Michigan Case Study 2: Starr Commonwealth, Jonesville, Michigan

Starr Commonwealth Road
Albion, MI 49224
(517) 629-5593

Starr Commonwealth has been serving children and families of Michigan since 1913 and is one of the oldest establishments of its kind in the state. In a materialistic age, Commonwealth stresses what its staff and administration call "intangibles," such as connectedness, continuity, dignity, and opportunity. The Commonwealth’s Creed reflects this emphasis and is worth citing: "We believe in the dignity of labor. We believe that each child should be given some work suitable to childhood and should be taught that the value of labor is to be found, not alone in the completed task, but in the training of the mind and the hand, and in the joy of accomplishment."

Commonwealth emphasizes its "intangibles" in connection with ethically and academically ordered lives, principles which are today frequently missing in mainstream public education. Commonwealth Board Chairman Dennis LaFleur notes that we "adults, in our roles as parents, teachers and role models need to make a conscious effort to help children build self-esteem, form values, define a purpose to life, and become responsible citizens."

Commonwealth President Dr. Arlin Ness adds, "Today’s violent society has caused some to conclude that youth are out of control, and need to be controlled. Unfortunately, the policies being enacted today by lawmakers in reaction to violence do not address the real problem [which is that] from a very young age, children need positive connections with adults who can teach them the values and ideas that will be the foundation of their adult lives."

Many former Starr Commonwealth residents testify to their formative experiences. Mike Amundsen, who came to the Commonwealth in 1968, recalls the profound lesson of finding dignity in labor. Whether it was a school project or helping to beautify the Albion campus by cleaning the lawn, these chores always gave Amundsen and his classmates something to do. "Household chores, such as peeling potatoes to cook, dusting and doing laundry, we considered manual labor, not a woman’s job," Amundsen reports. Amundsen today credits Starr Commonwealth founder, Floyd Starr, and two presidents of the establishment, Dr. Larry Brendtro and Dr. Arlin Ness, with demonstrating to him the concept of fatherhood. He applies that lesson in his relations with his own children.

Starr Commonwealth views itself as a private-sector alternative to publicly financed receiving homes for dispossessed children and wards of the state and to publicly financed foster care. The administration of the Commonwealth believes that, because it is smaller and more personal than the state apparatus for dealing with the same clientele, it can offer them a more home-like and individually oriented experience. Operating six sites around the state, the Commonwealth offers such programs as case planning, alternative education, respite care, structured community re-entry, juvenile justice reintegration alternatives, relapse prevention services, supervised independent living, and sexual offender treatment.

The Case Planning Unit "serves male youth, ages 11 through 17, including behaviorally maladjusted, pre-delinquent, and delinquent youth." The unit aims at "a seamless experience of treatment whereby the strengths and needs of youth and families are appropriately assessed and services are sensitively delivered." The per diem rate is $137.44.

The structured community re-entry (SCR) consists of "a one-year program which incorporates an intensive residential stay of 6 months or less with structured community-based services for the remainder of the year." SCR serves male youth ages 13-17 who are "deemed appropriate to return to the community with supervision within 6 months of their entry into the . . . program."

The Starr Commonwealth, which also operated programs in Ohio, raises substantial private funds (over 15 million dollars in 1995). Since it is a licensed alternative to state foster care and receiving homes, its residents may receive some government funds toward deferral of the per diem; private charities may also help defer costs.