MADISON, WIS. – Wisconsin has taken important steps to improve the safety of foster youth living with relatives and to bolster support for the family members willing to step up and care for them, according to a new report released today by the national advocacy group Children’s Rights. But the state must improve its data tracking system and other licensing policies and practices to ensure that the changes it has made are actually improving the lives of the children and families it serves, the advocates say.
Today’s report, titled Ensuring High Quality Kinship Care for Children in Wisconsin (PDF), evaluates a new statewide effort to license and train relatives following a legislative change in 2009 requiring relatives caring for foster youth to apply for a foster home license — and offers specific recommendations that would help ensure that foster youth living with relatives are just as safe as those living with unrelated foster parents.
The change in the legislation was catalyzed in part by the 2009 death of 13-month-old Christopher Thomas in the home of an unlicensed relative — a notorious case that raised serious concerns that children placed in unlicensed foster homes with relatives were not receiving the same protections, support, and services as children in the care of licensed foster parents.
“While it is generally preferable to place children in foster care with relatives, it is vital that child welfare officials ensure the safety and well-being of these children so the trauma of being removed from their homes isn’t compounded further by abuse or neglect,” said Laurie Bensky, senior policy analyst for Children’s Rights and lead author of the report. “The legislative changes Wisconsin has made will make it easier to achieve these important goals, and now DCF must strengthen its policies, practices, and systems to ensure that improvements are felt by the children and families who depend on it.”
Specifically addressing youth who have been placed in foster care with relatives through a court order — not those whose relatives are caring for them voluntarily — the law revamped the state foster home licensing system, creating five different “levels of care” at which foster parents and relatives might be licensed.
Prior to this change, the vast majority of relatives caring for children due to a court order were not licensed. Of the more than 6,500 children in Wisconsin foster care, approximately 30 percent live with family members — but only six percent live with relatives who are licensed.
According to today’s report, DCF has started implementing this new relative licensing requirement, and taken steps to better safeguard children and support relatives. Thanks to these changes, foster children placed with licensed relatives in Wisconsin are more likely be protected; more likely to see their caseworkers regularly; and more likely to get the medical, mental health, and educational services they need.
However, the report notes a number of areas where the new system could be improved.
Wisconsin is still struggling to accurately track and monitor children’s progress while living with relatives. While the state began implementing this new licensing change for relatives in January 2010, there is still no reliable data to show that the implementation process has gone as expected. Without comprehensive and timely data, Wisconsin simply cannot know whether the needs of children and their relative caregivers are being met. DCF has pledged to develop new methods to address this issue.
The report also raises serious concerns in the report regarding some of the current policies, licensing procedures, foster parent training requirements, and financial supports for foster parents. The report offers 17 specific statutory, policy, and practical recommendations to strengthen implementation and ensure children placed with relatives receive the same care and service as children placed with foster parents. Among these recommendations:
- If a relative refuses to be licensed, require a determination from the family court that the child in foster care can continue to safely live with that relative.
- Increase all payments to foster parents and licensed relatives to align with the actual costs of raising children.
- Require comprehensive training for all relative caregivers and develop and implement new training for caseworkers specifically focused on relatives caring for foster children.
- Take steps to further ensure that child welfare staff is accurately entering data in a timely manner.
- Enhance the state child welfare data system to ensure all information about relative caregivers is readily available and use that information to evaluate the implementation and performance of the new “levels of care” licensing system.
- Comprehensively review any and all disparities in practices between kinship and non-kinship foster care.
Children’s Rights conducted this study in partnership with the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, and with the collaboration of the state Department of Children and Families.
Children’s Rights has also been involved in the Wisconsin child welfare system through a federal class action known as Jeanine B. v. Doyle, which focuses on reforming foster care in Milwaukee County. The case was filed by Children’s Rights and co-counsel in 1993 and charged that the Milwaukee child welfare system was grossly mismanaged and failed 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 Milwaukee Bureau of Child Welfare. A court-enforceable settlement agreement mandating an overhaul of the child welfare system and better outcomes for children was reached in 2002.
The settlement has produced significant results — notably a drastic reduction in caseloads for Milwaukee child welfare workers and an equally dramatic reduction in the number of children abused or neglected while in foster care. But serious problems remain, and Children’s Rights and state officials are working collaboratively on an agreed-upon Corrective Action Plan aimed at bringing BMCW into full compliance with the requirements of the settlement agreement, which remains in effect.
To read Ensuring High Quality Kinship Care for Children in Wisconsin and find out more about Children’s Rights’ child welfare reform efforts in Milwaukee and nationwide, please visit www.childrensrights.org.
Report finds room for improvement in licensing kinship foster parents (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, March 7, 2011)