WALTERS: Drug abuse breaks county child-care budgets

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The epidemic of drug abuse and addiction forced the removal of so many children from their homes that one western Wisconsin social worker had a caseload of 54 children last year.

That was more than three times the rule - one caseworker for every 15 out-of-home children - in Milwaukee County, where state government runs child protection programs.

Wisconsin Counties Association (WCA) officials say child-protection programs outside of Milwaukee County are in crisis, with social workers having to remove record numbers of children from homes where parents - and even grandparents - use and abuse drugs.

"The average daily census of children in foster care in Rock County increased by 93% since 2012, with costs for out-of-home care increasing by 70%," Kate Luster, director of Rock County's Department of Human Services wrote in the January edition of WCA's magazine.

Counties have a "moral" obligation to get children out of dangerous environments, but counties are increasingly diverting money from other critical programs to pay for their care, WCA Executive Director Mark O'Connell said in a WisconsinEye interview.

Officials in Price and Douglas counties will spend less on local roads to help cover out-of-home child placement costs, for example.

Ashland County officials held a referendum that asked residents to raise their property taxes to help pay out-of-home child placement costs, but it lost overwhelmingly.

Those costs are paid by a combination of state and county dollars. In 2016, state aid was $68 million, which required a 10% match - or $6.8 million - by counties. Instead, counties spent an additional $117.9 million.

Three scary statistics:

• Between 2012 and 2018, the number of out-of-home placements outside of Milwaukee County increased by 39% - to 5,516 children.

• Eleven counties saw out-of-home placement costs double in that period.

• The average period of time that children were in out-of-home placements in those 71 counties more than doubled - from 157 to 356 days.

Sue Ader, Manitowoc County's child protective supervisor, noted the emotional damage - and toll - the drug epidemic is causing on families and children.

"Children are exposed to unsafe environments, witnessing parents overdosing, living without basic needs being met, as well as being born addicted to substances that require withdrawal from a hospital's neonatal unit," Ader wrote in WCA's magazine.

"The worst part is that drug abuse takes away a parent's ability to form a strong bond, and maintain connections with the children," she added.

"Grandparents are commonly raising their grandchildren.and a whole generation of children are becoming more vulnerable to follow in their parents' footsteps."

But some grandparents make things worse.

"Counties are seeing multiple generations of active addiction," Marathon County official Vicki Tylka also wrote in WCA's magazine. "Grandparents are using drugs with their children and even grandchildren."

The greatest need across northern Wisconsin, Tylka added, is "access to services supporting recovery from addiction that involve the whole family."

Julie Driscoll, director of Washington County's Human Services Department, said it took "three years, three months and six days" after a child was removed from a drug-using mom to reunite them.

And, when they were reunited, Driscoll said: "The mother had never raised her child full-time, which required more services to support her in understanding who her child was, the child's cues and behaviors, and re-establishing a bond in their relationship."

Emergency calls at all hours that require social workers to meet law officers, EMTs and paramedics to care for children at the homes of drug-abusing adults are burning out caseworkers, their supervisors agree.

"The hours are getting longer, the workload is increasing," Ader said. "Frankly, social workers are the first responders to much of the drug epidemic."

Colorado and Pennsylvania tie state aid for out-of-home placement costs to the number of children needing that care. But WCA is not asking Gov. Tony Evers to include any formula like that in the 2019-21 state budget he will soon give lawmakers.

Instead, O'Connell said, WCA wants state aid for child protective services provided by the 71 counties increased by $30 million, starting with the budget year beginning July 1.

The crisis means "it's not a question of 'if,' it's a question of 'when' we have a very bad situation" of child abuse or neglect, O'Connell said.

At risk is the "safety of the next generation of thinkers in our state - our children," he added.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

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