Information at a glance

In just four years, Barron County’s costs to serve and/or house children whose parents are involved with drugs or other problems have risen by more than $1.5 million, members of the Barron County Health and Human Services Board noted last week.

At a meeting on Monday, Nov. 26, 2018, the board passed a motion that asks the full County Board of Supervisors to go on record in support of an additional $60 million in state funds to address the problem in the next biennial state budget (July 1, 2019 through June 30, 2021).

The resolution notes that the methamphetamine epidemic in Barron and other Wisconsin counties “have brought Wisconsin’s child welfare system to a point of crisis.”

Wisconsin Department of Children & Families doesn’t pay counties enough to provide services for victims of child abuse and neglect, or to prevent and investigate cases, treat victims, and place them in foster homes, the resolution noted.

This shortfall continues to affect counties in spite of the fact that the state “shares (the) liability” to ensure the system works for children and families in Barron and other counties, the resolution said.

And the situation has been getting progressively worse in recent years, according to financial information included in the motion (see infographic with this story).

The county’s Child Protective Services department “has been stressed for more than a decade,” the resolution said. Caseloads have increased to the point where staff burns out, turnover rate among caseworkers is high, and the county is running out of options.

In 2013, Barron County’s children’s out-of-home care costs were $948,244. In 2017, the costs went up to $1,212,829, an increase of 28 percent in only four years, according to county sources. County taxpayers have had to pay all of the increase, officials said.

About 80 percent of the increased spending is meth-related, according to Stacey Frolik, director of the county Health & Human Services Department. The rest comes from 18 new state rules that add to the county’s cost but don’t include any additional funding from sources outside the county, she added.

The resolution adds that the state system has no mechanism to evaluate Child Protective Services, partly because there is no committee in the Legislature “that provides regular policy guidance” to the department or examines “issues such as funding, performance, cost sharing and long-term stability.”

The resolution puts the County Board on record in favor of a $30 million annual increase in the next two-year state budget, or $60 million in all.

Elected representatives weigh in

Barron County’s elected representatives in the Wisconsin Legislature were asked to comment on the meth issue.

According to 75th Dist. State Rep. Romaine Quinn, R-Barron, the caseload on Barron County Health and Human Service workers far surpasses their colleagues in Milwaukee County.

Quinn said that after a lawsuit was filed, “the state guarantee(d) that Milwaukee caseworkers will have no more than 10 cases per worker; Barron County caseworkers can have up to 33 cases. Even cutting that in half would represent a major step in fighting the meth epidemic.”

Quinn said he has worked with the Barron County kNOw Meth coalition and spoke with local child protection caseworkers and the Wisconsin Counties Association.

The groups “agree that more funding is needed for child protection services, and I will make that funding a top priority in my budget requests this year,” Quinn said. “Our children deserve the same focus and level of attention as children in Milwaukee.”

According to 25th Dist. State Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Delta (Bayfield County), the Senate is preparing to introduce legislation to help counties affected by the meth epidemic, when the Legislature convenes in January.

“During the most recent state budget process, my Democratic colleagues on the Joint Finance Committee proposed a nearly $15 million increase to the Children and Family Aids allocation,” Bewley said. “I expect we will answer the call from counties like Barron again this year. Hopefully, this time our Republican colleagues will join us.”