Douglas County sees jump in child protection cases

Douglas County has seen ups and downs in its efforts to keep children safe. The number of licensed foster homes in Douglas County increased last year, but they filled quickly as February rolled into March. "We were doing OK, and then all of a sud...

Douglas County has seen ups and downs in its efforts to keep children safe.

The number of licensed foster homes in Douglas County increased last year, but they filled quickly as February rolled into March.

"We were doing OK, and then all of a sudden, we took 20 kids into custody in three weeks, which is huge," said Doreen Wehmas, intake and assessment unit supervisor with Douglas County Health and Human Services.

"We usually do that within a six to seven month span," said Cindy Ellefson, youth and family services supervisor. "We're still recovering from that."

In 2015, 59 children were taken into temporary physical custody in Douglas County due to unsafe conditions at home. That number rose to 63 last year. By March 29, of this year, the county had taken 21 children into custody.


In response to the influx of children, the county last month approved the addition of a limited-term employee for the department.

In 2016, Douglas County human services received 948 reports of child abuse and neglect involving 567 child victims. That included 17 drug-affected unborn or newborns.

"We've seen a rise in newborns who are born addicted to drugs," Ellefson said. They come into the world hooked on heroin, meth and marijuana.

A growing number of child safety cases involve drug abuse.

Even if the initial report doesn't include drug use or involvement, Ellefson said, it appears once they start to work with the family. And it's one of the unifying factors in cases that wind up in court.

"It's in the upper 90 percentile that we're finding that the parent or parents are involved in drug use," she said.

"We continue to say 97 to 98 percent of the cases we have in our court have drug or alcohol issues as part of the case," Wehmas said.

The primary drugs involved are heroin and meth.


"Last year was more heroin that we were seeing, but now it's starting to be where it's more equal, 50-50," Ellefson said.

Today's child custody cases are becoming more complex.

"When I started in the field 20-plus years ago at child protection, we were seeing predominately the parents who were drinking and that was the presenting issue," Ellefson said. "And now we're seeing the compounded issues, the increase in drug use, drug dealing, domestic violence, physical violence, extreme neglect, homelessness.

"There's a compounding, resounding theme of a multitude of issues so we're trying to work with these families the best we can and sometimes it's asking ourselves 'where do you start?' There are so many concerns and risk factors within the family system."

That can lead to children being placed in foster care for a longer period of time.

"We're trying to focus on permanency as much as possible," Ellefson said. "That's our goal, is to try to reunify children with their parents. But it's more and more difficult and it's taking more time to do that because of the compounded issues, I think, that we're seeing."

The department also offers resources and help to those who reach out for it.

"Our primary goal always in child protection is to keep families intact and keep children safe in their home, work with the family to give them the resources to do that," Wehmas said.


Although the area has a lack of inpatient drug abuse treatment facilities, that's not the biggest barrier these parents face.

"A lot of times our intervention may be the first intervention," Wehmas said. "I think it comes down to when they're ready. If they've been living with addiction for years and aren't ready to make that change, it's going to take time."

Homelessness is also a barrier to reunification for many families the county works with. Some are convicted felons can't find a place to rent; others are couch hopping at friends' homes; and some have burned bridges with their family.

"People get caught up in that cycle sometimes," Ellefson said. "It doesn't mean they're bad people. It just means that they get caught up in that cycle, and sometimes it's hard to dig their way out of that hole and see daylight, and realize they need some extra support and help - that's what we're here for."

Help can start with a call.

"I think it's a strength to come forward and say 'I need some extra support,'" Ellefson said.

To contact the county for help or to become a foster family, call (715) 395-1304 and ask for the child protection services access line.

The mental health crisis line can be reached at (715) 395-2259.

The Northern Lights Family Resource Center offers parents information, resources, family support services, activities, classes and more. Contact (715) 395-5657 or .

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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