Will State Screw Milwaukee?
Expert condemns state for switching Milwaukee’s foster care funding to help other counties.
As the state’s biggest city, with the largest number of poor people, Milwaukee has by far the biggest problem with child abuse and neglect. The most recent annual report by the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families shows that about 30 percent of all reports of maltreatment of children occurred in Milwaukee County. Their recent monthly report shows that 32 percent of Wisconsin children placed in foster care are in Milwaukee County.
Yet a recent proposal by the state for a federal waiver in how it funds child welfare services would take $1.2 million in program savings realized in Milwaukee and use the money in other counties. Richard Wexler, Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, wrote a blog castigating Wisconsin for this. “State wants to rob Milwaukee to aid other counties,” Wexler’s piece is headlined. “In shocking, explicit detail,” he writes, its proposal “would confiscate savings made by improving Milwaukee child welfare and use the money in every Wisconsin county — except Milwaukee.”
Wexler says he could find no other state that proposed to shift the funding in this way. Wisconsin is one of 13 states that have submitted waiver proposals to the U.S. Department of Health and Social Services.
Fredi-Ellen Bove, a division administrator for the State Department of Children and Families, disputes this charge. She says any savings realized by Milwaukee would have reverted back to the federal government.
But Rep. Josh Zepnick (D-Milwaukee) questions whether the state is punishing Milwaukee for being more efficient in realizing savings. “This raises questions whether the money could be more efficiently and more humanely spent in the county that serves the most families in Wisconsin,” Zepnick says.
The curious thing about this image of Milwaukee as the super-efficient system is that is has been plagued with problems going back more than a decade. In 1993, the ACLU sued the State of Wisconsin, claiming the child welfare system in Milwaukee was mismanaged and fraught with problems. While things have improved since the state took over Milwaukee County’s system, there are still signs of problems. Wexler has criticized the Milwaukee system, arguing a child here is far more likely to be “torn” from his or her parents and “thrown into foster care” than in other big cities nationally. With more diplomatic language, the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group has made the same criticism.
Wexler calls that the state’s waiver proposal a “slapdash” effort compared to other states, that emphasizes “soft” services like counseling, instead of concrete help that families need most. He cites studies showing a significant number of children wouldn’t have been removed from their home if their mothers could have afforded better housing and/or day care. “The biggest single problem in American child welfare is the confusion of poverty with ‘neglect,’” Wexler writes. Money saved in Milwaukee, he argues, could be spent on this and other needs.
State officials argue Milwaukee has made strides with its program, and that the number of children in “out-of-home care” has been dropping steadily.
If so, Wexler says, “these are savings generated by the hard work of Milwaukee caseworkers helping Milwaukee families. There are plenty more Milwaukee families who would benefit from having these savings reinvested in Milwaukee. How would they feel if the feds said ‘We’re going to take all the savings generated by Wisconsin and use those funds to help families in Minnesota – after all, they need help too.’”
Eric Peterson, chief of staff for state Sen Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) says she does have a concern about this potential loss of funding for Milwaukee. However, he adds, without the waiver plan being approved by the feds, none of the money for Wisconsin will ever be realized.
But Wexler writes that under Wisconsin’s waiver proposal, “only $7.1 million per year of what is now spent on foster care (in the state) would be shifted to better alternatives. That’s less than 10 percent — and it would take five years even to achieve that.” And 17 percent of what is achieved comes from grabbing the money from Milwaukee.
The Wisconsin proposal, Wexler concludes, “should be sent immediately to the scrap heap.”
Wexler, by the way, has also written critically about the Journal Sentinel and how it covers the foster care issue. Longtime media analyst Erik Gunn has covered that controversy.