By David Fleet
A bill that would increase the ability for larger-scale foster homes to provide caring environments for Michigan children moved one step closer last month.
House Bill 4095 allows state licensed residential youth foster care facilities to house up to 10 children if the facility is located on property spanning 20 or more acres. Under current law, a state licensed residential facility is a structure that services six or fewer individuals.
On May 21 by a 73-36 vote the Michigan State House advanced the legislation sponsored by state Rep. John Reilly, (R-46th District) of Oakland Township to the Senate. The 46th District includes Brandon Township.
“The basis for the bill is to allow child foster care facilities such as the House of Providence to accommodate additional children,” said Reilly. “Under current law, any home with more than six foster children in the home cannot be considered a residential use of property. There are child foster care facilities with as many as 200 beds in Michigan, but these have to be zoned a foster care facilities.”
“Allowing up to 10 children if the property was 20 acres or more was what we considered a conservative figure to allow for a living environment that really is intended to be a residential home,” he said. “By only allowing this increase on parcels of 20 acres or more, it wouldn’t affect urban areas where the bill has no intention of being a work-around for local zoning laws.”
The bill only applies to child foster care, not adult foster care. Facilities wishing to house additional foster children on larger properties must be licensed under the Child Care Licensing Act to ensure acceptable upkeep and care standards.
“We’ve had families and facilities wishing to open their doors to more children in need and we shouldn’t have laws limiting such an act of graciousness,” said Reilly. “Foster homes provide a stable, nurturing environment for children under the watch of an adult figure and this is a needed update in law to allow larger facilities on larger, accommodating properties the ability to take in more kids.”
On Dec. 10 by a 3-1 vote the Senate Government Operations Committee moved the legislation on to the Senate Committee of the Whole. However, other area lawmakers expressed opposition to the bill.
State Rep. Mike Mueller (R-51st District) encompasses parts of Genesee County and Oakland County, including Atlas and Groveland townships originally co-sponsored this legislation with the impression that it would expand the availability of adequate care and housing for foster children.
“After the bill’s introduction, however, I was quickly made aware of the unforeseen consequences of this bill as it relates to local residential zoning requirements and local resources,” he said. “After receiving pushback from residents in Rose Township regarding my co-sponsorship of this legislation, I held a meeting in April at the Township Hall. To my surprise, over 80 residents attended to voice their opposition to the bill. Currently, there is a residential facility operating in the township, and residents discussed how the current situation has already posed a number of risks to the community, and how expanding the number of children in a facility will create hardships on law enforcement and emergency medical services who are already spread thin in rural communities.”
House Bill 4095 would allow six or more children in a facility if the property is located on a parcel of 20 acres or more, and given the acreage provision in the bill, this raises a concern in predominantly rural communities who have an abundance of land, added Mueller
“After hearing from constituents in my district, I ultimately decided to vote ‘no’ on the bill because it limits a local zoning authority from adopting their own ordinances in order to regulate these facilities in their communities,” he said. “These state-licensed residential facilities do not function as your average foster family home where a couple fosters children in their own home, they are facilities ran by organizations who employ workers to provide 24-hour care and supervision in areas zoned for residential purposes, with children who need special care and attention. Simply put, I believe that any decision to expand the number of children allowed in a facility should not be based solely on acreage, but with consideration of local rights and resources as well.”
State Senator Ruth Johnson (R-Groveland Township) also opposes HB 4095. Johnson represents Brandon, Groveland and Atlas townships.
“No other state in our country allows 10 children in a residential foster care facility, let alone children with the serious mental health and behavioral issues which this bill would also impact,” said Johnson. “As a past clinician, I feel strongly like many other stakeholders and experts that this bill is not in the best interest of vulnerable children. In fact, it moves Michigan in the wrong direction.”
Many of these children with serious mental health issues and often who have already been adjudicated by the juvenile justice system need the love and support of a smaller, family-like setting, added Johnson.
“They need personal attention, not 10 children in one home in what is very much more akin to an institutional setting,” she said. “That’s why this bill is opposed by the Oakland County Community Health Network, the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services, the Michigan Township Association, and the Michigan Municipal League.”
To provide the services needed with the best outcomes, Oakland County Community Health Network recently received a grant from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for a pilot program using best practices of smaller family units with foster parents who are given special training, coupled with support services for families of these youth with a goal of positive and productive integration into society, added Johnson.
“When we provide what we know are best practices for our children to be successful it is a win for them, for their families, and for our community, state, and country,” she said. “The standard in considering House Bill 4095 is clear: Is this legislation in the best interest of vulnerable children in our state? To me, it is not. And that is why I cannot support it.”