When Mary Wolf left the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare this year, she wrote a pained letter to the agency’s leadership in both Milwaukee and Madison:
“The decision to leave the BMCW broke my heart,” she wrote. “It came down to the choice of retaining my ethics and values or continuing to do work that I love (but) be expected to do things that were morally questionable. It seems wrong to me that it had come to that.”
Wolf worked as an initial assessor at the bureau from March 2013 to February.
In that role, she could decide if children suspected of being abused or neglected needed to be removed from their homes — an event that could retraumatize a child and send families on a journey toward reunification that, even if successful, might take years.
Or she could decide to leave the children in their homes — exposing them to the risk of further abuse, neglect or even death.
By the end of Wolf’s brief tenure, the thought of going to work in the morning made her retch.
Assessors such as Wolf have left the bureau in droves, according to statistics provided by the state Department of Children and Families, which runs the Milwaukee office.
Nearly a quarter of the agency’s assessors left in 2010. Nearly a third left in 2011. Thirty-eight percent left in 2012, and another 38% left in 2013.
Even with new hires, the havoc caused by that level of turnover year after year has been compounding. One way to measure it: the number of backlogged initial assessments — that is, assessments still open past the 60-day deadline set by law.
In June, they peaked at nearly 3,000.
It’s important to note the State of Wisconsin took control of Milwaukee’s child welfare system in the 1990s, when Republican Alberta Darling and her fellow Republicans added a clause to the 1996 state budget that had the State of Wisconsin assuming control of Milwaukee’s child welfare system.
[I]n 1996, Alberta Darling, along with her fellow Republicans, at the marching orders of then-Governor Tommy Thompson added a clause to the budget bill, taking over the child welfare system in Milwaukee County. Their rationale was that, even though independent audits had shown the foster care system to be grossly underfunded, that they could do a better job at running the system than Milwaukee County had.
In 1998, the state took over, creating the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare (BMCW) and began to privatize the system. By the end of 2001, they had it all but completely privatized, with contracts to no less than five different agencies. They also increased the budget for Milwaukee County’s child welfare system by some $35 million. At that time, the standard payment to a foster parent of a child less than three years old was $292 per month.
The problems with the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare can be directly traced back to Republicans who first undermined Milwaukee County’s child welfare system by underfunding it and then finished the job they started by privatizing almost the entire system.
What’s more, not only have Republicans privatized Milwaukee County’s child welfare system, but they’ve dumbed it down by loosening the requirement that those individuals who complete initial assessments to determine if child abuse or neglect is occurring be licensed social workers.
As for stabilizing the workforce, the bureau has widened its net of candidates by removing the requirement that initial assessors be social workers, a move agencies that support and represent social workers have found to be wrongheaded.
Unless I’m mistaken, all that’s required to be an initial assessor for the BMCW is a high school education and some social services work experience, which doesn’t sound to me like a recipe for success in regards to having solid initial assessors who have the education and expertise necessary to do their jobs.
As a result, Milwaukee County’s most at-risk children are less safe, thanks to Republicans.