Wisconsin Agrees to Plan to Fix Persistent Problems in Milwaukee Child Welfare System

MILWAUKEE, WI — Wisconsin officials have agreed to an aggressive new plan aimed at fixing persistent problems in the state-run system responsible for providing care and protection to abused and neglected children in Milwaukee. The new Corrective Action Plan is being implemented to meet key requirements of a longstanding court order secured by Children’s Rights, mandating the Milwaukee child welfare system’s reform.

The recent death of toddler Christopher Thomas while in the custody of the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare (BMCW) has highlighted the tragic consequences of the agency’s continued non-compliance with the federal court order.

Under the terms of the Corrective Action Plan (PDF), BMCW must take important steps to improve the safety and well-being of the more than 2,600 children in its custody, and to move them more quickly toward placement in permanent homes, through either reunification with their families or adoption, so they do not languish in foster care.

Key provisions of the plan require BMCW to better monitor private agencies responsible for providing child welfare services, provide additional support to relatives caring for children via new dedicated staff positions, address deficiencies in staffing and training for child welfare workers, undertake a broad-based and intensive effort to recruit and retain foster families, and reduce both the length of time children spend in foster care and the number of foster homes in which they are placed. BMCW must also improve its provision of mental health assessments to children in foster care and crisis services to all foster families.

“Although the Milwaukee child welfare system has made some important improvements under the court order mandating its reform, the tragic case of Christopher Thomas put a very harsh spotlight on some critical areas in which it is still failing to adequately protect abused and neglected kids,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “With this agreement, the state has made a commitment to take every reasonable step to ensure that the children in its custody remain safe, and that every child’s stay in foster care is as short as possible.”

Under the terms of the Corrective Action Plan:

  • BMCW must increase monitoring of agencies and facilities serving children in the child welfare system.
  • BMCW must consult with a national expert to conduct an assessment of placements and services needed by children in state custody and develop a strategic foster home recruitment and retention plan.The plan must be data-driven and include specific strategies to increase support to foster parents at all stages of recruitment, licensing and placement of children in their homes.
  • BMCW must increase the number of foster homes by a net gain of at least 185 homes, for a total of 875 foster homes by the end of 2009.
  • BMCW must conduct special, targeted meetings to review and address the specific needs of foster children. This includes children who have experienced multiple moves while in foster care, children who have been placed in “assessment/stabilization centers,” and/or children who have been in foster care for nine months or longer.
  • BMCW must add key staff positions. The bureau must create new “Relative Coordinator” positions to assist case managers in providing support to unlicensed relatives caring for children. BMCW must also add three new “Permanency Consultant” positions for a total of 11 positions, to help expedite placing children in safe, permanent families.
  • BMCW must improve mental health assessment and crisis services for children. BMCW must ensure that all children entering foster care receive an initial health screening, including a mental health assessment and necessary follow-up services. BMCW must also expand crisis services, previously available only to licensed foster parents, to unlicensed relatives caring for children.
  • BMCW must address workforce issues by maintaining enhanced pay schedules and career ladders for ongoing case managers, mentors and supervisors, continuing staff educational advancement opportunities and expanding staff training.
  • BMCW must improve training for caseworkers and judges who preside over child welfare hearings.

The Corrective Action Plan is the result of months-long negotiations between Children’s Rights and Wisconsin officials to address the state’s failure to meet key requirements of the settlement of the federal class action known as Jeanine B. v. Doyle. Currently, Wisconsin remains out of compliance with court-ordered provisions related to reducing the rate of maltreatment of children in foster care, reducing the number of times children in foster care are moved from one placement to another, and reducing BMCW’s reliance on “assessment/stabilization centers” — intended only for short-term stays — as a long-term housing option for children. The plan reflects recommendations made by Children’s Rights child welfare policy experts based on a review of systemwide data and interviews with stakeholders involved in the Milwaukee child welfare system.

Children’s Rights and co-counsel filed the Jeanine B. class action in 1993, charging that the child welfare system in Milwaukee was grossly mismanaged and failing to protect the safety and well-being of children in foster care. In 1998, the state took control of the previously county-run system with the creation of the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare. A settlement agreement mandating a complete overhaul of the child welfare system was reached in 2002. The full text of the Corrective Action Plan and the Jeanine B. settlement agreement are available on the Children’s Rights website at www.childrensrights.org.