Finding Solutions to Wisconsin’s Child Welfare Crisis

Sep 21, 2023 | Wisconsin Voices Blog

Finding Solutions to Wisconsin’s Child Welfare Crisis

WHAT’S HAPPENING. Recently, the Senate Committee on Licensing, Constitution and Federalism held a hearing on Senate Bill 346. Using $5 million in state funding, this bill would provide funding to third party groups that financially assist parents through the adoption process. With time and cost being the main barriers to adoption, this bill hopes to alleviate the latter. Legislation like this makes a good faith effort to solve a narrow issue within the wider child welfare system; however, there are more issues that need even greater attention.

WHAT ELSE CAN BE DONE. SB 346 reminds us that Wisconsin is dealing with a child welfare crisis. Children need stability, protection, support, and most importantly a loving home. Unfortunately, thousands of Wisconsin children find themselves without this, depriving them of the basic necessities for a healthy childhood. However, there are things that policy makers could act on to help these children – giving them the tools they need to have a brighter future, and in some cases, a faster track to permanency:

LET FOSTER CHILDREN KEEP THEIR MONEY. About 10% of children that enter the foster care system in the U.S. are entitled to Social Security benefits with typical payments totaling $700 a month. However, Wisconsin is one of 49 states that intercept these payments and funnel them into state coffers. In many cases, the children are not alerted that these payments are being taken by the state. This money could be a lifeline to children aging out of foster care, when they are on their own without the benefit of a natural family safety net. 

END SEPARATION BASED ON FINANCIAL OBLIGATIONS. Wisconsin is one of 12 states that will maintain a separation of children from their parents based on a family’s inability to pay back funds used to support their child in foster care, even if they have fulfilled all other obligations. This can result in parents completing the necessary steps to reunify with their children (e.g. drug counseling, parenting courses, attaining employment), only to have their children withheld from them because they cannot afford the hundreds of dollars a month the state is requiring them to pay. This policy directly cuts against the goal of the child welfare system; to maintain or reunify families. 

PROTECT CHILDREN. In 2017, more than 18,000 children went missing from protective care in the U.S. The issue of missing children is a problem in Wisconsin too. However, there are ways to improve the system to prevent missing children and increase the chances of them coming home safely. Simple improvements like giving foster children state IDs, educating them on the dangers of trafficking, mandating school reporting, and using new technology like facial recognition will keep more foster children safe.

ENGAGE COMMUNITY SUPPORTS.  Child welfare in Wisconsin, like in other states, is a reactive system that only begins to engage with families once harm has already happened – pushing families in crisis into government bureaucracy and ultimately the court system. However, there are ways to be proactive, to keep families together and out of the court system. Organizations like Safe Families partner with counties by reaching out to families before they enter the system and connect them with volunteers that provide the support they need to stabilize and stay out of the child welfare system. It’s no secret that the U.S. is experiencing a loss of community and a growth in social isolation. In this we haven’t just lost acquaintances and passing relationships, but the very organic safety net that helps families when they are down on their luck.