Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Calhoun County series.
Being a foster parent won’t make you rich, but it will enrich you, says Marcia Trigg, who together with her husband has fostered more than 30 children.
“When they first come to me, I write their names and birthdates in a special book that I keep,” she says.
The Triggs have been foster parents for eight years. They now are in the process of adopting a set of 3-year-old twins who have been with them since January 2021. They also foster four youth, the oldest of whom is a 16-year-old girl. These six children share a home in Battle Creek where the Triggs raised three children of their own, now adults with 11 children between them.
The sudden death of a cousin who had five children, including a set of twins, signaled the start of their journey to become foster parents.
“Her older daughter, who was 16 and a mother, was already living with me because she and my cousin were not getting along,” Marcia (pronounced Mar-see-ah) says. “Me and my husband discussed and discussed about taking the twins, but then they decided to live with the foster parents they were already living with. We said, ‘We’ve got a lot of love to give so let’s just open up our home.’”
That love extends to any child who needs a place to call home regardless of their race, ethnicity or how they identify.
“We had a young lady in the beginning and she was really confused about whether she was ‘either/or’ and I said, ‘Honey, that’s your choice. Whatever you need, we’ll support you. We want to meet your friends and show them love no matter what and make them feel welcome because this is your home.’”
Trigg says she and her husband are devout Christians “and the Lord says we have to love each other, no matter what. Love is love and we are not supposed to put a tag on it, no color, no gender, no religion, no ethnic part, it’s just supposed to be love.”
Marcia Trigg sits with two of her daughters, from left, Elloise, 3, and Ellenah, 7.
Those who work with these foster parents and youth through the Department of Health and Human Services in Calhoun County say there is a need for those who take in youth in general and a particular need for individuals to take in youth who identify as LGBTQ+.
“In Calhoun, we have an especially hard time building the number of homes back up and having homes that are open to youth who identify as LGBTQ+,” says Regina Rosenberg, a Licensing Specialist with DHHS in Calhoun County. “We have had young adults who have come into foster care in the last few years who have had disrupted adoptions. This is a result of them coming out. The ability to be able to find a home for teens or pre-teens who identify as LGBTQ+ has been incredibly difficult.”
Much of this difficulty stems from the unknown. Rosenberg says often foster parents mistakenly think that an LGBTQ+ youth could harm their other children, a misconception based on what they may have seen in a television show airing on a cable channel like “Lifetime.” She says in the 11 years that she’s been working in Calhoun County, this current period in time is the most diverse, and she cites, among other things, the establishment of the BC Pride offices on Calhoun Street as an example of a growing acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community.
Still, there continue to be LGBTQ+ youth in the community in need of foster parents who have feelings of rejection and don’t feel safe coming out, says Laura Dipert, a Licensing Specialist with Calhoun County’s DHHS.
Although there is no data on the number of LGBTQ+ youth in the county as they are not identified separately, Rosenberg says, “We have seen but not confirmed and have speculated that some of these youth have just not felt comfortable enough until they’re in an environment where they could share that they identify as LGBTQ youth.”
“When we license homes there is a place on the application to indicate preferences that includes questions about gender identity,” Dipert says. “There’s a section that asks if you’re willing to accept kids that identify as a certain gender and are you open to accepting or helping them. They rate their responses on a scale.”
Currently, Calhoun County has 86 licensed foster care homes and 250 children in the foster care system, says Kim McFellin, Children Services Supervisor for Calhoun County’s DHHS. Her department serves as the licensing unit for foster care homes.
Marcia Trigg and her husband, Allen, with four of their children, from left, Makiya, Ellenah, Elloise, and Kenzie.
“Over the last three months we have had seven new homes open and we’ve lost 14. We’re losing homes 50 percent faster than we’re opening them,” McFellin says.
Statewide there are about 4,200 licensed foster care homes and 10,500 children in foster care. In the last three months, McFellin says, “We have had 711 foster care homes that have closed throughout the state. In contrast, we’ve only been able to open 388 new homes in the last three months.”
Varying reasons for this decline
“We ask our foster parents to do a lot for us,” McFellin says. “As a foster parent, you’re not just taking a child into your home and caring for them. You also have to get them to medical appointments, school, and afterschool activities. You have to work around visitation with their biological parents, meetings with DHHS caseworkers, and their involvement with the court system. It’s a huge task that we ask people to do and it’s grown over the years.”
In the 20 years that she has been involved with licensing, McFellin says it’s become increasingly more difficult to be a foster parent and harder to recruit new foster care homes. She says COVID has added to the difficulty because people are being asked to take children into their homes without knowledge of their history with the virus and vaccines.
“There’s no guarantee that the child you’re taking in hasn’t been exposed,” McFellin says.
But Rosenberg says she doesn’t think COVID played a big part in the decrease in licensed foster care homes. She says her experience has been that the homes have run out of room.
“A lot of my homes have been closed for personal and legitimate family reasons,” Dipert says. “The homes fill up or their adoptions go through.”
