MILWAUKEE, WI — Child welfare reform advocates from Children’s Rights today called upon the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare (BMCW) to move quickly in implementing a new plan developed by independent experts for recruiting 610 additional foster homes needed to address a severe, ongoing shortage.
The new “Recruitment and Retention Plan for Milwaukee County” (PDF), prepared by the Utah Foster Care Foundation and released publicly today, not only prescribes specific steps the BMCW must take to recruit 250 foster families per year until it meets the needs of all of the abused and neglected children who depend on it, but also says the bureau must significantly improve both the support it offers foster families and the relationships it maintains with them and the communities from which it recruits them.
The continuing lack of available foster families has led the BMCW to move many of the abused and neglected children in its custody repeatedly from one poorly matched foster home to another, placing their well-being at risk and reducing their chances of being returned to their families or adopted.
“For too long, the vital role of Milwaukee foster parents in nurturing children in foster care and keeping them safe has been undervalued,” said Eric Thompson, senior litigation counsel for Children’s Rights. “This plan sets forth concrete strategies for correcting the problems of the past and focusing the BMCW, the agencies it contracts, and the community members they serve on the shared goal of providing dramatically better care for Milwaukee’s abused and neglected kids.”
The recruitment and retention plan was developed as part of a long-running effort to reform the troubled Milwaukee child welfare system under the 2002 settlement of a class action brought in federal court by Children’s Rights on behalf of the more than 2,600 children who depend on the system for protection and care. In December 2008, Children’s Rights and state officials negotiated a Corrective Action Plan aimed at bringing the BMCW into compliance with several requirements for reform encompassed by the court-enforceable settlement; the 2008 agreement requires the BMCW to undertake diligent and good-faith efforts to implement the recruitment and retention plan.
Among the plan’s key findings and recommendations:
- The BMCW must increase accountability for successfully recruiting and retaining foster families. The bureau must maintain better data on foster families and the children in its care to improve the recruitment and placement process, conduct accurate and thorough annual assessments to determine the number and types of foster families needed to care for the children in its custody, develop plans for meeting the needs identified, and include performance-based measures in the contracts it negotiates with private agencies to recruit foster families. An initial goal of 250 new foster families per year is recommended.
- Foster and adoptive families must be recognized and treated as essential members of the foster care team. The BMCW must provide better training and support for foster families and solicit their input when decisions are being made about the children in their care. The bureau should also undertake a community relations effort aimed at improving public perceptions regarding foster care and adoption in Milwaukee, and consider decentralizing its recruitment operations and moving them into the communities they serve to engender a more responsive and collaborative relationship between the bureau and prospective families.
- Foster parents must support children’s transition from foster care into permanent homes. The BMCWmust make clear in training foster parents that they will be expected to support efforts to safely reunify children with their parents — or to move children toward adoption or legal guardianship if reunification is not possible.
- Support payments to foster families must be increased. Rates for subsidizing the cost of providing for the essential needs of children in foster care must be increased to reflect the actual costs of providing care, as calculated in a 2007 Children’s Rights report on state-by-state foster care expenses.
- The BMCW must help sustain a strong association of foster parents in Milwaukee. The plan recommends that the two largest foster parent associations in the city join as one unified organization that can help recruit and support foster parents and advocate on their behalf, and recommends that the BMCW provide funding to support the organization’s active participation in recruitment and retention efforts.
The plan also notes concerns that the agency contracted by BMCW to recruit foster families has not been sufficiently sensitive to issues of poverty and culture in the racially and ethnically diverse urban areas where the need to recruit and retain foster families is greatest, and recommends devoting particular attention to addressing these concerns.
“While this plan’s critiques are strong and its goals ambitious, we are encouraged by the BMCW’s commitment to regard it as an opportunity to transform its relationships with foster parents in Milwaukee,” said Thompson. “Children’s Rights will support the BMCW in these efforts, and we will do whatever is necessary to ensure that the plan’s recommendations are implemented.”
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 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 BMCW. A court-enforceable settlement agreement mandating an 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 visits between caseworkers and children in foster care. But serious problems remain, and in December 2008, Children’s Rights and state officials worked collaboratively to reach agreement on a 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.
Foster care agency fares poorly in report (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 8/13/2009)
Couple glad they returned to system (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 8/13/2009)
Mom to four says it’s worth the effort (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 8/13/2009)
Foster families in Milwaukee County (Slideshow, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 8/13/2009)