Regulations threaten services for disabled, nonprofits say

Capital News Service

LANSING — Facilities employing and training people with disabilities face increased regulations that will decrease the amount of help they can provide, nonprofit program experts say.

Federal regulations intending to provide disabled residents with more community integrated programs for employment education have vocational rehabilitation facilities worrying that changes may mean less choice for participants.

Vocational rehabilitation facilities around Michigan specialize in working with people  with physical and mental disabilities. The goal is to enable them to find employment. Services include socialization skills, resume building, career planning, transportation assistance and job placement.

The U.S. Census Bureau says 75 percent of the 552,000 persons living with a cognitive disability in Michigan are unemployed. The poverty rate for Michigan residents with disabilities is 28 percent.

Federal law requires vocational rehabilitation facilities to provide more opportunities for work experience in community settings. The intent is to ensure that facilities don’t  isolate participants from the broader population in what are referred to as sheltered workshops.

North Eastern Michigan Rehabilitation and Opportunity Center, a nonprofit manufacturing facility in Alpena, employs around a hundred individuals with disabilities, said David Szydlowski, its chief executive officer.

Employees are trained on site by job coaches and receive training to operate forklifts, pay loaders and industrial saws. The program also contracts out employees to provide custodial services to local businesses.

Szydlowski said the problem is the Michigan Department of Community Health’s interpretation of federal law. If the program gets a contract for a local cement plant for two people to move tables, or to paint a room, it cannot assign two disabled individuals to be on that job together.

“In order to comply to the regulations, I’ll have to take away those jobs for disabled workers,” Szydlowski said.

Determination of compliance can vary by local health departments, he said.

“There are community rehab programs across the state and across the nation that are saying that this isn’t an issue and those two people can continue to work together because they are working in the community for a local business,” Szydlowski said.

Todd Culver, the chief executive officer for the Michigan Association of Rehabilitation Organizations, said, “If these rules and regulations are implemented in a way that is not fair to the individuals receiving services, then it can impact the quality of their life.”  

According to Culver, Health and Human Services developed a test for a thousand different environmental settings that facilities may operate in and is determining which ones qualify for Medicaid funding.

“We’re right in the middle of going through that data,” he said

According to Culver, if a program fails the test, there’s an opportunity to follow a corrective action plan.

Rehabilitation facilities argue that the law shouldn’t restrict a participant’s choice in where to go for services.

Another facility which was cited for non-compliance is Grand Traverse Industries in Traverse City. It’s now following a corrective action plan.

“This is a regulatory nightmare,” said Steve Perdue, the facility’s president.

“We’re working through the Home and Community Based Services waiver with our Northern Michigan entity and thus far are optimistic that we are in compliance,” Perdue said. “They’ve gotten back to us on certain issues and we made changes that we believe will have us in compliance.”

The nonprofit’s annual report said 31 percent of its services were conducted outside of its main facility.

More counselors suggested by schools plagued by threats

Capital News Service

LANSING —  Michigan schools are experiencing increased threats of violence in the months following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, when 19 students were killed.

The number of threats or acts of violence in schools is three times higher across the nation since February, according to the Educators School Safety Network, a nonprofit that tracks media reports of violence. It regularly reports Michigan as being in the top 10 in the nation for such incidents.

Two shootings have occurred at Michigan schools since 2016.

In Northern Michigan, police have investigated three potential threats at Traverse City West High School and one at Petoskey High School since mid-February.

Two cases concerned friends who responded to a threat made by a classmate. None of the instances was found to be a credible threat of violence.

“I don’t think the hypersensitivity to threats is a bad thing right now,” said Doug Pratt, director of public affairs for the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest union of teachers and other school staff.

“At the root cause of this are students who really need help,” Pratt said. “We need to be able to provide the holistic education for a kid, and that includes taking care of their mental wellbeing.”

In 2015, the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District developed a crisis response team of two social workers and nine psychologists to address the needs that its school often face.

“The crisis team offers training for all the local school districts and academies,” said Carol Greilick, the district’s assistant superintendent of special education.

“Trauma and crisis are in the eyes of the beholder,” Greilick said. “It may be a relatively simple thing, such as a student losing a family member, or it could be a school district losing a student or teacher.”

In response to the sudden death of a teacher last year, the crisis team provided  assistance.

“The team worked with administrators in both districts to plan a response,” Greilick said. “They set up counseling rooms, planned the script for informing students and worked step by step through the response anticipating student needs, family needs and staff needs.”

