In 1981, the Michigan economy, which is heavily dependent upon the automobile industry, had fallen on hard times. Some 230,000 families in the state who were receiving public assistance struggled with a sense of hopelessness and the stigma generally tied to being on welfare. At the time, there were 7,000 developmentally disabled individuals under the care and supervision of Michigan's mental health system. Some 2,000 of these individuals lived in state institutions at an average cost of $125 a day.
Judson Center, a leading private nonprofit human services agency headquartered in Royal Oak, Michigan was seeking to challenge the comfortable but inadequate and costly approaches to serving these two groups—namely the public welfare system and large institutions. In its place, the Center proposed the Living in Family Environments (LIFE) program, an effort to make a positive difference in the lives of disabled children and families on public assistance while using public funds more efficiently. The LIFE program places developmentally disabled children into the homes of mothers on public assistance. Each mother, after receiving training and with the continuing aid of a caseworker, gives up public assistance and receives an annual salary of $21,800 with medical benefits for the care she provides.
The results are impressive for both the children and foster families. In the LIFE family setting, the children make significant gains in independence and self-sufficiency, and the mothers, instead of being dependent upon the state for assistance, become independent, self-employed, tax-paying members of the community. Finally, the expense of the LIFE program is significantly less than the cost of public assistance and placement of the child in an institutional setting, saving $35,000 per placement.
Since its inception, the program has served 85 children with developmental disabilities. Of these, 44 children have completed the program and have either returned to their birth families or gone on to permanent adult foster care placements. The remaining 41 children are currently in the program. In 1993, the program reached a milestone with family permanency becoming a reality for five children who were legally adopted by their foster mothers. At present, three others are also in the final stages of adoption.
Of the 30 foster families who have been enrolled in the LIFE program, only one has returned to using Aid to Dependent Children, and five of the original six foster mothers still remain in the program. As a result of their involvement in LIFE, seven pursued college education, one has obtained a G.E.D., and six have found employment beyond the program in real estate, sales, house cleaning, and day care. Currently, 15 of the foster families are homeowners.