Suzanne Greenberg shares an unfortunate story with tens of thousands of Michigan children.
For nearly her entire childhood – from the time she was 2 years old until she was 18 – Greenberg was a victim of both physical and sexual abuse.
But rather than be forever victimized by the abuse, Greenberg has let it define her. She has spent decades trying to help keep other children from suffering the same traumatic experiences.
Since 2019, Greenberg has served as the executive director of the Children’s Trust Fund of Michigan, a part of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services dedicated to preventing child abuse in Michigan.
That comes after she spent some 25 years fighting the same fight for an arm of CTF in Saginaw and Bay City. Greenberg calls it her “passion.” Her family knows it’s more than that.
“My family calls it my life’s work,” Greenberg said “What I always knew, when I wanted to be a parent – actually, I was scared to death of being a parent – was that you can raise kids without hurting them.
“That was a mission of mine,” she added. “That used to catapult me out of bed when I started (in Saginaw). I had young kids at the time — nine months old and a 4-1/2 year old, now they’re 28 and 33 – and they were my reason for figuring out how to be a better parent.”
She’s been helping parents around the state figure out how to do the same thing since she first sat down in the executive director’s chair in March 2019.
The CTF was initially established through a Public Act in 1982, pushed by former Speaker of the House Curtis Hertel and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who was in the House back then.
CTF points out on its website that it serves as a “voice for Michigan’s children and families” and promotes “their health, safety, and welfare” by funding effective local programs and services that prevent child abuse and neglect.
The CTF is staffed largely by state employees. The partnership allows Greenberg some advantages she didn’t have when she was working the local council in Saginaw.
For instance, she now has access to a public information officer who, since the fund’s entire mission is predicated on raising awareness, “is a great benefit.”
Greenberg calls the availability of assistance in human relations issues and administrative support “a gift.”
“Those kinds of support make our partnership a strong one,” she said. “Because of the movement and the focus on shifting from being a child welfare organization to really focusing on prevention … it’s a beautiful time for us to really align and work together.”
The CTF runs some 30 different programs, using 73 local organizations serving 83 counties across the state. The CTF’s $4 million budget hands out funding and grants to the local groups.
Some funding comes from some federal sources, and fundraising the CTF does with donors and other corporate partners. The CTF also has access to about 5% of the trust set up 40 years ago.
The funding is obviously necessary. In Fiscal 2021, the CTF served more than 62,000 adults and more than 95,000 children. It also provided direct services to 1,273 families.
Amy Loepp, appointed a couple of years ago by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as the chair of CTF’s Board of Directors, said the statutory access to the trust fund – even thought it’s “a small amount” — makes things easier.
“(Hertel and Stabenow) wanted to ensure there would always be base funding for child abuse and neglect so there wouldn’t have to be a line-item fight every year to get this work done,” Loepp said. “We also have this nonprofit fundraising arm. We want to raise as much as we can, because we can draw down federal dollars based on what we raised outside the trust fund. The more we can get at these various events, the more we can get from the federal government as well.”
Greenberg spent more than two decades basically in on-the-job training for her current gig. While running the outfit in Saginaw/Bay City, she shepherded two mergers and got a third one started, while also taking the organization through a “wonderful” capital campaign.
When the executive director position came open, Greenberg immediately saw what she calls the “right opportunity” to work with “incredible programs” across the state.
“It’s been an interesting journey because the CTF is a different kind of organization,” she said. “We’re blessed to be administered by MDHSS, so we’re part of the department, but we’re also separate in that we raise our own funds, and we do a lot of different things outside the department.
“But it’s really nice to have that partnership, and that I didn’t expect,” she added.
It’s a partnership MDHSS officials value, as well. Demetrius Starling, executive director of the MDHSS Children’s Services Agency, said the funding CTF provides is “critically important” to prevention efforts across the state.
“Our Children’s Services Agency prioritizes keeping children safe and keeping families together,” Starling said. “Providing prevention resources to families helps accomplish those goals. Suzanne Greenberg brings great passion to the Children’s Trust Fund, and her extensive experience in preventing child abuse in local communities is invaluable.”
A large part of the funding comes from corporate partners and fundraisers. They netted a good one this year in Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan, which chose CTF as the beneficiary of its charitable efforts this year.
Blue Cross Blue Shield CEO Dan Loepp, who worked in the Legislature in his younger days and called the late Hertel his “best friend,” said the choice of CTF as this year’s charity beneficiary is “a natural for us.”