Addressing student concerns is more difficult with less staff, said Tamara Kolodziej, a guidance counselor at Petoskey High School.

The average ratio for K-12 schools in the U.S. is 482 students per counselor. In Michigan, which has seen a 25 percent decrease in school counselors since 2005, the ratio is 729 students for each counselor.

In response to concerns about school safety and student welfare, the Senate is considering a bill that would allocate an additional $50 million towards hiring more guidance counselors, social workers and armed resource officers.

“Here at Petoskey we have two counselors for a thousand students,” Kolodziej said. “We’re lucky because they’re going to be hiring another counselor next year. We’ve been down to two counselors for the last seven years.”

Guidance counselors are responsible for “data maintenance, scheduling classes, transcripts, communicating with parents and staff —  it’s a lot for two people,” she said.

“Our biggest job is organizing testing,” said Kolodziej.

Those obligations mean that counselors get less face time with students. “We each generally see 10 to 12 students in our office a day,” Kolodziej said.

Kolodziej emphasized the difference between a guidance counselor and a licensed therapist.

Petoskey High School has a licensed therapist practicing on site. Therapy isn’t free but having one on site provides easier access for students seeking mental health services.

Addressing student mental health needs will take adjustments on the part of schools.

“We need to arm educators with smaller class sizes, more counselors and better security measures,” the MEA’s Pratt said.

Students are well aware that the potential for violence exists, Pratt said. “Even at a young age, you have elementary schools going through lockdown drills.”

Teachers and counsellors are not the only ones who should be responsible for students’ welfare, he said. The whole school system is responsible.

“A classroom teacher’s job is to help every student learn the material,” Pratt said.

“We can’t ask educators to do everything,” Pratt said. “They need to be able to assess the situations, but they also need the resources to follow up.”

More alternatives needed for criminal suspects with mental health problems, advocates say

Capital News Service

LANSING — As more communities in Michigan join the fight for jail diversion programs for inmates with special needs, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said he hopes it will soon become a mainstream program.

The Snyder administration created a diversion program to reduce the number of people with  special needs entering Michigan’s corrections system.

“It was informal in the beginning, and then we formalized it part way through our first term,” Calley said. “I served as a chair of the diversion council, and its mental health diversion. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”

The program works with pilot committees from counties across the state that want mental health-related changes in corrections facilities

“Our system in the past has been a one-size-fits-all approach,” Calley said. “So a person has a negative interaction with the law, they go through the system. If they’re found guilty, they go to jail or go to prison.

“But if a person committed a crime because they have a mental illness that was untreated, I think the criminal justice response needs to be different. It has to include evaluation of what the root cause of the problem was and treat them. That still might some include some jail or prison, but maybe it doesn’t have to,” he said.

Now five years after establishment of the initiative, Calley said he hopes diversion programs will become more mainstream.  

“Right now, it’s in about a dozen communities in the state — trying to prove out the concepts that treating mental illness is better than throwing people in jail who have mental illness,” he said. “It has the same potential that treating addiction has.”

Rich Thiemkey, the chief executive officer of the Barry County Community Mental Health Authority, one of the agencies that maintain a diversion program, foresees diversion programs increasing.

But he said changes to funding and stigmas are needed to further help those with mental illnesses.

“Number one is just stigma, or how people view people with a mental illness,” he said. “And then the second part would be funding of individuals that are in the jail.”

With funding an issue, his agency is constantly looking for grants to help fund the treatment of mental health patients.

One such grant enables the agency to screen individuals for substance abuse and mental health disorders, he said. Some receive services in the jail and some who are diverted will be treated at the agency’s facility.

Thiemkey said that’s called “post-booking because the diversions happen after they walk into the jail. So what we’re trying to focus on this upcoming year is pre-booking.”

Kalamazoo Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services is one of the biggest diversion programs in the state.

“We have a strict definition of diversion, which is when a mental health worker intervenes, usually with a judge, to come to an alternative disposition, which usually means a bond reduction,” said Robert Butkiewicz, the supervisor of programs at the agency. “Sometimes that means sending someone to a psychiatric hospital. Sometimes it is coordinating care with an adult foster care provider so the person can be safe.”

According to Butkiewicz, people can be eligible for these diversion programs if they are being charged with a misdemeanor.

“When we talk about mental health diversion, we have to separate that from legal diversion,” he said. “Mental health diversion relates to alternatives to incarceration. A legal diversion relates to alternatives to criminal prosecution.

Butkiewicz said the diversion system needs improvements.

