Report: Despite Some Progress, Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare Still Lags in Reform Effort

MILWAUKEE, WI — Although the Bureau of Milwaukeee Child Welfare (BMCW) continues to make some progress in implementing broad reforms required under a court order secured by Children’s Rights, a new report evaluating BMCW’s progress shows that the agency is still plagued by serious problems that must be addressed in order to ensure the safety and well-being of the more than 2,600 children currently in its custody.

According to the report (PDF), issued by BMCW’s internal Program Evaluation Managers, children legally eligible for adoption are being moved out of foster care and into permanent adoptive homes more quickly; BMCW is meeting the court-ordered requirement for moving these children into adoptive families within 24 months of their entry into foster care. The agency has also reduced the occurrence of abuse and neglect of children in foster care placements.

But BMCW’s progress in implementing other reforms critical to children’s well-being continues to lag, according to the report, and instability within the Milwaukee child welfare system threatens continued reform.

One in four children in BMCW’s custody continue to be bounced around to four or more placements during their time in foster care, drastically reducing their chances of ending up in a permanent family. The agency holds too many adolescents in temporary assessment centers beyond legal limits, adding to their sense of instability. And children slated by the agency to be reunified with their biological parents are not being returned home quickly enough, leaving them to languish unnecessarily in foster care. During 2008, BMCW reunited only 64 percent of these children with their families within 12 months of their entry into foster care. The agency’s performance in this area has declined steadily from a high of 72 percent in 2005.

Furthermore, BMCW faces a crisis in its workforce, with its turnover rate reaching a record high of 59 percent in 2008 as 105 of 179 workers left the agency. The withdrawal of private child welfare provider La Causa from its contract with BMCW in the wake of the death of Christopher Thomas in a BMCW/La Causa foster placement has compounded these problems, causing a significant spike in caseloads and additional caseworker turnover.

“While BMCW has made progress under the court order mandating its reform, the agency must address the current crisis and ensure that the reforms don’t falter and the children in its custody get the protection and care they need,” said Eric Thompson, senior litigation counsel for Children’s Rights. “The corrective action plan that Children’s Rights recently negotiated with state officials provides a roadmap for addressing many of BMCW’s ongoing problems, and now the agency’s leadership must act decisively to make the changes it requires.”

Today’s report, which covers BMCW performance during 2008, is mandated by the 2002 settlement of the federal class action known as Jeanine B. v. Doyle, brought against Wisconsin by Children’s Rights on behalf of all of the children in the Milwaukee child welfare system and seeking the state-run system’s reform. The federal court order that resulted 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 reached agreement on a court-enforceable Corrective Action Plan aimed at bringing BMCW into full compliance with the requirements of the court order, which remains in effect. That plan requires BMCW to take aggressive action to move children more quickly out of foster care and into permanent homes, recruit and better support foster families and kinship-care providers, ensure children’s safety while in foster care, and strengthen its troubled workforce.

More information about Children’s Rights’ reform efforts in Milwaukee, including an archive of documents related to the case, can be found at www.childrensrights.org.

Related Press:

State Reports on Milwaukee Child Welfare Reform Efforts (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, March 24, 2009)