Rosenberg says negative stigmas about taking in foster children or working with the foster care system still persist and cannot be discounted when discussing the lack of people willing to open homes or take in children. She says she and her colleagues in Calhoun County try to educate as many people as they can as a way to lessen this stigma.
The need is there to do better for all of the community’s foster children, Rosenberg says, “LGBTQ+ youth are part of our community,” she says. “All of our children need to be in an environment that will accept them and assist them. They don’t have ideas about how to get resources or the implications of their actions.”
Then there’s the financial aspect.
Marcia Trigg with one of her daughters, Elloise, 3.
In Michigan, the monthly reimbursement per child ranges between $482 and $600, depending on whether a child has any special needs, according to a guide for would-be foster parents
. These reimbursements must cover the cost of essentials including food, clothing, and incidentals such as books, toys, and recreational or entertainment outings.
There’s a misconception that foster parents are “only in it for the money,” Rosenberg says. “I have yet to find a family that’s getting rich off of the system. What they receive is a stipend to help support that child in their home.”
Trigg says if people sign up as foster parents for the money, they’ll be very disappointed. She says some of the children she has cared for have challenged her about the reimbursements and have told her that that money is theirs, not hers, to spend.
“They seem to think that we get this boatload of money and it’s not a boatload of money,” she says. “Whatever money we get goes to the kids. I do daycare out of my house, in addition to fostering. My husband works at a factory out at Fort Custer Industrial Park. We have a five-bedroom house and when I have children breaking walls, we have to fix it. I just sit down and explain to them where the money goes.”
McFellin says that the Triggs, like the majority of foster parents she works with. take money out of their own pockets to provide extras like sporting activities or participation in the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts.
“Statewide, they’re starting to take a look at that and saying that it needs to be a higher rate per child,” she says. “We’re hoping they can continue to increase that rate.”
In February, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) requested an 18 percent increase in the rate paid to foster parents per child in its budget recommendations to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for the fiscal year 2023
. If approved, this will be the first rate increase in 10 years.
The increase is included in the Michigan State House budget, but may not be in the State Senate budget, says Paul Egnatuk, Legislative Aide to State Rep. Jim Haadsma (D-Calhoun County). He says the House, Senate, and Whitmer will negotiate the budget, which could be in place by July 1.
The proposed increase for foster care payments is $16.8 million, Egantuk says.
“The Governor asked for increases in child welfare and foster care payments,” Egnatuk says. “We need to put more money into foster care because adoptions aren’t happening.”
While waiting to see what will happen with the budget, McFellin says, “We’re trying to focus on giving foster parents gifts cards for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, giving them meal cards when they take in a new placement, or giving them more financial help when they take in an emergency placement. We’ve also been focusing on supporting parents with new placement and asking if they have everything they need and is there something we can help with. They need someone to help them navigate the system. We’d love to be able to do more.”
Moving from the center out
The lack of licensed foster care homes has become a more significant issue in Michigan within the past year because of the increasing number of youth of all ages who need a placement, McFellin says. Fifteen years ago when she became a supervisor in Calhoun County, she says there were close to 200 licensed homes, 120 of which were licensed by DHHS with the remainder licensed by private agencies such as Bethany Christian Services and Family and Children Services.
“When placing a child we could really make a thoughtful decision on what’s the best home and who would be the best match,” she says.
The best-case scenario was and continues to be to have a child from Calhoun County placed in a home within the county, but this is happening less and less as the number of homes decreases.
“We try the center which would be our community first and if there’s nothing available, we expand our circle. We have a network that we’ve built up of all private agencies in the state and DHHS. If we can’t find something close by, we start looking statewide and send out an email describing the needs of the child,” McFellin says.
Rosenberg says she has a youth who wants very badly to come back to Battle Creek and is currently in a foster care home on the east side of the state. She says the disruptions moving away from town causes in a young person’s life are many. One is the loss of instruction time in school, which can set them back six months in their education.
“The biggest thing in foster care is that there’s a lot of loss there. When a child is removed from their home there’s a loss of parents, peers, and neighborhoods. Or they’re placed with a relative who’s not in the area or a foster parent and they’re not familiar with the community, or they’re placed across the state,” Rosenberg says. “That’s very common with the state of affairs now. Our goal is to have them be and help children stay in their community so they don’t lose that sense of connection.”
When DHHS can’t find a placement right away, youth stay in temporary shelters operated by the state.
“Even these shelters have been at capacity,” McFellin says. “If they are full, we try to find a home willing to take the child for a weekend or a few days and we go day by day and piece it together. We’ve been pretty fortunate. We have kids who have had to be in multiple temporary placements but have not had a situation where we couldn’t find them a place to go. It’s emotionally draining when we know a child needs a place to be and we just can’t find it.”
This is why, despite the challenges of having children who throw tantrums, smear feces on a wall, or wet the bed, Trigg says she and her husband will continue to foster as many children as their home has room for.
“The challenges vary with the child and every situation is different,” she says. “Sometimes you try to bond with a child and that child is difficult and everybody’s difficult along with the child. It’s just using your common sense. My mother used a lot of common sense and always reminded me that you do unto others as you want to be treated.”
Photos by John Grap. See more of his work here.