For example, he said laws “should be more focused on treatment. If you’re poor and are roped in the legal system, you can hardly pay next month’s rent. You have a $25 oversight fee. You have a $300 legal fee. You have a $100 this and that. And for those who are really poor, you get locked in.”


Young people are struggling with homelessness, studies find

LANSING — Schoolchildren and youths in Michigan are struggling with homelessness at high rates, new studies show.

Poverty Solutions, a University of Michigan initiative dedicated to prevention and alleviation of poverty, found Michigan among the states with the largest number of homeless youths — more than 36,000 children in elementary, middle and high schools facing homelessness and housing insecurity.

This report was confirmed by the 2018 Kids Count report– a study by the Michigan League for Public Policy that analyzes and evaluates the wellbeing of children in the state. It  found that in 2016, 444,100 children lived in poverty.

The report ranked 82 of the 83 counties for overall child wellbeing. The top five counties are Livingston, Ottawa, Clinton and Oakland. The bottom five counties are Lake, Clare, Muskegon, Calhoun and Oceana.

Between 2010 and 2016, the Kids Count shows a 23 percent improvement in children homelessness rates. However, more than one in five Michigan children lived in poverty in 2016.

“It’s not a great improvement but it is some improvement. More than one in five children living in poverty really has huge implications on education and health and other indicators of well-being for kids,” said Alicia Guevara Warren, the Kids Count director.

Despite the slight improvement and the lowest unemployment levels in decades, the Kids Count report said jobs are paying significantly low wages that don’t  keep up with growing inflation rates, causing income levels to remain below pre-recession levels.

According to  U-M’s Poverty Solutions analysis, dropout rates for homeless students are increasing and homeless high school students are particularly vulnerable.

Some areas in the state are affected more than others. In West Michigan, for example, counties like Oceana, Muskegon and Mason have the highest rates of homelessness.

Staircase Youth Services, a Ludington-based nonprofit organization operating in a number of West Michigan counties, said its Oceana County agency is experiencing higher rates of homelessness than other counties in the area.

“I was not surprised by the high number in Oceana County. There is a real lack of housing in Oceana County and the poverty level is pretty high,” said Cynthia Arneson, the executive director of Staircase Youth Services.

The organization works with high school students and youths between the ages of 12 and 21.

“We have a host home program where we place youth that are homeless in a host home within the county so that they can stay in school,” Arneson said.

Participants can stay in the program for up to 18 months while receiving support by the staff.

Poverty Solutions created a map that shows the percent and number of students experiencing homelessness in each Michigan school district and the percentage of low-income students experiencing homelessness.

During the 2015-16 school year, Michigan ranked sixth among states with the most homeless students, after California, New York, Texas, Florida and Illinois.

Though homelessness is a statewide issue impacting children in rural and urban areas, the highest rates are among students in the smallest school districts, the U-M report said.

Guevara Warren of the League for Public Policy said workforce development and the types of jobs available locally are a big piece of economic security and poverty.

“We still have in this state over 30 percent of children whose families lack full-time permanent work. You see a lot of families who are either working at low wage jobs or are trying to piece together several part-time or seasonal jobs,” she said.

Arneson said that in Oceana County, even if people are employed, the level and amount of income they earn is insufficient for the local housing market.

“So there are people who have jobs, and even if they are working 40 hours a week they cannot necessarily afford to live in the housing that is available in our counties,” she said.

To address the issue of poverty, Guevara Warren says one way to improve economic security for children is to take a generation approach, which ensures that children, parents and caregivers all receive help and support at the same time.

As an example, she said the state has started investing  to improve the child care system, particularly concerning eligibility requirements.

“We have improved that slightly but we’re still really towards the bottom when it comes to child care eligibility in the country,” Guevara Warren said.

She said the state has also improved provider reimbursement rates through child care subsidies but still tends to be at the bottom when it comes to reimbursement to providers.

Adult education struggles with stagnant funding

Capital News Service

LANSING — Adult education is handcuffed by a stagnant budget that critics say keeps the state from alleviating cycles of poverty amid one of the lowest graduation rates in the nation.

Over 1 million Michigan residents don’t have their high school diploma or equivalent, according to Stepheni Schlinker, a communications specialist for the Michigan Talent Investment Agency.

State funding for adult education programs was cut from $75 million to $20 million in 2004. Enrollment dropped with the funding from 76,000 in 2001 to 35,000 by 2005.

Adult education classes are free services provided around the state for individuals wanting to get their high school degree or improve their basic literacy skills.

