MADISON — The number of foster care children in Wisconsin reached a 10-year high last year, an issue that will come into sharper focus in the New Year as the Legislature takes up 13 bipartisan bills on the topic.
Lawmakers who earlier this year led an Assembly task force assigned to study the issue say the growing opiate drug abuse epidemic is partly to blame for the increase. Another expert on foster care said growing poverty is also a factor. The task force also found there is a critical need for more foster parents.
“Counties have just been overwhelmed with more kids out of home and needing foster care,” said Rep. Pat Snyder, R-Schofield, co-chairman of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ Task Force on Foster Care.
“It’s a more complex situation than it was 20 years ago,” said Rep. Steve Doyle, D-Onalaska.
The state’s foster care program is run by counties and overseen by the Department of Children and Families. Children can be placed in foster care because they are in need of protective services related to abuse, neglect or other reasons, and also if they have delinquency issues or if parental rights are terminated, either by death or voluntary or involuntary court action.
People who serve as foster parents must be licensed, and a child’s placement with them is usually temporary.
As of Dec. 31, 2016, there were 7,482 children in out-of-home foster care, not counting children living with non-parental relatives.
The number of children in foster care declined 15 percent between 2007 and 2012. From 2012 through 2016 the number increased 20 percent. The number has gone up despite the rate of children re-entering foster care trending down since 2008.
In 2015, one in five children placed in out-of-home foster care were moved because their primary caretaker had drug abuse issues. That was the third most common reason after neglect and a child behavior problem.
The proportion of drug abuse cases was up from 12 percent in 2011.
Dane County human services director Lynn Green said changes in the foster care system over time have helped reduce the number of children in foster care from decades ago. She said the recent increase is partly due to the opiate epidemic, but increasing poverty is also a factor.
However, she said even a small increase in drug abuse cases can have broader impact because those tend to be the more challenging situation for case workers.
Another problem is the high stress on case workers caused by large caseloads.
“If they looked at caseload and we could get the caseloads lower, that would help,” Green said. “But another big part is training and retention. There are plenty of social workers out there but child protective services has always been an extremely stressful field.”
To explore the issue and generate ideas for legislation, the Assembly task force held six public hearings across the state in Madison, Wausau, Dodgeville, La Crosse, Milwaukee and Green Bay.
The 13 bills, which Snyder said all have bipartisan co-sponsorship, focus on three key areas: reducing contact with the child welfare system and preventing the removal of children from their homes; additional support for child welfare agencies, caseworkers and foster parents; and additional services for children who are placed in foster care.
Some of the bills have a price tag attached. Doyle said when Vos set up the task force he gave its a $4 million budget.
Vos, R-Rochester, said the idea for the task force came from a conversation with a couple in his district who fostered youths about the frustration children had being returned to their parents against the child’s wishes.
Those circumstances frustrated the couple, also, he said.
He said the bills will be a high priority for the Assembly in the final days of session before legislators break for election season.
“Republicans are running the government, which means you need to focus on reform,” Vos said. “How do we take the government we have and make it better?”
Dan Romportl, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said Senate Republicans plan to discuss the bills at their next caucus meeting in January and will consider moving on some or all of them during the spring session.
The Salvation Army’s Red Kettle bells are silent, but the final bell will toll soon for the corps and for Great Rivers United Way as they try to make up shortfalls before their fundraising campaigns end Jan. 31.
As of Thursday, The Salvation Army’s tally stood at $598,729 — nearly $100,000 less than the amount it had raised at this time last year and almost $351,000 short of its $949,500 goal, acknowledged Nick Ragner, the corps’ public relations and development director.
Meanwhile, GRUW is less than $150,000 short of its goal of $2.09 million, which mirrors the campaign’s usual pattern at this point, said Mary Kay Wolf, executive director of the Onalaska-based agency.
The Salvation Army’s bell ringing phase this season was better than usual, raising $245,610, Ragner said.
“We now have a large hill to climb in order to continue helping those in need in the La Crosse area,” he said, especially since the campaign missed its goal by $70,000 last year.
“We fell short of our goal in 2016 and had some challenges throughout the rest of the year,” Ragner said. “To fall short again would only once again raise concerns as to how we’re going to make up the deficit.
“The needs in the community call for us to raise $20,000 more than 2016’s total,” he said.
The three-month Red Kettle Campaign accounts for about one-third of agency’s annual budget, funding everyday needs such as its Emergency Shelter and food programs, as well as seasonal efforts such as Feed the Kids and the Angel Giving Tree.
The overall campaign includes donations at the Red Kettles, other donations during the campaign and mail appeals, Ragner said.
Great Rivers’ collection “is tracking like it always does,” Wolf said, adding that GRUW is adding a new arrow to its quiver in its effort to hit the target in January. For the first time, the agency will enlist businesses to allow collections at their cash registers, she said.
Area Brenengen Auto Group dealerships and Shenanigans Entertainment Center and Sports Bar have agreed to post point-of-sale collections, and more agreements are in the works with a couple of other businesses, Wolf said.
“We’ll see if we can’t get that community feel. United Way is community-minded,” she said.
“Our main focus is the workplace campaigns,” Wolf said, but the POS collections are intended to underscore “the power of one.”
“I hope that we’ll finish strong,” campaign Chairman Mike Klauke said.
GRUW, which covers the counties of La Crosse, Buffalo, Monroe, Trempealeau and Vernon in Wisconsin, as well as Houston County, Minn., works with 28 partner agencies that receive funding for 76 programs.
“We’re going to be able to fund our programs and help a ton of lives,” Klauke said, adding, “111,000 times, we helped our neighbors” last year.
Klauke voiced amazement at the learning curve he experienced in visiting agencies to discuss their needs. “The needs are great. (For example,) I didn’t know all the kids in the La Crosse School District who are couch surfing because they have nowhere to go.”
This year more than any other could be important for people who want to donate additional amounts before year’s end for the tax advantage available through itemizing deductions, he said.
Under the new tax law Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed last week, more people are expected to take the standard deduction — doubled to $12,000 for single files and $24,000 for married couples filing jointly — instead of itemizing on 2018 income taxes.
Any additional donations must be in the pipeline by Dec. 31 to be deductible for this year’s taxes, he said.
GRUW strives to focus on programs rather than the numbers, said Wolf, who also acknowledged that the new tax law eliminates the tax incentive for charitable contributions.
“We won’t know until next year. There is no question that some people donate for a deduction, but we believe people do give (to United Way) because they want to help, it makes them feel good and it is the right thing to do,” she said.