Voices of Cody Rouge: One former foster child's mission to reunite families in her neighborhood

Niccole Nelson's passion for foster care is personal. When she was 11 years old,  her and her brothers were taken out of school and placed into foster care. 

"In sixth grade, I was called to the principal's office," she recalls. "On my way to the office, I saw the social service car outside the school and knew what it was about ... That morning, I told my mother goodbye. And by that night, I was in a foster home."

They later moved to a second foster home before eventually getting adopted.

According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), there are over 13,000 children in the foster care system in our state. Most of these children are residing in foster care homes being cared for by non-relatives. While many enter the system due to a neglect complaint, the goal for most of these children and their parents is still reunification. 

The process varies across cases, but permanency is the goal. After being assured that the conditions that caused the child to have to leave the home have been remedied, a case plan is developed. One of the most important parts of a reunification plan for children and their parents is "parenting time," the process of monitored and evaluated visitation that aids in determining the projected timing and success of the child returning home. 

Traditionally, parenting time often took place in a case worker's office or a fast food restaurant. But as of last year, families in Detroit have a new option for spending time together thanks to the Neighborhoods of Hope initiative, which will provide a safe, intimate setting for parents and their children in foster care to spend time together.

Nelson was on the initiative's implementation team and steering committee. "As a foster child, I felt I didn't have a voice. This is a way for me to be a voice for foster children." 

There are three Neighborhoods of Hope Community Hubs located in the city of Detroit. The first opened at Gardenview Estates, a public housing community in Cody Rouge. Inside the recently renovated 607-unit single-family complex is a home dedicated to serving as a meeting place for birth families to visit in a home-like environment while still protecting the welfare of the child. 

"Family time and sibling time help improve the welfare of foster children while in the program and make reunification more likely and easier," Nelson says. 

Gardenview Estates hosts one of the Neighborhoods of Hope Detroit hubs

Homes in Gardenview Estates
In addition to the visitation services, MDHHS, which facilitates the program, offers access to community resources, youth development activities, and nutritious food. 

"In the hub, you can cook a meal, sit at a dining room table and do homework, sit on the couch and watch a movie, or talk about anything that is going on in school or how they feel versus an environment that feels forced," Nelson says. The hubs also offer education, communications, and faith-based support. 

The impact of Neighborhoods of Hope has been immediate. Nelson recounts the story of a biological mom who stated that doing visitation at the hub helped lessened her anxiety about the process of getting her kids back.

"Our number one goal is permanency and reunification," she says. "For her to say that, coming to the hub, having a support system, being able to do a birthday party with her children, meant a lot. It helped her look forward to the visits, instead being afraid that she would say or do the wrong thing in the presence of a social worker."

At Nelson's adopted home, her next-door neighbor and friend was Kenyetta Campbell, who later became the executive director of the Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance. Nelson went on to become the secretary and later president of the board of the CRCAA. 

It was her childhood friend that recommended she start her volunteer work with Neighborhoods of Hope, but it was through her own personal healing that she found her voice.

"My mother did eventually get clean and get her life together. She went on to become the greatest grandmother in the world before she later passed away," Nelson recalls. "To be able to come back and serve and lead in this neighborhood makes me very proud every day."

This article is part of "Voices of Cody Rouge," a series that showcases the authentic stories of residents, community stakeholders, and local organizations helping to create and shape positive transformation in the Cody Rouge neighborhood of Detroit. This series is made possible with support from Quicken LoansIFF, and the Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance

Photos by Nick Hagen

Read more articles by Biba Adams.

Biba Adams is a Detroit-based writer whose work has been published in Ebony Magazine, Revolt, AllHipHop.com and more. Find her on all social channels @BibatheDiva.
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