This year, adult education programs are receiving $25 million in state funding. Federal grants also contribute but have declined from $17 million in 2003 to $13.3 million in 2018. Adjusting for inflation, adult education would require an additional $11.5 million to match the 2003 funding level.

Around 28,000 state residents participate in the programs each year.

“We administer the governor’s budget, and we’re certainly trying to run our programs and expand our programs,” said Joe Billig, the director of the Office of Talent Policy and Planning for the Michigan Workforce Development Agency. “We always look to ways our programs can improve, even if more funding is not available.”

By encouraging students to co-enroll in other government programs to spread costs around and by moving tests and textbooks online, the agency has been able to keep providing services with less money, Billig said.

“We know that children of parents who have low literacy skills are 72 percent more likely to have low reading levels or drop out of school,” said Krista Johnson, the director of Education and Career Success for the Workforce Development Agency.

The graduation rate for Michigan K-12 students was below 80 percent and tied for 40th- worst in the nation for the 2015-16 school year. The rate for low-income students was only 67 percent, according to the U.S Department of Education.

For Northwest Michigan, funding challenges come as the population of adult education students has undergone a significant shift.

“It used to mostly be 35-to-50-year-olds — now we’re seeing them in the 18-to-24 range,” said Christy Nelson, the adult education coordinator for Northwest Michigan Works!

Her agency covers Antrim, Benzie, Charlevoix, Emmet, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, Manistee, Missaukee and Wexford counties and serves between 600 and 700 students every year in adult education programs. Last year, 330 of them were between 16 and 24 years old.

The low high school  graduation rates put pressure on adult education programs.

“Most of the kids that we see coming in fell so far behind in their credits that it’s easier to just get a GED,” Nelson said.

State funding for adult education programs is based on how many people in a region lack high school diplomas or who speak English as a second language.

“We’re definitely underfunded,” Nelson said. “The largest cost that we have is teachers’ salaries. When we have less income, we reduce the number of hours they work per week.”

Northwest Michigan Works! employs six teachers at learning labs in Petoskey, Kalkaska, Cadillac, Manistee and Traverse City.

One of the students’ main complaints is the lack of nighttime schooling options, Nelson said. “Many of our students work several low-income jobs just to make ends meet.”

Programs forced to close mean further driving distances for students.

For example, “Livingston County does not have an adult education program as the result of cuts,” said Peter Ruark, a senior policy analyst for the Michigan League for Public Policy. “Students from Livingston County drive 30 miles to Novi in Oakland County in order to attend a program.”

“In the Upper Peninsula, there are people who have to drive 50 miles both ways because it is so sparsely populated,” he said.

“We’re concerned about the people with families, the people with jobs that are stuck in a low-wage spiral of poverty that need to build their skills in order to get jobs that pay well so they can be economically secure,” he said.

Nelson said participation in adult education programs fluctuates with unemployment. “When unemployment is high, we see higher traffic.”

More distance learning programs could help those with job conflicts or who need to stay home with a child, she said, adding that Northwest Michigan Works! bought an

an online learning program that students can access from home. Students also can reach teachers through video calls and email.

Michigan families get $70 million for child care

Capital News Service

LANSING — An influx of federal money is expected to put more children from Michigan’s struggling families into child care programs.

Families who meet eligibility requirements, including an income cutoff and employment or high school completion, are able to receive a state subsidy to help with the costs of child care.

Because of the positive effects that quality care can have on children, all families should have a chance to take advantage of it, said Gilda Jacobs, president of the Michigan League for Public Policy, a progressive think tank focusing on social issues.

“The costs of child care are so huge that most low-income people really cannot afford high-quality child care,” Jacobs said. “It needs to be subsidized, it needs to be available, and there needs to be transportation to it.”

Help is on the way for low-income residents. The spending bill signed by President Donald Trump in March boosted funding for child care assistance. The league estimates new  funding will approach $70 million in Michigan.

That could mean up to 3,500 more children receiving assistance to attend child care.

That’s the good news. The bad? The number of families receiving child care assistance from the state dropped dramatically for years and is only now starting to rise again, falling from nearly 70,000 in 2003 to 18,381 in 2017 according to state data.

The league is pushing the Legislature to raise the income cutoff for assistance to 200 percent of the poverty level. The current cutoff of 130 percent puts many low-income families in a bind, said Audrey Marvin, the owner of Stepping Stones Child Development Center in Petoskey.

“I know for a fact that I have lost families because they can’t afford the center but they make just enough that they don’t get government assistance,” Marvin said.

The federal funding boost could be crucial, as skyrocketing costs pose a significant barrier for parents looking to maintain a job, according to league communications director Alex Rossman.

