Hundreds More Milwaukee Foster Homes Needed, Says New Expert Assessment in Child Welfare Reform Effort

MILWAUKEE, WI — The Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare (BMCW) must recruit nearly six hundred more foster families to keep the abused and neglected children in its custody from being placed in inappropriate and unstable foster homes, according to a new study released today by an independent expert contracted by BMCW as part of a long-running effort to reform the agency under a court order secured by Children’s Rights.

The BMCW should also limit the number of cases carried by its staff to 15 children per worker, the study says, to enable workers to better ensure children’s safety in their foster homes and plan for moving children out of foster care and into permanent homes as quickly as possible, through either safe reunification with their families or adoption.

The independent study (PDF), required under a Corrective Action Plan negotiated by Children’s Rights and state officials in December 2008, also finds that the BMCW must increase and streamline access to supports and services needed to ensure the stability of children’s foster care placements, develop a system for tracking foster placements and available foster homes, and change its institutional culture to emphasize the importance of preventing placement instability and its harmful effects on children.

The most recent report on the BCMW’s compliance with the court order mandating its reform, issued in March 2009, found that one in four children in BMCW custody continue to be bounced around to four or more different placements during their time in foster care — and that the agency still lags in implementing many court-ordered reforms critical to the well-being of the more than 2,500 children in its custody. Caseloads average 21 children per worker.

“Too many children in Milwaukee are having their lives uprooted repeatedly because of the lack of an adequate pool of foster homes, drastically reducing their chances of ever returning home to their biological families or getting adopted,” said Eric Thompson, senior litigation counsel for Children’s Rights. “This assessment provides a blueprint for reform, and Children’s Rights will ensure that the BMCW implements its recommendations.”

Today’s assessment, authored by the national child welfare expert Paul Vincent of the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, was based on a review conducted by a team of experts of BMCW data and the case records of a sample of children who were moved three or more times in the past twelve months, plus interviews with the children, their caseworkers and foster parents, the staff and leadership of BMCW and its main private service providers, groups of foster parents, family court judges, attorneys, and others with detailed knowledge of the Milwaukee child welfare system.

This assessment is the first of two studies required by the Corrective Action Plan secured by Children’s Rights;BMCW has also contracted an independent expert to assist in the development of a foster family recruitment and retention plan to be completed in July. The Corrective Action Plan requires BMCW to make diligent and good-faith efforts to implement both studies’ recommendations.

The court order under which the BMCW is operating is the result of the federal class action known as Jeanine B. v. Doyle, filed by Children’s Rights and co-counsel in 1993, which charged that the Milwaukee child welfare system was grossly mismanaged and failing to protect the safety and well-being of the children in its care. In 1998, the state took control of the previously county-run system with the creation of the BMCW. A court-enforceable settlement agreement mandating a complete overhaul of the child welfare system and better outcomes for children was reached in 2002.

The settlement produced significant results — notably a drastic reduction in caseloads for Milwaukee child welfare workers and an equally dramatic upswing in face-to-face visits between caseworkers and the children assigned to them. But serious problems remain, and in December 2008, Children’s Rights and state officials worked collaboratively to reach agreement on a court-enforceable Corrective Action Plan aimed at bringing BMCW into full compliance with the requirements of the settlement agreement, which remains in effect.

The full text of today’s assessment — and more information about Children’s Rights reform efforts in Milwaukee — can be found at www.childrensrights.org/milwaukee.