My first contact with the Wisconsin foster care program was nearly 50 years ago; I was dating a foster care case worker.

I learned soon after meeting her about the importance of foster care in protecting children at risk of abuse and neglect. And it was apparent to me that case workers worked hard and sometimes unpredictably as the needs of children dictated. That meant she was sometimes late for dates, in one instance due to intake of an abandoned baby. Issues the case workers were dealing with then included heavy case loads, need for more foster families and coping with complicated requirements when seeking termination of parental rights.

Fast forward nearly half a century and we find Wisconsin dealing with many of the same issues.

The legislature is taking up foster care as the result of a six-month study by the Assembly Speaker’s Task Force on Foster Care. With the number of children in foster care at a 10-year high, the task force has proposed 13 bills as a result of its hearings and research. State Rep. Steve Doyle, D-Onalaska, is co-chair of the task force along with Rep. Pat Snyder, R-Schofield. They described in a joint news release the sources they used in their study — the foster children, foster parents, biological parents, county caseworkers, judges and advocates. They went to six communities for hearings including one in La Crosse to come up with the list of proposals “we thought would make the greatest differences in the lives of our children,” according to Doyle in his recent opinion page article in the La Crosse Tribune. He noted that the bills have broad bipartisan support in both the Assembly and the Senate.

Lila Barlow, who is in charge of foster care for La Crosse County, said she has not seen “movement on this scale” toward solving problems in foster care in the 15 years she has been involved. The proposed legislation will be “very helpful,” she said in a telephone interview. La Crosse County has 158 foster children in out-of-home care, down from 178 at the beginning of 2017, but still well above the low number of 120 in the last 7 years. The county has 111 active foster homes with smaller numbers of foster children in group homes or other institutional settings such as detention.

In reading the various bills, one can see some of the common sense that emerged from the study. For example, one of the bills defines what dental care can be authorized for foster children without parental consent. The definition is needed because, without it, according to the bill, “ types of dental services provided in each county without parental consent varies significantly, resulting in some children only receiving certain care after the need first sends them to the emergency room.”

Other bills include:

  • Appropriating $400,000 for a grant program to support foster parents “including for incentives to retain foster parents, enhancing foster parent education, and reimbursing foster parents for foster care-related expenses.”
  • * Providing services to help families avoid the need for contact with human services and avoid removal of children from their homes.
  • * Ordering a study of how to establish standards for caseloads and the cost to implement those standards.
  • * Offering post-secondary education tuition to foster children as they “age out” of foster care.
  • Clarifying requirements to terminate parental rights and appeals.

Doyle justifiably lauds the bipartisan nature of the task force and the bills it has proposed. And he proposes it as a model for how other state issues might be confronted on a bipartisan basis. Now it’s up to the Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker to complete the work that’s been done to help meet the need for foster care services in Wisconsin at a time when the opioid drug crisis has added to the stress on the system. If that happens, Doyle and his colleagues in bipartisanship will have accomplished something to give us hope other issues may succumb to the same cooperative spirit. Transportation, perhaps? Maybe, Doyle said in a telephone interview.

“I haven’t given up hope,” he added.

Dave Skoloda is an award-winning journalist and former owner and editor of the Onalaska Community Life and Holmen Courier.

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Coulee Courier and Houston County News editor

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