The State Takes Over

Sociologist John Hagedorn (1995) learned his lessons battling the child welfare bureaucracy head on. For two and one-half years, he and his team tried to reform the Milwaukee County child protective services system, only to have the few reforms they had managed to implement undone. Hagedorn explains: "The last of our reform team left the Department of Social Services by the end of 1993. The good old boys whom we had tried to depose returned victoriously, and completely, to power" (p. 137). Shortly thereafter, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the agency, charging that it failed to provide services to the children in its care.

In 1996 the Milwaukee County child welfare system, already described as one of the worst nationwide, had reportedly worsened as state officials developed plans to take over the troubled system. This process had been set into motion and approved by the state legislature in response to the ACLU action, and was scheduled to commence on January 1, 1998 (Murphy, 1996). In October of 1997, it was announced that the placement rate of children in foster care was expected to nearly double with the impending state takeover. It also came to light that complaints of children being abused or neglected by their foster families and in residential care had increased dramatically over a 10-month period; 421 complaints of abused and neglected foster children were independently investigated, compared with 242 for the same period in 1996. Among all such complaints for children in county care, the substantiation rate was 35%, compared with 50% during 1996. Said Supervisor Roger Quindel, chairman of the Health and Human Needs Committee: "I'm ashamed to be a part of this and I'm embarrassed that we continually come up with more and more money to investigate abuse by the system against kids who were removed from their homes" (Murphy, 1997).

In April of 1998, just four months into the state takeover, Thomas P. Donegan, presiding judge at Children's Court, declared Milwaukee County's state-operated child welfare system a bureaucratic "mess" because the county and state were fighting over who was responsible for providing services. It is clear the state was "not at all ready" to take over the system in January, and "we are still, on a weekly and daily basis, discovering new problems," Donegan said (Murphy, 1998). In June the Illinois mother of Donald Rymer, a two-month-old boy who died while in foster care after Milwaukee County authorities took the child from her for alleged neglect, sued the county and Human Services Department officials over his death. The suit alleged that Donald had been taken into county custody despite a lack of evidence of abuse or neglect, and that Jeffrey Aikin, a spokesman for the Department of Human Services, publicly made defamatory allegations of child neglect regarding her care of her children (Daley, 1998). Barely six months into the state takeover, state workers who screened calls and performed initial investigations, were resigning in substantial numbers; 22% of the county's intake and initial assessment workers had resigned since January. Two state supervisors had also resigned. Reasons cited for the resignations were administrative problems, treatment of employees, lack of foster homes or shelter beds for children, and inadequate supervisory support. "I'm so utterly disappointed with how things have gone. This is really, in my opinion, an abomination," a caseworker said (Murphy, 1998b).

By August it was discovered that a backlog of over 2,300 child abuse and neglect referrals had built up during the first six months after the state took over Milwaukee County's child welfare system. Nevertheless, between January and June, 589 children had been removed from their homes (Murphy, 1998c). By September, several county supervisors said their frustration over the county's tumultuous relationship with the state Division of Children and Family Services had pushed them to consider the drastic action of terminating the county's contract with the state (Held, 1998).

 

 
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