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.
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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.”
13 bipartisan bills
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 them 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 also frustrated the couple, 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 some or all of them during the spring session.