Low-income residents are caught in a Catch-22, he said. They can risk sending much of the income from their job to a child care facility, or they can limit their income by not working and caring for the children personally.

The average annual cost of center-based infant care in Michigan — $10,281 — is nearly that of a year of mortgage payments or public college tuition, according to Child Care Aware of America, a Virginia-based nonprofit. Home-based infant care runs $7,179 annually, on average.

It’s unfortunate that high child care costs are a barrier, but given how beneficial it is to young children, the price point is necessary, Rossman said.

“It’s an area in which you don’t want to cut costs or corners,” Rossman said. “The offerings just continue to increase — the quality of food available, the field trips, the technology available.”

Rossman also said that there isn’t a huge difference in costs among child care centers and most quality centers will charge similar amounts.

“It’s not like there’s two Cadillacs of day care and then everyone else is a standard sedan — it’s all relatively high, or you drop down significantly” in quality, Rossman said.

A lack of “big-city, high-end” jobs means child care costs aren’t quite as high in rural Michigan, said Stepping Stones’ Marvin.

However, the income difference also means many parents struggle to send their children to child care in the first place, she said.

“Most of my clientele are the average blue-collar workers that possibly get laid off for four months out of the year,” Marvin said. “We are continually full, but we do have children who need to leave” due to their parents’ inconsistent employment.

Rossman, who is soon to be the father of twins, said even with his professional career child care costs would eat up a significant portion of either his or his wife’s salary.

“All our friends that are parents say that once (their children) start school, then you feel rich,” Rossman said. “Even as someone who was reading and writing a lot about the costs of child care, it didn’t really resonate until pricing it out individually.

“My first thought was like, ‘which one of us is quitting our jobs to just stay home?’” he said.

Marvin, who has four children, is no stranger to this decision. She said she chose to quit her preschool teaching job when her first child was born to focus on child-rearing.

A year later, as Marvin was pregnant with her second child, she decided to use her child development degree and open an in-home daycare center.

“I really don’t think I would’ve been able to leave my kids with somebody else,” Marvin said. “This gave me the opportunity to be with them but still work.”

New census question threatens Michigan’s federal funds, voice in Congress

Capital News Service

LANSING — If a “citizenship question” is added to the 2020 U.S. Census, an undercount of noncitizens and communities with immigrant-heavy populations might worsen the negative impacts of Michigan’s population decline, immigration experts say.

Critics of the question, announced in March by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, claim that asking if someone is a citizen means fewer people will complete the census. And that will lead to underreported local governments receiving less federal aid and other resources and could threaten the size of Michigan’s representation in Congress.

The Commerce Department said it’s adding the question to more accurately enforce the Voting Rights Act by learning more about the percentage of the population eligible to vote.

But a question about citizenship could drive some people away from the census. Undocumented immigrants or their families might fear deportation, while those with legal immigration status might worry that their status doesn’t protect them from other consequences, said Susan Reed, the managing attorney of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows nearly eight out of every 10 travelers stopped when President Donald Trump’s travel ban was in effect were legal permanent residents.

An undercount could further reduce Michigan’s congressional delegation, Reed said. And if populations are undercounted, local governments could lose portions of $675 billion in federal funds for public programs, which is divided among communities across the nation based on census data.

“That funding is there, and the question is whether or not a community will get its fair share,” said Reed, whose center has offices in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor. “Representation and resources really are the question, and really are at stake.”

Reed said the question was proposed during a period of harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric from the Trump administration, which is also running the census. That context means non-citizens might not feel safe disclosing their status.

“The (citizenship) question has not been asked since the 1950s, and the reason why is because it’s been shown to depress participation by non-citizens,” Reed said.

People with legal immigration status, non-citizens and members of households that include non-citizens are reluctant to have contact with the government involving questions of their citizenship, Reed said.

Few people have a good handle on the language of citizenship, so many people don’t understand what it means to admit they’re non-citizens, Reed said.

People who would classify themselves as  “non-citizens” can be undocumented immigrants, those with a student or other temporary visa or legal permanent residents — someone with a  green card who isn’t yet a citizen, said Victoria Crouse, a senior policy fellow at the Michigan League for Public Policy, a nonpartisan policy institute that focuses on social issues.

Immigrants made up 6.3 percent of Michigan’s population in 2015, compared to 5.3 percent in 2000, according to the league. Michigan had an immigrant population of 622,875 in 2015.

“That’s something to keep in mind,” Crouse said. “We’re talking about this group of non-citizens, but it’s people with all sorts of different immigration statuses.”

