Report: Wisconsin counties fail to meet child welfare rules
OSHKOSH, Wis. (AP) — Child protection workers across Wisconsin have made numerous mistakes that have led to children being hurt and even killed, according to a report published Sunday.
A review of state records by Gannett Wisconsin Media found that county agencies failed to meet formal state child welfare standards in one-third of the most serious cases of abuse and neglect in Wisconsin in 2010 and 2011.
The Oshkosh Northwestern said reports from the Department of Children and Families show that counties failed to meet standards in 46 of the 129 incidents involving abuse or neglect that were officially characterized as "egregious" in 2010 and 2011.
Of those 46 cases, 29 involved guardians who had been reported to authorities at least once before a child was hurt or killed.
The cases included the death of 2-year-old Jovani Martinez, who was killed over spilled milk in 2010. The 40-year-old boyfriend of the toddler's mother punched the toddler repeatedly for shaking his bottle and sprinkling milk on his newborn sister. The blows perforated the Racine boy's intestines, broke his ribs, and lacerated his liver and pancreas.
Jovani's mother waited several days before taking him to the hospital, where he died.
The state later determined that county child protection workers, who had been alerted to trouble at the boy's home eight times since 2007, failed to take proper action. The agency's assessments of the family were incomplete and untimely, the state said.
Kimberly Day, coordinator of the National Coalition to End Child Abuse Deaths, called the findings alarming.
"There's a pretty large spectrum of what can happen as a result of these types of incidents, but death is the most tragic. And that does happen," Day said.
Wisconsin officials, however, stopped short of calling it a problem in a state where 1 out of every 270 children — a total of 4,839 — were victims of abuse or neglect in 2010 alone.
"I don't necessarily think that we have a crisis or problem, that we're missing abuse that we're not seeing," said John Elliott, deputy administrator in the Department of Children and Families' Division of Safety and Permanence. "We don't think we're broken now, but we think there's room for improvement."
The agency outlined its investigation standards in 2007 in a 72-page document. It details items such as the amount of information child protection workers should gather, the speed at which they should act and the criteria on which to base decisions.
The public disclosure reports, as well as audits of nine counties examined by the state since 2010, cite inadequate practices such as child protection workers failing to gather enough information to properly determine whether to investigate abuse claims, as well as agencies taking too long to complete investigations, incorrectly dismissing referrals and losing information.
Supervisors of county agencies said they work diligently to ensure they're correctly interpreting and following the rules. But insufficient resources, confusing standards and the complexity of the job can get in the way.
"I hesitate to say that something as varied as human behavior can be contained in a black-and-white system," said Mary Wiatrowski, a child protection supervisor in Winnebago County. "There is always some reliance on professional judgment."
Not all counties miss the state marks, however. The Department of Children and Families last year recognized Dane and Fond du Lac counties for having good practices.
Elliott said the state is developing best practices to better define the outcomes, values, strategies and skills expected of county agencies, and training efforts will begin this year.
Information from: Oshkosh Northwestern, http://www.thenorthwestern.com