Newsmakers, March 1, 2018

Air Date:
Heard On Newsmakers
Maxine Jacobs, Lila Barlow and Steve Doyle
Maxine Jacobs, Lila Barlow and Steve Doyle Hope Kirwan/WPR

Advocates of an improved foster care system in Wisconsin say legislative approval of a series of bills could help a strained situation across the state.

State Rep. Steve Doyle, D-Onalaska, who co-chairs Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ Task Force on Foster Care said one of the negatives of the statewide opioid addiction crisis is that it has created another crisis for foster care in Wisconsin.

“What we’re dealing with today, with the drug situation and the mental health situation, calls for a different type of foster parent, different type of social worker,” he said.

The state Assembly passed a package of 13 bills designed to aid reunification and keep children out of foster care, and provide new state funding for programs that support families and foster parents to cope with rising costs.

The state Senate has passed 11 of the 13 bills.

The bills that have been approved are awaiting Gov. Scott Walker’s signature.

The increased pressures of La Crosse County’s foster care program mirror the rise in opioid addiction, said Lila Barlow, supervisor of the La Crosse County Permanency Resource Unit.

She said in 2010, there were 120 foster children in La Crosse County. By last year, that number had grown to 180 children in foster care. There are currently just 107 foster homes in La Crosse County, but she said the county could use as many as 140 foster homes to meet the existing demand.

Barlow said La Crosse County has placed 48 percent of children who qualify for out-of-home placement with other family members and has had to find space for children in other counties, something that is very costly.

Barlow said the legislative changes should help the system, especially in giving foster parents more information about the behavioral history of the child they are caring for — one of the bills would allow health care providers to disclose information about a child’s mental health treatment to foster care agencies.

“One of the biggest things that we really looked at is having the information for mental health accessible to our foster parents. Kids coming into care have issues,” she said. “To have them go into a home and the foster parents not able to know what’s going on. It’s like saying to someone, ‘Please take care of this child, we’re going to tie both of your hands behind your back.’”

Maxine Jacobs, of La Crosse, has been a foster parent since 1977.

She said in the last 15 years, she’s noticed the problems of foster children coming from birth families with drug and alcohol addiction or issues with mental health are a lot more complex than they used to be.

Jacobs said the new bills will mean increased education for foster parents and a larger effort to keep children with their birth families — efforts that could improve the lives of at-risk children.

“Each movement is a trauma for that child. Each time it’s a loss,” Jacobs said. “Anytime we can put bills forth in the state of Wisconsin that prevents those activities, we will help increase the odds of success for that child.”

The bills that weren’t approved by the state Senate would have provided free higher education tuition for foster children and create a study to measure the appropriate number of foster cases that social workers should handle.

Barlow said there is a social worker crisis right now, with too few social workers with a high caseload of complicated cases.

She said foster parents dealing with a crisis are often not getting the support they need in a timely fashion.

A report from the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families shows there were nearly 7,500 children in out-of-home placements across the state at the end of 2016.

– John Davis

Episode Credits

  • Hope Kirwan Host
  • John Davis Producer
  • Maxine Jacobs Guest
  • Lila Barlow Guest
  • Representative Steve Doyle Guest