The state’s population growth has slowed since 1970, shrinking by roughly 55,000 between 2000 and 2010, according to census data.

The reluctance of immigrants to answer the proposed citizenship question can be magnified by a lack of a visible benefits to people responding to the survey, Reed said.

Families might disclose their citizenship to receive benefits they’re entitled to based on immigration status, but in the context of the census, it might be difficult for them to see benefits that would offset potentially negative consequences, Reed said.

“The benefits for the community of a complete count are tremendous,” Reed said. “But the benefit of an individual filling out the census form is almost impossible to detect.”

If Michigan population trends continue, the Census Bureau predicts the state will lose a congressional representative following the 2020 census, dropping from 14 to 13 seats, according to Carolina Population Center, a population research group at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.

Michigan has lost five House seats since the 1970 census, when it had 19.

Rethinking, retelling Native American roles in Great Lakes history

Capital News Service

LANSING — History officials want historical areas to better reflect Native Americans’ contributions to the Great Lakes State.

This push for accurate native representation comes as the state is putting some of its historical markers under greater scrutiny.

The Michigan Historical Commission has worked with the state’s 12 federally recognized tribes to improve the markers, according to Sandra Clark, the director of the Michigan History Center.

“We have not done a good job about telling our stories either from [natives’] perspective or telling the stories that acknowledge that they’re still a vital part of Michigan’s population,” Clark said. “Some of this is not immediately apparent to the casual reader, but we really could do better.”

Using Mackinac Island as “a test case,” the Historical Commission has begun reviewing some markers — many of which date to the 1950s and 1960s. It’s already identified many of them as too narrowly focused, according to Clark.

“Most of the older markers are written from a very Euro-American perspective,” Clark said. “They say that so-and-so discovered Lake Michigan — of course, Native Americans, indigenous people, had known Lake Michigan was there for a very long time before the first Frenchman found out it was there.”

A subcommittee report with recommendations for how to move forward with changes to historical markers is on the agenda for the commission’s  April 18 meeting in Lansing.

One of the most egregious offenders was a 1959 marker on Mackinac Island recognizing a replica “bark chapel.” The original chapels were  huts used by Jesuit missionaries who lived among Native American tribes throughout the Great Lakes.

The marker, which referred to the colonizing French as “courageous” for turning the “minds of the savages to Christianity,” was removed more than 25 years ago, according to Phil Porter, the Mackinac State Historic Parks director.

“The key thing was to get it out of the public eye because it was offensive and it’s just taken some time to get it rewritten in an appropriate manner,” Porter said.

The agency still holds on to the marker, although Porter said he’s unsure if it’s in storage or where its exact location is.

It’s unlikely that the marker will ever see the light of day again. Porter said it would be put on display again only if given the proper context about its offensiveness — something the Mackinac Island park “doesn’t have the space” to do.

Removing the sign instead of adding context was the right choice, said Eric Hemenway, director of repatriation, archives and records for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, a federally recognized tribe in Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

Hemenway said he was okay with preserving the marker for use as part of a larger educational program, but continuing to display it in public — even with the proper context — would do more harm than good.

“It’s one of the most offensive signs I’ve ever seen anywhere, and it speaks to pure colonialism and one-sided history,” Hemenway said. “It really reflects how many Americans still viewed natives throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century.”

Although no replacement has gone up in the quarter-century since the original Mackinac Island marker was removed, replacing a single marker isn’t the only way to better tell the stories of the island’s native people, Porter said.

Mackinac State Historic Parks intends to turn the Biddle House — the former home of fur traders Edward and Agatha Biddle — into a Native American history museum “in the near future.”

Agatha Biddle was an Ojibwa whose regional connections were crucial to the family’s business success, according to the agency’s website. Interestingly, a 1960 historical marker outside the Biddle House makes little mention of Agatha, with the only reference coming in the sentence, “For years he lived here with his Indian wife.”

In addition, M-185 — the non-motorized state highway encircling Mackinac Island — has become the Native American Cultural History Trail. Six stations along the highway detail Native American contributions to Mackinac Island and Great Lakes history.

Changes in the works go further than the History Commission. In Kalamazoo, the city commission voted to remove the “Fountain of the Pioneers” in downtown Bronson Park.

The fountain, designed by Alfonso Iannelli — a colleague of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright — depicts a westward-facing settler standing above a Native American. The park is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The decision to remove the fountain comes after a controversy over its appropriateness dating back to its dedication.

