Digging Deeper: Child welfare system overhauled in midst of opioid crisis

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MADISON (WKOW) — With full-time jobs, three children and three dogs – Misty and Randy Erickson’s lives are just as busy as anyone’s.

But things are about to get even busier. They’ll be taking in Misty’s niece and nephew, ages 7 and 11.

“They’ve been in and out of the foster care system their whole lives,” Misty Erickson tells 27 News.

Misty hasn’t talked to her sister in years. “She would party and do drugs prior to taking care of her kids, so…. she just gave up and walked away.”

Now Misty and Randy are in the process of becoming the children’s foster parents. Eventually, they’ll adopt them.

“They went through a lot. Parents taking their things away from them and selling them for drug money. They (the kids) even tested positive for methamphetamines at one point because they were around it so much,” says Randy Erickson.

The Ericksons started the process to foster the children two years ago and are now waiting for final approval from the State of Wisconsin.

Their story is like many others in Wisconsin and around the nation. A growing number of children taken out of their homes because of an increase in drug use and in particular, opioids. Wisconsin’s Department of Children and Families – or DCF – says it’s seeing an increase in younger, sibling groups come into their system.

“Clearly the opioid epidemic is, and I’m not saying anything new, but that is clearly why we’re seeing younger kids coming into care,’ says Janelle Brom with DCF’s Division of Safety and Permanence. “That’s the primary. Neglect is always the big one and a big subset of that is parents who are drug-affected.”

A new federal law may address part of that problem. The Family First Services Prevention Act went into effect this month and it makes significant changes to the child welfare system.

“It really emphasizes that first and foremost, we’re going to try and keep kids at home. And how can we safely wrap services, you know, when people come to our attention, to try not to disrupt the kid and their family,” says Brom.

Brom says removing a child from their home is a significant intervention, so this new law will require agencies to provide services to the family to prevent foster care. These could be services for parents who are drug abusers, who have mental health challenges, or those who need other parenting services.

In the vast majority of cases they see, a child taken out of their home is usually returned fairly quickly. According to Brom, “That’s one of the biggest myths. People think kids don’t go home but they do. Their parents often do the hard work that needs to be done to get them home. Oftentimes, many kids go home within a month or two.”

Child welfare experts hope the new law will prevent the maltreatment of children before it happens and help those parents who are willing to do the hard work. Jerry Milner, the Acting Commissioner of the Administration for Children and Families, testified shortly after the Family First Act was passed:

“We spend only a tiny fraction of federal funds on preventing the maltreatment of children before they become known to child welfare agencies.  It does not have to be that way.”

“In fiscal year (FY) 2016, close to 10 percent of the children exiting foster care were in care for less than 30 days.  The percentage of such short stays has declined slightly over the past five years, but the question remains whether prevention services offered to many of the more than 24,000 children could have prevented them from being placed in foster care in the first place.”

If DCF has to take a child out of their home, they’ll turn first to other family members or someone the child knows. Family First would help agencies implement programs and services for relative caregivers.

The new law also wants agencies to get away from congregate care, like group home settings. The law cuts off federal funds after two weeks if agencies place children in congregate care. “Because we all need families and belonging. It’s just a basic human need,” Brom says.

That’s exactly why the Ericksons made the decision they did. Misty says of her niece and nephew, “They need to stay with family.”

Randy and Misty acknowledge this will be an adjustment. “It’s going to be tough.” Randy says. “Money’s going to be tight. Space is going to be tight. Everything is going to be hard. But if we look at it honestly, we can find a way to make it work.

The Family First law went into effect nationwide this month, but some states – including Wisconsin – have asked for a two-year delay to implement it. But the state is already in the process of talking with counties about how the new law will work in Wisconsin.

Dani Maxwell

Dani Maxwell

Dani Maxwell is the Content Manager for 27 WKOW.

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