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Opioid, methamphetamine addiction strains CPS resources

The number of children St. Croix County Human Services took into custody nearly tripled in the past year, and officials say methamphetamine and opioid abuse are the primary culprits.

Soaring numbers of Children's Services cases reflect a statewide struggle that a legislative task force said is nearing a crisis level in counties across Wisconsin.

St. Croix County Board Supervisor Chris Babbitt, who chairs the county's Health and Human Services board, told the full County Board at their Jan. 4 meeting he's not quite ready to "pull the alarm bell" in St. Croix County, "but we're close."

Members of a legislative task force met with La Crosse officials in September for a presentation on that county's data.

Health and Human Services board members also presented data from St. Croix County, which indicated a spike from 32 children taken into custody in 2016 to 92 children in 2017.

"It's unprecedented: child welfare agencies are struggling," said Fred Johnson, director of St. Croix County Health and Human Services. "We're seeing the highest level of utilization of our foster care system in a decade."

Most of these cases stem from parents' struggles with addiction to methamphetamines or opioids, said Julie Krings, St. Croix County Children's Services administrator.

"You hear the stories in the newspaper about an adult overdosing, but the untold stories are that the adult has two children or was caring for X, Y and Z," Kring said.

The surge in children's services casework, however, is not unique to St. Croix County.

A foster care task force in La Crosse County reported a steady 35 percent increase in Child Protective Services referrals from 2010 to 2015.

Out of home placements for children in Trempealeau County rose from 10 in February 2015 to 39 in February 2017.

That number in Buffalo County jumped from seven in July of 2016 to 18 the following year, while the average number of children in Monroe County custody rose more than 80 percent from 2013 to 2016.

Some counties, Krings said, have to rely on hotels to house the influx of children in their care.

Others will set up air mattresses in county buildings and provide children meals through county jail food services.

Although St. Croix County hasn't had to rely on alternative accommodations like those, the roughly 20 foster homes here are usually full. Several other families, Kring said, offer "on-call" for children in need of immediate placement.

Most children, however, are placed with family.

Point-in-time records for St. Croix County track the total number of children in CPS custody on Dec. 27 of each year.

Of the 68 children reported in CPS custody this past December, about half were placed with relatives— a rate Kring called "outstanding."

"We are very lucky to have this happen, because not only to kids to better with their own family members, but also the fiscal impact," Kring said. "We're not having to place kids in other facilities."

Although Kring said the county returns about 90 percent of children taken into custody to their parents, Health and Human Services is looking to amp up foster family recruitments.

The department, Kring said, is also taking "proactive" steps like offering intensive, in-home therapy to families and well as drug and alcohol counselors.

They also aim to support foster families who take in children with behavior issues or special needs to prevent "burnout," an issue both families and children's services staff face.

Babbitt said the Health and Human Services Board will evaluate steps to help alleviate staff stressors like increased caseloads, which he said have resulted from dozens of unfunded mandates that have stacked up in the past several years.

More information about becoming a foster parent in St. Croix County is available at bit.ly/2CWhUPC or by calling the St. Croix County Alternate Care Coordinator at 715-246-8317.