Northern Michigan’s Child and Family Services nurtures neglected children and struggling families so they can become healthy and whole.

On a good day, it’s tough for foster families and biological parents to commit to getting the mental health care and counseling needed for all family members when there’s a child who enters the foster system. There’s the potential stigma attached, for one; logistics and distance are another barrier; or it’s simply not a family priority or within their comfort zone.

Now, factor in the abrupt halt in face-to-face services this spring, and it has all gotten tougher.

Northern Michigan’s Child and Family Services (NMCFS) was quick to realize the pressure that all families involved would be under, and to shift priorities and programming to support them in crisis, including both foster families and biological families.

“We immediately recognized that mental health issues were going to increase because of the isolation and trauma of going through a pandemic, so we were able to pivot,” explains Melissa Ryba, Marketing and Development Specialist for NMCFS.

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NMCFS utilized technology to facilitate virtual visits for foster kids with their biological parents and provide telehealth services and counseling for parents and children via Zoom, phone or in person. They also quickly secured a grant with the Michigan Health Endowment fund to help connect those families without the necessary technology to help secure hot spots, tablets and whatever else they needed in order to get the health services their family required.

Navigating the pandemic didn’t stop them from expanding their outreach and support this year, however. One of the biggest challenges facing kids and families in the foster system is not just receiving, but actually finding and connecting to the support and services each child may need.

Though every child has a case manager, it’s often not enough. Now, with new funding, NMCFS has created a position for a placement support specialist who works directly with foster parents one-on-one when they have a new placement so that each child is connected to the range of services they need, which may go beyond counseling to include things such as occupational or physical therapy. “This position works to ensure success,” Ryba explains, “and to reduce the number of times a child moves from foster to foster.”

The referrals of children into the system in the last few months have gone down—and that’s not a good thing, says Ryba. Rather, NMCFS is poised for a surge of need in the coming months. Teachers make up the majority of referrals of abuse and neglect, and because children have been out of school for six months, there’s likely to be a rush of referrals when they once again return to school and connect with adults who see them every day, and can look out for signs of abuse and neglect.

Donations are more important now than ever, especially with the heightened trauma and need facing families in Northern Michigan. But what do those gifts look like in action? A donation of $1,500 would provide a week’s stay as well as intensive counseling and services at Pete’s Place, a shelter for homeless teens. A gift of $2,000 would go toward providing a comprehensive trauma assessment for one of the children in the system, involving occupational therapists, physical therapists and physicians coming together to help target how to best help a child heal.

And that healing is the ultimate goal. “We have such a compassionate community,” says Ryba. “We have always been able to count on them, and we know that’s true now more than ever.”