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FOSTER CARE PERFORMANCE LAGS IN MILWAUKEE

Milwaukee County
Foster care performance lags
Milwaukee's 36 maltreatment cases in '07 rate high; officials promise action
By FELICIA THOMAS-LYNN

Posted: Mar. 18, 2008

More than 30 children were physically abused or neglected while in Milwaukee's foster care system last year, according to a new report released Monday.

In one of the cases, a young boy was allowed to bathe and share a room with an older brother who had sexually abused him in the past, a fact known by the foster mother, the report says.

In another case, a foster parent used physical discipline by striking a child on the hand and arm with a plastic golf club, according to the report.

Most of the 36 maltreatment cases in the report, issued by the state-run Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare, occurred with children between the ages of 5 and 11, but some also involved children 2 and younger.

In 2002, the organization settled a federal lawsuit alleging that the foster care system in Milwaukee routinely failed to protect children. Periodic reports, such as the one released Monday, are required as part of the settlement.

According to the settlement agreement, the bureau cannot have more than 0.60% of the children in its custody become victims of substantiated abuse or neglect allegations by a foster parent or staff of a facility required to be licensed. However, last year, the bureau demonstrated a performance measure of 0.93%.

"The bureau obviously has some significant challenges ahead," said Eric Thompson, senior litigation counsel with Children's Rights, a New York-based, national child advocacy group. "Foster children are being abused in care at an unacceptable level, they are not being brought for regular medical appointments and dental care, and they are still being subjected to multiple placement changes."

While there is no set penalty for missing the benchmark, "the parties to the lawsuit will be negotiating a corrective action plan as required by the lawsuit," Thompson said.

The report is not all critical. It also shows where the bureau is meeting and exceeding expectations under the settlement agreement, including a higher percentage of children being reunified with their parents, as well as more adoptions being finalized within 24 months of entering care.

"Generally, the bureau has made enormous strides over the past 10 years, but chronic areas of non-compliance will need to be addressed more aggressively," Thompson said.

The number of families with children in out-of-home care has remained around 1,800 for the past three years, according to the report. The number of families whose children entered care during 2007 was 555, consistent with the previous four years, when the number ranged from 508 to 584.

Reggie Bicha, secretary of the state's newly established Department of Children and Families, said the maltreatment cases were "the most concerning aspect," of the report.

"The heart and soul of what we do is to make sure children are safe. They absolutely should be safe when in out-of-home care," said Bicha, adding that a comprehensive safety plan was created last year to "put a laser focus on child safety."

The action plan came together after a sweeping review of Milwaukee County's child abuse cases was ordered by a top state official. The review was ordered after the suffocation death in May 2007 of a 19-month-old girl who was left in her home by child welfare workers despite warnings by two doctors that the child and her brother were in danger.

Denise Revels Robinson, the bureau's director, said that as part of the plan, several strategies to protect children have been implemented or expanded, including Mobile Urgent Treatment Team for Foster Families, a mobile crisis team that now provides immediate mental health services 24 hours a day to foster children and their families.

She said the bureau also has been working with the Bureau of Regulation and Licensing regarding the issue of standards for both group homes and treatment foster homes.

A decision was made within the last two weeks, Robinson said, not to place children in treatment foster homes that have been licensed for less than a year.

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