale and her husband Craig welcomed their first foster child when a patient in the neonatal unit where Dale worked as a nurse couldn’t be placed elsewhere. Since then, the Dales, of Lansing, have fostered more than 10 children and adopted two.
Although they’ve been highly involved in the child welfare system, Dale said the experience, both for her family and for the kids, hasn’t been easy.
“Kids go through hell,” Dale said. “They just keep getting tossed around, and some of these kids never recover. It’s just too hard to watch all this go on and on, kids just being destroyed. It’s too hard.”
A $2 million federal grant will aim to make the process a little bit easier.
The money will fund a pilot program in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties to develop more effective methods to recruit foster and adoptive parents and improve support services for families.
The grant comes at a time when it’s increasingly difficult to find families willing to accept children needing homes.
“We’re seeing more economic challenges for birth families in our communities, such as homelessness and inability to find jobs – the resources aren’t there for them as they used to be,” said Ann Marie Lesniak, program director at Childhelp Foster Family and Adoption Agency of Michigan in Madison Heights. “Then when you’re trying to recruit foster parents, some of the people we have traditionally recruited now have challenges, such as loss of jobs or homelessness as well.”
Michigan has more than 15,200 foster children, with about 4,000 of them available for adoption, according to the Department of Human Services, which received the grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The state will partner with Spaulding for Children, a private child welfare agency in Southfield that wrote the grant proposal, to implement the plan over five years.
The goals of the project are not only to develop innovative methods of recruitment, but also to integrate statewide programs, train foster and adoptive families, and use technology and databases more efficiently, Spaulding President Addie Williams said.
“Database systems could accurately track certain demographics, like whether children are part of a sibling group, have a disability or have ever had a disrupted or dissolved adoption,” Williams said. “Ultimately, children in the system would be placed in permanent homes much faster and they would stay there because families would be well-trained and supported.”
The first year is designated for planning, and execution of the program will begin in year two.
Janet Snyder, executive director of the Michigan Federation for Children and Families, said cooperation across the state will be an important factor in the program’s success.
“It’s like being the umbrella,” Snyder said, adding that coordinating diverse programs around the state will increase efficiency and ultimately improve the foster and adoptive experience.
Snyder said the program will be particularly important for harder-to-place children, such as teenagers, those who’ve been in the juvenile justice system and children with disabilities or behavioral problems.
“Many children in the state system have had really horrific experiences in their upbringing,” Snyder said. “There are all sorts of needs that these children have, and the right kind of resources and support for families is just critical.”
Childhelp’s Lesniak suggested that recruitment efforts might focus on more diverse types of families.
“If you look at 20 years ago, you traditionally had families where one person worked, and then the other person could focus on childrearing or foster-parenting,” Lesniak said. “Now we find it more difficult to recruit because both adults in the home are working.
“Sometimes the response I get is, ‘I don’t have enough time for my own children, how could I consider foster children?’
“Times are tough, so it’s harder to recruit,” she added. “We have to be more creative in the types of services that we provide to families.”
Susan Hull, Oakland County DHS child welfare director, agreed that creativity is key in recruitment efforts.
“We need to think outside the box and approach people we haven’t thought of approaching before,” she said.
Although the grant will last for only five years, Hull said she hopes it has a permanent effect on the child welfare system in Michigan.
“When the federal government hands out these grants, they want to help you get the program off the ground, but then they want you to be able to sustain it,” Hull said. “In this case, I think it’s more about lessons learned on what worked versus what didn’t, as opposed to how much money you have.”
The federation’s Snyder agreed that if used properly, the grant could have a long-lasting effect.
“There’s adequate time to get new programs, new ways of thinking and new coordination in place,” Snyder said. “Every child is worth every effort that will go towards their safety and helping them to find a permanent family. The community only stands to benefit by the best being done for our kids, now and in the future.”
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.