“The Indian is shown in a posture of noble resistance, yet being absorbed as the white man advances,” Iannelli said in a statement to the Kalamazoo Public Library in 1940, the year of the fountain’s completion.

Porter said by removing offensive items, Native Americans aren’t the only people who benefit from better native representation — all visitors to historic places across the state seem to enjoy the new perspective as well.

“We’ve become very interested in improving the way that we communicate the story of Native American history — which by the way, the traveling public is very interested in,” Porter said.

In these efforts, Porter said it was important to collaborate closely with the tribes.

“The key thing is to make sure that they [local groups] work with their local native tribes so that they have their input,” Porter said. “That gives it the validity that’s necessary when presenting this story to the public.”

For example, projects like the Cultural History Trail and the Biddle House were done in direct collaboration with the Little Traverse Bay Bands.

The tribe’s Hemenway, who also serves on the History Commission, said he’s excited to see a focus on native representation gaining more traction at the state and national level.

“We’re in a fortunate time now where our partners are the state of Michigan, they are the National Park Service,” Hemenway said. “Everybody is working together much better from what we see than in the past of telling everybody’s stories.”

Commitment wanted: State seeking more foster parents

Capital News Service

LANSING – Rachel Kornilakis, who has been a foster parent for several years and adopted three children out of foster care, says being a foster parent creates a sense of helping others and belonging to a community.

“It is lovely and fulfilling to see children heal, grow, develop and experience firsts,” she said. “Take a kid to the zoo or for ice cream for the first time and your heart will be forever changed. It’s magical.”

Her foster children have stayed with the family for as short as three months and “as long as forever.”

Kornilakis, who lives in Southeast Michigan, says she doesn’t differentiate between her foster children and her own. “Out of the thousands of families I know, I don’t know any who think otherwise.”

According to a national study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly half of foster parents quit in their first year.

And while Michigan experts say that’s not a major problem in the state, they see a need for more adults to sign on.

According to Kornilakis, a foster parent should possess patience, stamina, flexibility, communication and parenting skills, as well as trauma training.

Kornilakis is the founder and co-president of Fostering Forward Michigan, a nonprofit group started in 2014 to help families through the process of becoming licensed by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and going through the initial placement processes.

The organization took the name as a reminder that “no matter how difficult or slow progress seems sometimes, we must push to move forward,” she said.

According to the Michigan Health and Human Services Department, the state has about 6,000 licensed foster families, and more than 13,000 children are in foster care.

“We are always recruiting,” said Heidi Raubenolt, the director of child welfare at Judson Center,

a nonprofit human services agency working in Wayne, Washtenaw, Macomb, Oakland and Genesee counties.

A license is required for prospective foster parents. State Health and Human Services marketing specialist Erica Quealy said it takes seven months on average for a family or individual to complete the steps to becoming a foster parent.

The process includes contacting a foster care navigator who will help them get started and answer questions about the process, selecting an agency to work with, attending orientation and training, and participating in a home evaluation, Quealy said.

Quealy said her department is always looking for more foster homes.

“When a child is being placed in foster care, we first make it a priority to find them foster homes with appropriate relatives whenever possible,” Quealy said. “That helps maintain stability for children who have experienced trauma.”

If children can’t be placed with relatives, the department tries to place them close to their home   so they can stay in the same school and be near their friends and family, she said. “Having more licensed foster families throughout Michigan provides a greater opportunity to keep children in their community.”

“There are a lot of different reasons,” said the Judson Center’s Raubenolt. “Sometimes there’s a good reason, such as they have run out of rooms in their home, or they had a child reunify to their own family and they want to take a break after that.”

She said another reason is that foster parents are struggling. “That is when the agency comes and tries to support them, to really help them stay and care for children.”

Kornilakis, of Fostering Forward Michigan, said new foster families are rarely prepared for the challenge of traumatized children who’ve been abused or neglected by their own parents. “They think they are simply going to love kids.”

Increasingly stringent and often confusing rules and regulations could also contribute to the drop-out rate, Kornilakis said.

“The investment of time and resources that families have to provide while undertaking a great deal of risk cannot be overstated,” she said. “Most foster families say you have to be ‘all in,’ and it takes a very special family to do this difficult work.”Some foster parents encounter difficulties that could be due to system failures such as delayed payments and services, or returning children to their birth families, said Kornilakis.

Raubenolt said, “Anyone who’s even thought about becoming a foster parent or might be passing the idea around cant call the statewide phone number at 855-MICHKIDS to speak to a foster care navigator and see if it might be right for them.