“The tremendous job the CTF does around the issue of abuse and the connectivity to Blue Cross is interesting,” said Loepp, who is the husband of CTF board chair Amy Loepp. “We’re the only company that offers health care in all counties in the state, and … CTF offers services to every county, too. There’s a connectivity there.”
Dan Loepp said he also worked with former legislator Dick Posthumus, who now sits on the Blue Care Network board. CTF’s major fundraiser, the charity auction coming up in May, is named for Posthumus’ late wife, Pam.
“There’s a connectivity there that goes in a 40-year circle,” Dan Loepp said. “So that’s kind of neat.”
Greenberg said corporate partnerships is invaluable in helping the CTF accomplish its mission.
“We can’t get prevention done without working in partnership,” Greenberg said. “Having corporate partners who are willing to help us to raise awareness, and of course raising dollars … is a great gift to us. Otherwise, we don’t have those connections. Those sorts of opportunities are priceless.”
With that kind of help in hand, the CTF goes about its primary mission, focusing primarily on child abuse prevention with education and supports Greenberg says are “universal.”
They include things like personal safety programs in schools, not only teaching children to protect themselves – “That’s not their responsibility to do that, so we also work with the professionals,” Greenberg said – and working with MDHSS on programs like mandatory reporting training.
The mission also includes general public awareness, sharing that child abuse is an issue in Michigan – Greenberg said data for 2019 showed 1-in-7 children in Michigan suffered some sort of abuse — and in local communities.
“There were just under 16,000 reports of suspected child abuse or neglect in Michigan in 2021,” Starling noted. “We need to provide resources and support to parents so we can strengthen families and prevent child abuse and neglect. Preventing child abuse and neglect is a community responsibility.”
Neglect comes in a number of forms, Amy Loepp said, which could simply be a “lack of parents’ understanding of a safe place to be.”
For instance, it used to be that parents would put their kids to bed with blankets and maybe some stuffed animals. New guidance from experts says that’s no longer the way.
In vogue now: Sleep sacks, wraps that keep a sleeping child snuggled in. The problem, according to Amy Loepp, is they can be expensive. Those are the kinds of things CTF funding pays for.
“People don’t always have the means for that, so … we’ve been able to get them at cost and allow our partners to help out their communities.”
Amy Loepp and Greenburg agree the biggest component of the CTF’s mission may just be education.
“Sometimes people don’t fully understand how real it is, so that’s part of what the primary prevention work does,” Greenberg said. “There’s a program that focuses on that in every single county in the state.”
There are also some 30 programs that serve to focus on families that have more challenges – more-intense home visiting programs, fatherhood initiatives, etc.
“We’re working with the department on family resource centers so families can access those services they need in order to be stronger families,” Greenberg said. “All of those things together are the components of prevention, but we’re always open to whatever else is needed. There are so many ways we can work together to protect our kids and strengthen our families.”
Amy Loepp, who ascended to the chair of the board not long after Greenberg started as executive director, said the work resonates with her – “How can it not, right?” she said rhetorically – even though it’s not a pleasant conversation.
“The bottom line is this is something everyone should care about,” she said. “It’s something people don’t like to talk about, understandably, because it’s not a pleasant topic.
“How can you not feel passionate about preventing child abuse and neglect?” she added. “There are many causes out there and we’re involved with many, but this one feels like a no-brainer, and I was thrilled to have an opportunity to work with this organization.”
Her opportunity to work with CTF has been a learning experience for her husband, who has watched Amy Loepp approach the work like “a dog with a bone.”
“It’s been interesting for me. We’ve worked with the Capuchins, with the Parkinson’s Foundation … we like to have a statewide impact,” said Dan Loepp, whose father suffered from Parkinson’s. “CTF has a statewide impact, we’re a statewide company, so it makes a lot of sense to connect with the various charities. This is a great fit.”
All the effort and the partnerships are designed to raise awareness of, and fund help for, the prevention of child abuse.
But all that effort, Greenberg, is for naught if parents and families don’t take advantage of it.
“Parenting is hard,” Greenberg said. “Hearing children cry is one of the hardest things for me. I’m not saying we all are bad parents who need to be good, I’m saying we all need some assistance and education and support on this journey.
“When you’re a parent, you’re influencing a life forever. I’ve been married 38 years, and frankly (her husband) can take care of himself. (The children) couldn’t take care of themselves. Even now they still call us … they just want advice,” she added. “Parenting is one of the best jobs ever. It’s such an opportunity and I want parents to feel that, I want them to enjoy their children.”