Children's Voice May/June 2009

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Wisconsin Restructures to Better Serve Families


Secretary Reggie Bicha, at podium, and governor Jim Doyle, next to him at right, celebrate the beginning of Wisconsin's Department of Children and Families last year in Milwaukee.

Like many other states, Wisconsin has been a place where services for children and families have recently undergone transition. But in Wisconsin, there is an extra challenge: the state's Department of Children and Families (DCF) is not yet one year old. The department officially started operations last July 1, combining some services from the Department of Workforce Development and the Department of Health and Family Services.

Reggie Bicha, secretary of the new department, explains Governor Jim Doyle's decision to create the DCF: "His goal is for this department to not just be about families who are struggling." DCF wants to make sure every family has what they need, "the right tools to be successful." Bicha notes that while the child welfare system is the largest component of DCF, the department is much broader, with an overall mission to help Wisconsin's children get ahead.

The financial downturn across the country has been one of the biggest surprises the new department has faced. The same economic strain is on the state as a whole and the families who live there. "Some of the impact that we're seeing touches families in so many different ways," Bicha says. But he believes having the new DCF is helping. "We're better situated because we created this department," he says. "I really do think we realigned state government the right way. We got this agency running just right-and just in time."

Now one of the biggest jobs the department has is to make sure families know what resources are available. Bicha recently led an event in Milwaukee to remind families that there are organizations ready to help: "We brought together various agencies from across the community who serve families and try to prevent difficult things from happening to kids."

This is only part of Bicha's plan to introduce DCF to Wisconsin in a positive way, fighting against the fact that often family services has a negative reputation with the public. "The general public tends to hear when child welfare systems don't work well," he says. The news doesn't often include success stories of children who, as Bicha describes them, "quite frankly are alive today because the system worked well for them."

To this end, DCF took advantage of Social Work Month in March to recognize five child welfare professionals with the inaugural Caring for Kids award for excellence in child welfare. "That's the first time we recognized child welfare professionals," Bicha says. "We should be celebrating the great work they do every day." The department was planning other events for Foster Care Month in May and Adoption Awareness Month in November.

At the same time, however, Bicha and his department have had to respond to negative press. Much recent attention has focused on shortcomings in the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare. BMCW is a state-run office; in 1998, the Milwaukee County child welfare system started operating under the auspices of the state in response to a legal settlement, which also included 16 enforceable provisions. In general, the county's child welfare system has seen monumental improvements in its decade under state control-Bicha says adoptions have tripled, while the number of children in out-of-home care has dropped from a high of 7,000 to about 2,700 now. In January, BMCW finalized a corrective action plan to fulfill the remaining five of the 16 enforceable provisions.

But last November, the case of 1-year-old "Baby Christopher" Thomas Jr., who died after being abused while in the unlicensed care of his aunt and uncle, high- lighted the work that still needs to be done in Milwaukee. BMCW terminated their contract with the agency that managed Christopher's case, and the transition to a new provider was set to be completed by mid-May. DCF took over program evaluation and contract performance for BMCW. Bicha also announced a new requirement for case managers to double the number of visits to children age 3 and younger.

At the same time, DCF is partnering with health organizations to conduct a health and safety review of all children age 3 and younger in out-of-home care. Bicha anticipates that this type of more specialized assessment and care will help solve one of the system's bigger problems. "We expect, in my view, too much of child welfare professionals," he says, explaining that caseworkers not only investigate suspected maltreatment and determine the best placement, but also have to make sure children are healthy, receiving an appropriate education, and being advocated for in the court system. "We expect case managers to practice outside of their expertise," Bicha says.

"We think that was part of the problem with Christopher's death," he continues. "A case manager was going out and doing regular visits with Christopher, but wasn't doing the type of interaction with Christopher and his sister that we might expect a nurse would do." Governor Doyle proposed adding nurses to the staff of child protective services in Milwaukee, which Bicha supports.

Of course, DCF's purview is much wider than just Milwaukee County; there are 71 other counties operating 71 different ways. Bicha noted that while there has been a significant decrease in the number of children in out-of-home care in Milwaukee, "in the balance of the state we've seen an increase in kids going into out-of-home care in the same time frame." Resolving issues in the whole of Wisconsin, and helping children and families be successful, is a mission the young DCF agency is prepared to take on.

PENNSYLVANIA

Federal prosecutors recently charged two Luzerne County judges with taking $2.6 million in payoffs to put juvenile offenders in privately run detention centers, according to the Associated Press. Believing the youths' constitutional rights had been violated, in late March, the state Supreme Court overturned hundreds of convictions of juveniles who came through Mark Ciavarella's courtroom between 2003 and 2008 without lawyers. Ciavarella and Michael Conahan both pled guilty to fraud. Conahan ordered the closure of a county-owned juvenile detention center in 2002 and allegedly began sending youth to private facilities while taking payments, a practice that prosecutors say Ciavarella continued.

TEXAS

Fort Bend Independent School District has set up a hotline for youth to call and get counseling about the stressors in their lives, from normal teen issues like bullying and relationships to more "grown up" problems like the economic situation and ongoing recovery after hurricane damage in the area. A 24/7 hotline provides an option for students who feel they cannot talk about their problems face-to-face, or whose concerns reach crisis point after school hours. Houston high schools are considering bringing in more counselors, because more students are being referred for psychological services, the Houston Chronicle reported.

MICHIGAN

In the 2003-2004 school year, Michigan lawmakers opted to remove the 180-day requirement for school scheduling and let the state's school districts decide on their own how to achieve the 1,099 required hours of instruction. Three in four districts are now open fewer days than that 180-day threshold, according to a state Department of Education analysis, covered in The Detroit News. Scheduling varies across the state: Olivet Public Schools has cut a few days from the calendar and added a few minutes to each school day; Republic-Michigamme Schools, with the shortest calendar, operates under a four-day week.

To comment on this story, e-mail voice@cwla.org.


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