“If not, that’s OK too, but at least there is more awareness,” she said.

Nationally, teen suicide rate rises as Michigan counties fight trend

Capital News Service

LANSING — Suicide rates among teenagers nationally are at a 40-year high, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The federal study shows that the rate of girls 15 to 19 years old dying by suicide between 2007 and 2015 more than doubled, from 2.4 to 5.1 per 100,000. Meanwhile, the rate among boys in the same age range rose from 10.8 to 14.2 per 100,000.

Among states with the highest rates of suicide among residents between 15 and 24 in 2016 are Alaska at 45.6, Montana at 29.2 and South Dakota at 27.9, the American Association of Suicidology reported. Michigan’s rate was 14.7 per 100,000.

For families who have lost someone to suicide and for communities seeing the rising death toll among teens, the most frequent question is – why?

“It’s really hard to say why that would be,” said Michael Pyne, the chair of Muskegon County’s Suicide Prevention Coalition.

Among adults, Pyne said men die from suicide more frequently than women. Men use more lethal means such as firearms and suffocation, which is why they probably die at an higher rate, he said. Although that’s changing, women typically try less deadly  means such as poisoning and therefore stand a better chance of surviving.

Among the younger population, however, Pyne said the statistics show a complex situation, but it’s hard to positively state why rates are on the rise.

“We do see young people using guns more frequently. It’s possible, too, that young females might attempt suicide more frequently, repeatedly at times,” Pyne said.

In Grand Haven, Steve Shannon, the facilitator of the Survivors of Loss to Suicide support group, said young girls seem to be the children who are dying most often.  Although suicide rates for boys remain higher, males who commit suicide are usually older — young adults in their mid-twenties.

“For young teenage girls, it’s been our opinion in the group that it goes back to the pressure on them to be beautiful, sexy and all that, which is why I’m so glad that the #MeToo movement is happening these days,” Shannon said.

Shannon and his wife lost a son, Patrick, to suicide six years ago and are now working to help other parent-survivors.

In trying to understand what could be the leading causes of the rise in teen suicides, Shannon pointed to the rise in cyberbullying and depression rates as negatively affecting youth.

Pyne, however, said more often than not, there are multiple causes.

“Oftentimes, people want to put one singular reason to it, but the reality is that it’s quite often a complex concern. It’s usually more than one thing,” Pyne said.

He added that today’s teens are the first generation to be completely raised on social media, which makes bullying — a contributing factor — easy because it’s done over a distance. But probably a more important factor than that, Pyne said, is personal resilience and an ability to handle stresses.

“You may have been bullied and ridiculed but you got through it. Maybe a friend of yours also got bullied, had other pressures maybe from family to achieve and they died by suicide,” Pyne said.

The number of Michigan teenagers dying varies from one county to another.

To tackle the growing problem, Shannon of Survivors of Loss to Suicide said there’s a need to raise awareness, and he said parents of teenagers need to pay close attention to their children’s internet activities.

“We have had four different parents in our group who lost a child because they were being bullied, and they didn’t know they were being bullied that bad. They weren’t aware because they were not on top of their texts and internet activities. That has a large part to do with it,” Shannon said.

Pyne said complex layering of issues and concerns in society contributes to suicides.

“It’s a sick society frankly,” Pyne said. “There’s a lot of name-calling, there’s a lot of bullying just in general with groups, there is a lot of in-fighting that is seen because of social media. I think this trickles down to young people in a way that is different from the older generation.”

Shannon said that for some parents, current affairs content on TV also fuels confusion and depression in young people. “Today’s journalists are very argumentative, especially conflict newscasters,” Shannon said. “They argue, they talk over each other on TV.”

Shootings, politics and leaders who Shannon said are acting like children all contribute to an overall feeling that the world is negative and hopeless.

“I think it’s difficult for young people to watch adults fighting,” Pyne said. “You think adults are going to be in control, control their temper, their words, they’re not going to be bullies. But the reality is, they are.”

“You also live in a country where you think we’re supposed to have an equal shot at achieving the American dream, and I think that is just simply not the case,” he said.

Shannon and his wife have been working to raise awareness of the issue, such as an interview with the Grand Haven High School student-run newspaper. “It was kind of refreshing to see the students taking care of themselves and report on these tough-to-talk-about issues,” Shannon said.

Pyne recommended raising awareness about the ripple effects that behaviors such as bullying, harassment and name-calling can have on people.

“If we start to work on those things that have impacted us as human beings in a negative way and recognize that once we identify those things, we can actually get well,” Pyne said.