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Imagine being a 14-year-old who has lived in 14 foster homes.

Or just think what it’s like for a child who lives in conditions so dire that emergency crews put on hazardous-materials suits just to enter.

There’s a foster-care crisis in Wisconsin, and the Legislature should act quickly to approve a bipartisan package of bills designed to address this growing problem.

Nearly 7,500 children were in foster care in Wisconsin at last count a year ago. That number keeps growing for a variety of societal reasons — including the rise of opioid abuse.

In a rare display of bipartisanship in Madison, a legislative committee was created with 13 members of both parties to explore the problems and listen to some of the frightening, heart-rending stories of those involved in the crisis.

Rep. Steve Doyle, D-Onalaska, co-chaired the committee, which conducted six hearings throughout the state, including one in La Crosse. He said some of the testimony brought him to tears.

“I’ve never had an issue I’ve felt so strongly about in my political career,” said Doyle, who has served on the La Crosse County Board of Supervisors since 1986 and has represented the 94th Assembly District since 2011.

He said he’s struck by both the magnitude of the problem and the dedication of foster parents and child advocates who are determined to make life better for children in need.

Children are placed in foster care because they’ve been abused or neglected, have delinquency problems or whose parents have lost their parental rights.

The state’s Department of Children and Families oversees the foster-care program, which is run by counties.

Here’s what we know about the children in foster care:

  • One in five children who age out of foster care (at age 18) will become homeless.
  • The largest number of children in foster care (20 percent) are ages 2 to 4, the next largest group is ages 14 to 16 (17 percent).
  • Half of those ages 19 to 21 who have aged out are not working.
  • 30 percent of those ages 19 to 21 who aged out were incarcerated in the past two years.
  • The revolving door of caseworkers due to burnout can impact whether a child bounces around to multiple foster settings instead of returning to his or her family or being adopted. If a child has one caseworker throughout the time in foster care, he or she has a roughly 75 percent chance of finding permanency — whether returning home or through adoption. That chance drops to 15 percent if the first caseworker quits and a second one takes over. By the time the case passes to a third worker, that drops to 5 percent.

Those sobering numbers underscore the challenge.

The legislative package includes 13 bills and focuses on three key areas:

  • How can we reduce the number of times a child becomes involved in the child-welfare system — and how can we keep a child from being removed from the home, if possible?
  • When foster care is necessary, how do we provide more resources and support for children who enter the system?
  • How can we find more support for foster parents, caseworkers and others involved with child-welfare agencies?

La Crosse area Reps. Jill Billings, D-La Crosse, and Treig Pronschinske, R-Mondovi, joined Doyle as members of the legislative committee that developed Foster Forward.

Billings has emphasized the need for tuition assistance for youngsters who have aged out of foster care.

Pronschinske says rural areas are especially vulnerable and in serious need of more resources.

“There’s just a pile of children who are coming out of these homes,” Pronschinske said during an earlier press conference on Foster Forward. “We need to be eyes wide open and take the bull by the horns.”

That means the Assembly needs to convince the Senate and the governor that this is a growing crisis that requires legislative action in the coming weeks — before the election campaign shifts into gear.

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