Today, a successful program designed to keep kids out of Michigan's foster care system comes to an abrupt end.
It teaches members of families that have problems to lean on one other, and those around them, to solve their own problems.
Ending it is a cost-cutting move at the state Capitol. It'll save $800,000 this fiscal year, and almost $2.5 million next year. And the cut will affect families in nine Northwest Michigan counties, from Manistee to Mackinac, people at substantial risk of loosing their kids.
There's also another group that'll loose out as this program comes to a close. That is, young people in their late teens or early 20's who were removed from home, who grew up in state foster care and are now starting out in adulthood without much money, and broken family ties.
It's this group Cynthia Stern is most worried about as her job comes to a close. Only through today, Stern runs the Family Group Decision Making program at Child and Family Services, a nonprofit in Traverse City.
"The youth in particular are like any 17-18-19-year-old would be, but they don't have their families in-tact," She says. "So any of us who are that age, remember back, are so utterly lost, have no idea, are utterly dependent on our families even as we're stepping out and finding out apartments and our jobs and going to college - all of which we've helped the youth do."
Twenty-year-old Tom McCoy has had Cynthia Stern and her staff on speed dial as moved into his first apartment, made college plans, learned to budget, and more importantly, to lean on what family he has.
Now - well ahead of schedule - he's saying goodbye to the social workers who have been there for support.
Outcomes for young men in Tom's shoes are pretty bleak. Boys who age out of state foster care are actually likely to serve time behind bars. But this program has shown Tom the family supports he already has that he hadn't taking advantage of. In Tom's case, his foster parents have been more than willing to help. And had he taken advantage, he might never have signed a car loan at 24.99 percent interest.
His gold 2003 Ford Taurus would seem a practical car for a 20-year-old, but Tom lists problem after problem with the car he bought last year for more than $10,000. It seems he paid a steep price in sticker alone. But adding the interest, his monthly payment for this 6-year-old Taurus ends up well over $350, not to mention the cost of repairs. In the first year he owned it the car was so-often in the shop, Tom only put about 2,000 miles on it.
"The trannie's been fixed (transmission), which it has to go back again because it's shifting weird again, sway bars, tie rods - more money than I have. The intake gasket..." Tom goes on.
Now he says he'll never again make a big financial decision like that without consulting his family. And that's the real crux of Family Group Decision Making. He's hopefully learned how to lean on those around him for a little extra support before decisions turn into big financial nightmares that could send him into a tailspin.
Social workers at Child and Family Services brought Tom and his family together to talk about his strengths and weaknesses, the areas that could cause him problems as he begins adulthood. Then social workers leave the room, as the family agrees to a plan to address those weaknesses.
"Of course, you know, mom and dads - or even foster parents can only get so far with the kids," says Laurie Aeschliman. She's Tom's foster mother and his aunt. "And then sometimes it takes that other stranger to step in and say, look: we've really got to work on that. And Tom is coming a long ways with that."
Now the program is over, long before Tom's year in it was to be up. The state gave just more than 30 days notice and pulled the plug.
Laurie got the news from Tom as she was driving down the road. She was so angry, she had to pull over. She's disappointed for Tom, but also worried for his younger sister.
"Oh, definitely I'm worried because that program helped Tommy get all his funding for college and set him up in an apartment and now there's nothing there for Amy, there's nobody for Amy to go to. So I'm really scared for Amy and I'm not quite sure where to turn now," Laurie Aeshliman says.
The Family Group Decision Making program is designed to prevent little problems - such as bad financial transactions - from turning into big problems, serious money problems and perhaps eviction, or repossession.
In Traverse City, Child and Family Services has been using the program to help former foster youths transition to adulthood for about three years. And for 10 years they've been using it to prevent families from loosing their kids to the foster care system in the first place.
The statistics are impressive. According to the state Department of Human Services, 94 percent of families in the program don't have an abuse or neglect charge during the service period. And, at the conclusion of the year, 93 percent of kids are living with parents, or other family members. And these are families with patterns of problems that had put them at significant risk of loosing their children to state foster care.
After getting a letter last month informing him the program would be ended, Child and Family Services Executive Director Jim Scherrer started lobbying lawmakers and DHS officials not to make these cuts.
"Michigan was on the front line - on the cutting edge - of implementing Family Group Decision Making for families in the child abuse and neglect system a little over 10 years ago," Scherrer says. "But it seems that right while the rest of the country is catching on to what is a really good idea and a great way to protect children within their own families and within their own cultures, is a time when our state is vacating it. So it isn't just reducing a program, it's actually taking a valuable service completely off menu of options that families have to keep their kids at home."
Even though it's successful, the program has never been statewide. It serves fewer than 370 families a year.
Across town at the State Office Building in Traverse City, Dawn McLaughlin runs the DHS offices in Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties.
She says, "It's a creative approach and, in the long-run it helps keep children with their families, and that's important and it'll save the sate money in the long run. But now we're kind of forced by the economy to look at a shorter-term focus. And it's sad to loose a program that's that good."
McLaughlin says a lot of prevention programs are going by the wayside because at this point the state can only triage the worst cases of child abuse and neglect.
After today just one family will get support from the Family Group Decision Making model. This spring, Cynthia Stern had started to help another young man aging out of foster care in the area who has some disabilities. He doesn't have much family to address any number of issues that will make it especially challenging for him to manage all by himself. Stern found a teacher willing to take him in, indefinitely. Things are looking up, but that teacher signed on expecting a year of significant help from Cynthia Stern.
Stern says, "I do have permission to continue on a voluntary basis with that family because I basically can't sleep at night. Um, it's pretty awful to just drop ... and I will continue working with them on a voluntary basis."
Stern holds her voice steady as she wipes away tears.