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The line of neglect: Foster Care in Pierce County

Ron Schmidt

Each day the Pierce County Human Services Department is flooded with work. More specifically, the Foster Care and Children, Youth & Families departments.

They're flooded with paperwork, interviews, and court appearances. There is little time for breaks. The phone is always ringing. People always need help.

Kristi Frederick is one of those flooded workers. She is the Children, Youth, and Families Program Manager for Pierce County. She's also a Child Protection Supervisor and has stepped into other various roles on top of her already busy workload.

In her 20-year career, Frederick has seen a variety of families with many different issues.

Likewise, Human Services Director Ronald Schmidt has seen, and will continue to see, a variety of familial issues walk through their office door.

A major plague affecting family life in Pierce County is methamphetamine use, according to the pair.

"The biggest issue we see in this county is child welfare concerns due to methamphetamine," Schmidt said. "Ninety percent, more than 90 percent, of the kids who are in out of home care or foster care, it's because of parents who are abusing methamphetamine."

Frederick called meth abuse "horrendous" in Pierce County and said when it comes to intervention by the department in drug-related cases, the areas around neglect can be gray.

"There's the belief that addiction is a disease," Frederick said. "If we have a disease that can be managed, how do we manage it? Are we willing to manage it? And if a person is not willing to manage the disease, what happens is the disease progresses, it continues to adversely impact that person as well as all of the people around that person."

So how does the Pierce County Children, Youth, and Families department make their decisions on when to intervene, to take a child or children from a family that has displayed neglect? Where is the line of neglect?

"Woefully inadequate"

The department will receive a call and begin assessment to determine any maltreatment in these cases, according to Schmidt.

"We always have a call that comes in, that's a complaint," Schmidt said. "This is happening, that is happening. Our job is then to investigate. That is what we do in Child Protective Services."

Once the child, under 18-years-old, is determined to be in an unsafe environment with no relatives able to take in the child, they'll enter foster care. Maybe for a night or two. Maybe for a lot longer.

But how do the county professionals determine when to come in?

Schmidt and Frederick said a misconception associated with the department is the myth of being "baby snatchers." On the contrary, they are trying to keep the family together, acknowledging how traumatic an experience this could truly be for everyone involved.

"I can assure you that we look for every possible opportunity, afforded by law, to prevent a removal," Schmidt said. "And we use foster care and out of home placement as that last resort, to give the parents time to regroup, get involved in programs, to obtain resources, get help from other families so that child can be reunified."

When it does come time for Child Protective Services to get involved, the process is long and tedious at times. But ultimately, the safety of a child is the most important goal.

"Child safety is paramount...if the circumstances in that home indicate this parent can't do this right now, for whatever reason, and that child is unsafe, we have to look at taking custody," Frederick said.

According to Wisconsin State Statute 48.02, the definition of neglect is defined as: "failure, refusal, or inability on the part of the caregiver, for reasons other than poverty, to provide necessary care, food, clothing, medical, or dental care, or shelter, so as to seriously endanger the physical health of the child."

Frederick called the statutes they must follow "woefully inadequate" in regards to neglect.

Not present in the definition is chronic, uncontrolled substance use and abuse—legal or illegal—as a form of neglect.

When parental drug use adversely impacts child safety and parental capacity to parent safely, there is not a direct avenue to intervene through assessment because the law doesn't identify certain things, such as chronic, uncontrolled substance use/abuse and presences of certain drugs and drug paraphernalia as being directly related to neglect.

Frederick said the decision about legal definitions is at the state level, where under federal law (the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act), states were given broad definitions of abuse and neglect and were directed to create their own definitions based on federal ones While Wisconsin has followed the basic directive, they have not reassessed and modified the definition based on societal trends that are harming children.

"We have not, as a state, taken the time to really look at what are the issues of neglect facing our children today," Frederick said.

Frederick cited statistics from 2017 that show out of 26 physical custody actions taken by the department, where they took custody of children, 15 of those cases were methamphetamine-related. Four other cases were due to drugs other than meth.

