Holman Column: Wisconsin child welfare system in crisis

By Chris Holman
Portage County Executive

On April 2, a hundred or so people from across the state descended upon the capitol to talk with
legislators about the child welfare crisis that Wisconsin is experiencing.

It was a joint effort between the Wisconsin Counties Association (WCA) and the Wisconsin County Human Service Association (WCHSA), and five of us from Portage Co. were present to tell our story and to deliver our plea for help.

Rather than try to explain to you the ins and outs of a system that few people in any community are
aware of, I thought I’d explain the crisis through some numbers and point out that the stories behind
the numbers are almost never heard outside of the county departments and committees that work on
these issues and the people in our community who are involved in one way or another.

As I’ve said numerous times in these pieces I write, the county’s budget is capped. We are allowed a 0 percent increase or the amount of net new construction in the county. Last year, that meant we were allowed to increase the budget by 1.81 percent, which doesn’t even keep up with inflation. The county’s contribution to our Health and Human Services (HHS) budget is, therefore, also capped and tied directly to state funding in many areas.

You see, HHS runs mandatory state programming at the county level, and for all intents and purposes, it is an under-funded mandate without limit. No one else does this work, and we can’t control how many children are coming into our system and in need of support. Given the continued lack of funding from the state for HHS, counties have had to pick up more and more of the tab for these mandatory programs.

According to WCHSA and WCA data, counties are currently picking up 63 percent of the funding for state
programs related to children and family aids—a 35 percent increase from 2011-2016. State statute only
requires a funding level of 9.89 percent, which shows how the state is roughly 53 percent off-the-mark. I don’t know many areas where coupling 100 percent of your expectations with half of the cost of meeting those expectations could work. Yet, here we are.

The county’s ability to continually increase funding allocations to HHS is very limited, and when you’re
talking about funding mandatory programs you have to find the money somewhere. So, there’s always a
real possibility of having to take more funding away from other programs and services in order to cover
the state’s budgetary shortfall.

Some counties are in an extremely precarious position when it comes to this fiscal scenario, and they’ve been forced into the position of using debt service (borrowing) to fund many of their services. If this situation persists much longer I suspect you will see some counties handing their HHS programs back to the state because they simply cannot possibly make it work.

One county where something like this already happened is Milwaukee County, which was taken over by the state.

Somewhat surprisingly the state seems okay with finding more appropriate funding levels for HHS
programs when they run them.

Now, some numbers for you, and to be very clear all of these numbers do not include Milwaukee
County. Thanks again to the WCA and the WCHSA for compiling this data. In the great state of
Wisconsin, 80 percent of open child welfare cases are either driven by or complicated by drug and alcohol

When it comes to out-of-home care placements, we have experienced a 39 percent increase from 2012
through March 2018. This means Wisconsin has 1,539 more children in out-of-home placement and a
total of 5,516 children in out-of-home care. There has also been a 127 percent increase in the length of time that children are in out-of-home care, which translates to an increase from 157 days to 356 days on
average from 2011-2016.

There has been an 18 percent increase in out-of-home care costs as well, which has meant that counties have had to find an additional $14 million dollars primarily through their property tax levy.

County social workers who work tirelessly in this area have experienced a huge increase in their
caseloads. This causes worker burnout, increased turnover, and best practices for child welfare often go
unmet simply because there aren’t enough people or hours in the day to do everything that’s required.

For instance, caseworkers should have no more than 10 active cases with no more than 15 children
they’re working with. Now, counties are averaging double that caseload and 30 children per caseworker.

Wisconsin counties are currently 327 child welfare workers and 145 supervisors short of meeting
national standards, and in many counties there are precious few foster parents—who along with our
social workers are unsung heroes in all of this—to work with.

The WCA and WCHSA summed it up well when they said that, “The liability exposure in Wisconsin’s child welfare system is unacceptable.

In discussing the pressures on the current system, it is no longer “if” something bad happens, it is “when” something bad happens. Our ask of the legislators on this one issue is to provide a $30 million annual increase in the Children and Family Aids Allocation and to create a legislative oversight mechanism to regularly review the resources needs in this area as part of the biennial budget process. The governor has proposed a $15 million increase in his budget submission, so it’s our hope that the state legislature will match that and start the long process of getting Wisconsin back on the right track and in a much better spot to take care of our children and our communities.

This year, I have been spending time on-the-job with our social workers and others at HHS to better
understand all of the systems that are working there under one roof. The stories behind the numbers
I’ve told you about here would bring anyone—including myself—to tears. They are heart-wrenching
realities happening to people right here in Portage County, and they are often devastating for everyone
who is touched by them.

I encourage you to follow this link to the video of the last county board meeting and listen to the stories presented to the board between the 14:45-29:00 mark. It is a very powerful 15 minutes that is worth your time. After you’ve done so, reach out to your legislators and ask them how anyone can know about this funding crisis and the realities that are occurring in the background of so many communities across the state and not act.

It’s my hope that the legislature was listening and that they will follow the dictates of their conscience on this issue. If I could, I would.

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