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Drug abuse fuels foster care

The rising tide of drug abuse bumps crime, leads to overdose deaths and tears families apart. Its youngest victims, however, often slip public notice.

According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, drug abuse by a parent was a factor in about one-third (34 percent) of 2016 cases where children were removed from their homes and placed in foster care.

Locally, those numbers are higher.

"Ninety-eight percent of open cases have a connection to drug abuse," said Doreen Wehmas, intake and assessment unit supervisor for the Douglas County Department of Health and Human Services. "It may not be the original reason we get involved, but as we learn more about the families that's one of the struggles they have."

A year ago, more cases involved heroin. In 2017, the focus has swung back to methamphetamine, Wehmas said, putting the two neck and neck.

Whichever drug is the driving factor, children are affected. As of Oct. 31, 76 Douglas County children were in foster care.

"The last four years, we've had a consistent increase in the number of kids," Wehmas said.

With 17 licensed general foster homes available, need can outpace the county's ability to place children.

"In March, didn't we have as many kids in custody as we normally have the whole year?" asked Laura Halvorsen Fregard, a social worker and assistant foster care coordinator. "And now we're well beyond that."

For many children, the best temporary home is with relatives. But those relatives must be licensed. The department has focused on training relative caregivers, which has slowed outreach efforts.

"When somebody's really considering looking at being a foster parent, it often average takes them two years to finally make the commitment, to move forward with it," Wehmas said.

Douglas County recently approved an additional half-time position for foster care coordination, and current foster parents are being enlisted to become part of the recruitment process.

"We're hoping to take part in community events," Halvorsen Fregard said. "We're hoping to get in contact with different community groups, like faith communities and business communities and elected officials."

They are willing to travel to share first-hand experiences, answer questions and provide information on what's required to be a foster parent.

Members of the public are also invited to attend a foster parent support group 6-7 p.m. the second Thursday of each month in Room 270 of the Government Center.

"It would be a good spot to get information or hear any type of first-hand experience," said Brittany Johnson, foster care coordinator.

Becoming a foster parent is a big commitment.

"We are really looking for parents who are able to effectively parent children that have experienced trauma," Johnson said, and there is a big need for homes that will welcome siblings and children age 10 and older.

It means developing a relationship with the entire family, not just the youngest members.

"A lot of people have the assumption that you're coming into it to save children and to give them a family, but they already have families," Johnson said. "It's about working and helping the whole family."

Step-down homes and short-term respite providers are also needed.

Like drug abuse, the need for foster parents crosses borders.

"It's not just a Douglas County issue, it's a state and a national issue," Wehmas said.

Members of the state Assembly Speaker's task force on foster care unveiled 13 proposals last month that would provide state funding for programs that support families and foster parents. The state proposals include $400,000 to fund incentives, education and financial reimbursements to foster parents in 2018, increased funding for 211 Wisconsin and $500,000 in federal funding for child abuse and neglect prevention grants.

The bills could reach the Assembly floor as soon as next month.

For more information on becoming a foster parent, call (715) 395-1304, ext. 1445, stop by the monthly foster parent support group or visit