by Luke Ulatowski
For The Beacon
SHEBOYGAN – With no child aid budget raise on the way until 2020, county officials are looking to local residents for a solution to one of the county’s most pressing issues.
The Health & Human Services (HHS) 2020 Budget Public Hearing was held on Monday, June 17 at Mead Public Library. Speaking were HHS head Matt Strittmater and Child & Family Services Manager Scott Shackelford. General community members were invited to share at the meeting, as well.
The child welfare crisis comes from the statewide opioid and meth epidemic causing high demand for a department that is underfunded and understaffed. The county’s child welfare staff consists of 201 people total with only four supervisions and 24 social workers. They receive over a thousand calls reporting the maltreatment or abuse of children each year.
At this time, the county’s child welfare budget is reported at $34,859,820, with most of the revenue coming from grants and the tax levy and most of the expenses coming personnel and purchased services. According to Strittmater, the cost of out-of-home care for children, including legal resources, particularly strains the budget, leading to his department’s goal of decreasing the need for out-of-home care and increasing in-home care.
70% of open Child Protective Services cases in the county are driven or complicated by substance abuse. This is smaller than the State of Wisconsin’s 80%. Between 2012 and 2018, out-of-home care in the county increased by 200% (73 cases to 219) alongside the need for children to be pulled from harmful environments.
The county’s child welfare budget increased by $1.9 million between 2010 and 2018. On the other hand, the state child welfare budget has remained relatively still. “As a county, we’ve had to get creative with trying to meet the needs of families, of cases coming in the doors,” Shackelford said.
Strittmater recapped a few priorities that were set for 2019. The first was further implementing trauma-informed care. “As an agency, as we look at what we do, it’s becoming known nationally that trauma that people have faced as they were younger, or even as they’re older, that trauma itself, especially if it’s not attended to well, will lead to many physical and mental health-type challenges,” Strittmater said.
Another priority was to support the Healthy Sheboygan County 2020 initiative helmed by the Division of Public Health, which aims to study, document and address the county’s most pressing health needs. Currently, the organization has a 2014-formed Mental Health and Substance Abuse Committee, which is relevant to the opioid epidemic. Furthermore, HHS now offers mental health evaluations for children through its crisis team.
Two individuals spoke during the public hearing portion. The first was Ed Procek, a supervisor on the County Board.
“People don’t believe me when I tell them,” said Procek. “You can take these people off of drugs, you can clean them up, then the peddlers come up. They hound them, they find them. I knew a young woman who was staying with her mother. They found her. They were knocking on the door, harassing them. They break them down and get them to a point where they’re back to being users again. This young woman passed away from an overdose, and she left three children behind. We’ve got a huge problem.”
After Procek spoke, a woman recounted reading a news story earlier this year that said 11 children in the county were taken from their parents and placed in child protective care in one day. “I feel that the parents of these people, they must be mentally ill,” she said. Strittmater asked if anyone else would like to speak, and seeing none, moved on.
Shackelford described the ongoing crisis with the following quote from the late business professor Oren Harari: “The electric light did not come from the continuous improvement of candles.” Shackelford believes the county’s child welfare system requires a fundamental reworking.
Relating to Shackelford’s idea, Strittmater used an analogy he attributed to the Wisconsin Counties Association (WCA) comparing the current child welfare system to the defunct video store chain Blockbuster.
Strittmater listed off perceived flaws in the home video system propagated by Blockbuster such as limited selections and overdue fees. Afterward, he noted that Netflix introduced an entirely new home video system rather improving on Blockbuster’s existing process, yet it still rendered Blockbuster pointless.
“What’s the Netflix of the child welfare system?” Strittmater asked. “We can’t just do little tweaks and think that the world of what we’re facing is going to change. We need something bigger.”
After outlining the budget, explaining the crisis, holding a public hearing and stating their “fundamental rework” strategy, Strittmater and Shackelford gave members of the public who chose to stay a chance to brainstorm major changes that might help the child welfare system in small groups. After submission, the ideas would be compiled into a single document for later review by HHS. According to Strittmater, counties across the state are holding similar events in an effort to stop the crisis.
HHS is accepting additional ideas and general comments submitted to Administrative Specialist Victoria Deterding’s email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In February 2019, the HHS Committee approved Resolution #30 for the County Board to request the State of Wisconsin increase the Children & Families Aids Allocation to counties in 2019-2021 by $30 million, as well as for the board to request WCA to join it in speaking up. Later that month, Governor Tony Evers released his biennial budget for 2019-2021, according to which the state will allocate $15 million more to child welfare annually starting in CY20.
The County Board referred HHS’ resolution to the Executive Committee, which approved it and sent it back to the County Board on March 26. The County Board approved it on April 16.