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County officials educate state legislators on crisis

The number of Wisconsin children being placed in living arrangements outside their homes is a growing crisis stemming from drug abuse, and Douglas County is not immune to the impact.

In fact, Douglas County is in the top three for both methamphetamine and heroin abuse, and statistics show it is impacting child protective services in Douglas County.

While about 80 percent of child welfare cases statewide are related to drug or alcohol abuse, Douglas County's caseload for child protective services related to those issues is about 95 percent, said Doreen Wehmas, children's services manager and deputy director of the Douglas County Health and Human Services Department.

This week, county leaders shared the crisis with state lawmakers representing the district. They invited Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Mason, and Rep. Nick Milroy, D-South Range, in for a discussion of the issue Monday, Nov. 12. The Wisconsin County Human Services Association is encouraging human services agencies across the state to meet with their state legislators to share information about the ongoing crisis.

"I think in the last couple of years, we've heard a lot about the meth and the heroin," said Pat Schanen, director of the Douglas County Health and Human Services Department. "I think the part that hasn't been talked about is the impact on human service agencies in the sense that we're dealing with the children and the families that are kind of the collateral impact of the drug culture.

"They really do go very hand-in-hand," Schanen said. "But I think enough hasn't been said about the child welfare system."

That comes at a cost — high staff turnover, overloaded case workers and children being placed out of their homes for longer periods of time. Wehmas said the amount of time spend in custodial care has increased 127 percent, from 157 days on average to 365 days. And with meth use forecasted to grow in Wisconsin, it's a trend that is expected to continue.

Bewley made an analogy of the situation, illustrating the rescue of children from a river, and wondering what steps are being taken to prevent children from being thrown in the river in the first place.

"We can't continue to just keep pulling children out of the river," Bewley said.

While prevention has long been a priority in Douglas County, Schanen said the prevention dollars have to be prioritized, restricting services for chemical dependency treatment for pregnant women and women with children, for example.

"I think that right now things are so critical on our end that prevention dollars never seem to be available with the crisis going on when you're just trying to meet needs," Schanen said.

Schanen said the Wisconsin County Human Services Agency is seeking a $60 million increase in funding for child welfare services in the next biennial budget, $30 million each year.

Milroy said the state must do something: "There needs to be a different funding mechanism altogether to provide the services, and I don't know that property taxes should be going to pay for these services. This is a statewide or national issue."

Douglas County Board Chairman agrees. After all, the county has only closed the gap on about $600,000 of the projected shortfall in the human services budget for this year.

"What this is doing to the county isn't just at this department level," Liebaert said. "We're $1 million short here. We could raise our levy by$150,000. Imagine where we're getting that money from ... we found half the money. We're going to have to meet in June and make some even harder decisions."

Decisions already made include cutting $300,000 designated for highway projects; increasing the forestry transfer to $1.8 million; raising revenue projections for sales tax; and increasing what county employees pay toward their health insurance. He said things that could be cut next include UW-Extension, which provides services that could likely keep families together, and creating a wheel tax.

"It's a downhill slope that we just can't figure a way out of ... the state and the feds have got to figure out this is a bigger problem than a local county government can handle with its tax base," Liebaert said. "It has to be handled at a bigger level."

Milroy said the challenge is predicting the cost from year to year, and convincing legislators facing the need to increase revenue by $2.2 billion just to pay for current government services.

"We want to make sure that we have quality services because the kids we represent in children's services and their families deserve to have good services," Schanen said.

Bewley thanked local officials for sharing information on what's happening in Douglas County and assured them other counties in the 25th District are facing similar challenges.

"To me this is equal to a natural disaster," Bewley said. "You summon different resources because things are so critical, almost like an emergency ... you almost have to triage on a daily basis."

And Bewley is hopeful other legislators are learning about the crisis from the counties they represent.

"We're going to hope that all across all 72 counties have the 'come to Jesus' meeting with their legislators," Bewley said. "I hope all the legislators are made familiar with what is going on in their counties."