Damakant Jayshi

Hundreds of reports of child abuse and neglect in 2021 were found to be credible enough to merit a further assessment by the county’s Department of Social Services, according to a presentation on Wednesday.

Of the 1,592 reports of child maltreatment – physical abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect – reported last year, 516 cases were “screened in,” meaning they required further review by the department, Social Services Director Vicki Tylka told members of the Marathon County Health and Human Services Committee. Tylka made the comments during a briefing on child mandates in the state that all counties must adhere to.

The mandate requires counties to ensure the welfare of children who have been reported as facing abuse or neglect. Services cannot be denied due to lack of funding, Tylka said during the presentation. Both federal and state laws require that officials make an effort to keep children with parents unless safety concerns require otherwise. In the event of a home not being safe for such children, out of home care must be provided.

Both federal and state laws prioritize returning children to their families and discourage out of home care. There is more funding dedicated to keeping children with their families and less on foster care.

Tylka shared details about a new project, Family Keys, that aims to address this challenge. She had given a detailed briefing about the project to the Marathon County Board of Supervisors during an educational briefing last month. Marathon is among the three counties, the other two being Wood and La Crosse, that have been selected for the 2-year pilot project. If the county agrees to launch the project, it will receive a $327,100 grant with no matching requirement. The grant will help provide a transitional home for about three to four families and cover their rent, utilities and other expenses.

County Administrator Lance Leonhard said there is no financial risk to the county, where officials will retain local control over the project.

Chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, Michelle Van Krey, said the county should be proactive and accept the grant. She referred to the legal mandate under which the county will have to provide protective services to children.

“If we decline the grant, another county is going to get it,” the Dist. 1 supervisor said.

The proposal now heads to the Human Resources, Finance, and Property Committees and then to the full board. The project’s target start date is August.