Across Wisconsin, increasing rates of meth and opioid addiction are driving a secondary problem: finding out-of-home placement for children.

The need for such placement has risen 39 percent in less than a decade, according to information from the Wisconsin Counties Human Services Association. From 2012 to the first quarter of 2018, the number of children in out-of-home care statewide grew from 3,977 to 5,516. Some counties have seen more dramatic increases of 80 to 100 percent.

Additionally, the average length of time in out-of-home care has more than doubled, growing from 157 days in 2011 to 356 in 2016.

Links to addiction

The state’s Department of Children and Families estimates more than 80 percent of open cases are caused or complicated by drug and alcohol abuse. From 2011 to 2016, the number of children removed from their home because of caretaker substance abuse rose from 577 to 1,261, an increase of 119 percent. 

However, some of the overall increase may be policy related. Information from the Wisconsin Counties Human Services Association shows that unfunded mandates have added to 40 to 80 hours of work per case, “greatly decreasing the ability for family engagement and diminishing the ability to prevent out-of-home care placements.” 

Rising costs

More children needing care for longer periods of time have overwhelmed child welfare systems in many parts of the state. Caseworkers are struggling to manage ever-increasing numbers. Counties are struggling to pay ever-increasing costs.

From 2013 to 2017, costs for out-of-home care — including foster care, treatment-foster care, subsidized guardianships, group homes, and residential care centers — rose more than $14 million, from $81.5 to $95.7 million. 

Costs are not distributed evenly throughout the state. Just under half of Wisconsin’s counties have seen the greatest increases, between 50 and 100 percent. In those counties, the vast majority of cost for out-of-home placement comes from county property tax. Collectively, counties outmatched state aid by 1,634 percent to fund out-of-home placement in 2016, according to information from the Wisconsin Counties Human Services Association.

Polk County

In Polk County the cost of out-of-home placements due to abuse or neglect grew from $1.2 million in 2016 to $1.3 million in 2017 to $1.7 million in 2018, according to data from the Community Services Division. 

Of these abuse and neglect cases, 65 to 80 percent have a direct link to methamphetamine use by caregivers.

There is another notable trend, reported Tonya Eichelt, director of Polk County’s Community Services Division.

“In addition to methamphetamine use by caregivers, the other trend we are seeing is that nearly all of these children and caregivers have experienced significant trauma in their lives,” she said.

Overwhelming caseloads are another part of the growing problem. Information from the Wisconsin Counties Human Services Association shows that child protective services staff in Polk County have reported some of the highest caseloads in the region, exceeding 20 per worker. For context, the Child Welfare League of America recommends 12 to 15 cases, depending on case type, saying manageable workloads are linked to better outcomes for children and families.

Costs up in Polk County

Polk County Administrator Nick Osborne apprised county board members last week that spending on drug-related issues has outgrown budgeted funding in the county’s Community Services Division.

“A lot of the increases are due to the meth and opioid problem,” Osborne said. “We’re seeing some of the same results other counties are seeing. We anticipate that when we close our 2018 financial books in May that we will see a deficit as relates to out of home placements and several costs related to some of the drug issues we’ve seen in this community.” 

Osborne said the number would be large, up to $1 million. 

“Hopefully we’ll have some other programs that are under budget, and we can use those savings to make up for the loss,” he said. 

Osborne added that he and Eichelt are discussing ways to address the cost in the future.

According to Eichelt, the division is focusing on prevention, working via a policy passed by the Polk County Board last summer.

“In July of 2018, Resolution 61-18 was adopted and its purpose is to ‘develop a plan to establish, create, and enhance a facility /program in Polk County for substance/methamphetamine use,’” she explained.  “Within our Division we took a three pronged approach to the resolution by utilizing our prevention experts in Public Health, our child safety experts in the Department of Children and Families and our recovery experts in the Behavioral Health Department.”

The division is applying for two grants focused on prevention: a Drug Free Communities grant and a Child Welfare Neglect and Abuse Prevention Grant. Both are focused on evidence-based practices to prevent youth from using drugs and preventing child abuse and neglect, according to Eichelt.

Additionally, the Wisconsin Counties Association is asking for $30 million each year in the next budget to help manage the surge in costs.

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