Added to these cases, the department is dealing with a serious issue in regards to staffing.

The ideal number per staffer would be 10 cases per worker, which means they would have to hire another person, Schmidt said. That is possible with the Human Services Department undergoing a reorganization and the hiring of a full-time Foster Care Social Worker.

"Just from a supervisory standpoint, I will tell you that 10 of these cases is just damn near inhumane," Schmidt said. "At 15, you just have to decide what is the highest priority to address and just accept that you're not meeting the standards. It's just the way that this thing is."

Frederick said having three would be ideal but having four would give the department more options, such as a possible preventative services area.

Having a service like this would give them more options to assess a home that's on the edge, and hopefully provide services and support that would prevent placement of kids. This could aid in easing some of the burden of foster care.

The foster home

This line of work is important to Schmidt, whose mother adopted nine foster children. She gave a chance to nine children at permanency, a core concept in Schmidt's mind.

"It's about establishing permanency, safety, and well-being," Schmidt said. "All the research says, if children do not have a permanent adult who is looking out for their safety and well-being, all of the research shows they do more poorly on emotional adjustment, social adjustment, education attainment. That is what the child welfare system is all about is hopefully, a very temporary episode."

A temporary episode that could traumatically scar a child for a lifetime.

Schmidt said the county has had some luck in reunifying families who have gone through the foster care process, citing 88 percent of their children don't have a second placement. Pierce County children aren't bouncing from foster home to foster home. They usually stay in one place or go home.

Frederick called the foster care families they work with "phenomenal." He had nothing but praise for those who open their homes to a difficult situation.

"Truly the bedrock for normalcy for some of these kiddos who have been through so much," Frederick said. "They are the support system that, when reunification is safe and possible, they work with the family, they work with the social work staff, and they help those kiddos transition back to mom and dad."

There are four levels of foster care available:

  • Level 1: These are homes of relatives to the children and families affected that take the children in.
  • Level 2: The foster family that wants to take children in, that aren't relatives.
  • Level 3: This home offers specialized treatment services to kids with behavioral or disability problems. They would likely put them in a group home setting.
  • Level 4: The highest of care, these are called Residential Care Centers. A hospital-type environment for kids with active treatment plans. There are no locations in Pierce County.

Schmidt said there are options like Kinship Care, a monthly stipend of $232 per month to provide for the care needs of the child.

Frederick said they have 11 homes that are Level 2, with a half dozen potential homes pending.

All the homes except two are full. And other areas are dealing with the same issues.

"Most of our neighboring counties are in the same boat as we are," Frederick said. "Their homes are full and they don't have what they need."

For those interested in becoming a foster parent, it's not a simple thing to do. There is no walking in, applying, then having children come in.

Rather, it's a legal process with months of paperwork and background checks.

Frederick said ideally it should take two months to process, but instead takes them six months.

"It's a terrible dilemma to be in," Frederick said. "That we have a need, there are people willing to open their homes and their hearts and go through this process...and we can't respond."

The issue of meth abuse in Pierce County won't be going away anytime soon. Schmidt called meth abuse "a trend" rather than "a fluctuation" and worries the caseload won't end anytime soon.

"I don't think we're ever going to get below 30 cases in the near term, the next two, three, four years in our [Child Protective Services]," Schmidt said. "So I will be continuing to advocate for the resources we need."

Frederick called the group of women working hard in Child Protective Services "the finest group of warrior women that this county could ever have."

The issues and strains won't end, unfortunately. And the phone will continue ringing.

The Youth, Children & Families department will answer the call. They'll be overworked, underfunded, and wish everything would stop.

But it won't. And neither will they.

Matthew Lambert

Matthew Lambert joined the Pierce County Herald and River Falls Journal in December 2016 covering government, school board, and writing features about the community. He is a graduate of Winona State University with a Bachelor's degree in Journalism. 

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