HOUGHTON - The Department of Human Services is Michigan's second largest state department, but Director Maura Corrigan doesn't sense as much reliance on DHS services in the Copper Country as in other areas of the state.
Corrigan, who was chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court from 2001 to 2005 and was appointed as DHS director on Jan. 6, 2011, stopped by The Daily Mining Gazette office Thursday for an exclusive interview, along with Houghton/Baraga/Keweenaw County Director Len Richards and DHS Director of Marketing and Public Relations David Akerly.
"We were trying to analyze this coming up - what is it about the U.P. that makes it so distinctive, because although there's huge challenges economically with the unemployment rate, for example in Baraga County is very high, you don't have the people applying for welfare benefits and the different programs in the same way on the cash side of our operation," Corrigan said. "Statewide we have about 1.8 milllion people drawing down cash assistance, but there isn't the penetration rate in this part of the state that there is elsewhere. I think there's more one-on-one contact and more of a spirit of the community taking care of its own perhaps."
Kurt Hauglie/Daily Mining Gazette
Michigan Department of Human Services Director Maura Corrigan addressed a variety of issues, many with specific Copper Country connections, during an interview at The Daily Mining Gazette office Thursday morning.
Richards agreed, pointing to a self-reliance among people in the Copper Country, and ultimately Corrigan said one of the DHS's primary goals is to get people to self-sufficiency.
The department is dealing with a court case now related to 8,800 reapplications for cash assistance after 13,000 people were removed from the system after reaching a federally mandated 60-month cash assistance limit.
"We won the court case in the Court of Appeals but because of the trial court order, we've been ordered to put people back on," Corrigan said. "We have 8,800 to put back on (by Aug. 10), but you only have one here - one case (in the three-county area)."
She said generational poverty and an untrained work force are two of the primary challenges standing in the way of the department's self-sufficiency goal.
"It's not so much a lack of jobs, it's a lack of skills in our unemployed population and how do we overcome that problem," she said.
DHS is redesigning its Jobs Education & Training (JET) Program, and it will release the new-look program on Oct. 1. The program will include more automated features and an orientation program that will allow people to assess their skill set and determine specifically how DHS can help. Corrigan hopes the redesign will put an end to heavy federal sanctions against Michigan DHS for having less than 50 percent of people in its Family Independence Program (FIP) in a work participation program.
Another move, as part of major changes to its child welfare system is extending foster care benefits from 18 years old to 21 years old.
"The problem we had is that at age 18 kids would just get dumped out, become homeless, commit crimes, have babies out of wedlock, creating problems like generational poverty," Corrigan said. "This extension aims to help them go to school or get training to get them work ready so they're not dumped out and we can help them to get to self-sufficient adulthood."
She believes the policy has been written in such a way that young people must either be in school or in a job training program to participate, preventing abuse of the system.
Another area of foster child reform is with the new Seita Scholars program at Western Michigan University, which now has 130 aging-out foster youth on track to graduate.
"This year the legislature just passed money in the budget directed to Western for Western to help other colleges and universities replicate their program," Corrigan said.
Michigan Technological University and Finlandia University do not have such programs yet, but Corrigan and Richards both expressed an interest in promoting that program in the Copper Country.
The tri-county area of Houghton/Baraga/Keweenaw counties has already shown signs that it can provide foster child support, as it had a goal of licensing seven new non-relative foster homes and it licensed 13.
"I want to commend Len and his partners in the agencies here for the work they've done," Corrigan said. "We had a goal under the settlement agreement that we would license 1,300 new non-relative foster homes by June 30. People said that's too big of a goal and you'll never do it, but we met the goal eight days early. Houghton did fabulous in terms of its goal - it was one of the top 10 in the state."
Of the more than 13,000 foster children in the state, there are only about 40 in the tri-county area, but Corrigan commended the local efforts to ensure each of those situations is handled properly.
"I look at (mobilizing the workforce) as a culture change within our agency and within our local offices," Richards said. "We've introduced it, we've talked about it, we're slowly making our way out there. I have to tell you under Director Corrigan's leadership, we've really outfitted our staff with excellent tools."
Corrigan also pointed to a centralized hotline for reports of abuse and neglect, positive relationships with tribal partners and mobilizing its workforce as other main objectives that have seen success in the Copper Country.
"Our goal over the next three years is to make the entire field go mobile so that on the cash side our workers aren't just pushing paper, they're assisting clients to solve issues of generational poverty and helping them with solutions," she said.
The department is also making a push to conduct asset tests instead of just income tests for Food Assistance Program (FAP) benefits.
"We want to be sure that the assets that the taxpayers pay for and these programs go to the truly needy," she said.
Before leaving the Gazette office for the Houghton DHS office, Corrigan once again emphasized the lack of dependency in the Copper Country.
"You do not have a high caseload of FIP or FAP recipients here. You're way under the state numbers, which I find interesting especially given your unemployment rate," she said. "For FAP you're at 13 percent, where we're at 18 percent for the rest of Michigan. A good job must be being done locally."