Editor’s note: This story has been modified to reflect precise and additional comments made by Tanya Riehle during Thursday’s meeting. See the full meeting video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8xh0RytX44. Wausau Pilot & Review regrets any confusion.

Damakant Jayshi

Amidst charges of hidden agendas and ulterior motives behind a new pilot program that aims to reunite children with families, a certified foster parent and a state elected representative termed the grant project both a “prudent” and “great” opportunity.

“I have tried to help parents find inexpensive place to safely raise their family that have met all the requirements to have the kids with them,” said Patrick Schmidt, a certified foster parent, during public comments of the educational meeting of the Marathon County Board of Supervisors on Thursday. “They just couldn’t find a safe place.”

Schmidt said some families are forced to live in unsafe places because they could not find safe and affordable place to stay, something which the program can make available to some families. “It is a great opportunity,” he said.

The amount of state and federal funds is decreasing for out of home care for children, including foster care, since they want children to be living with their families and have concentrated more money toward that goal.

Schmidt added that though he preferred private funding instead of government support for housing needs, “I think this is a prudent opportunity to use some government money to bridge a gap, for a couple of years, to provide a place for women or men or families to live and to safely raise children, to have accountability.”

The main component of the two-year pilot program for Marathon County, Family Keys, is a transitional home where parents who have met all court-ordered requirements can live for a short period with their children reunited with them. The program would pay for rent, utilities and furnishing – but not food – so that families can save money to ultimately move to their own permanent housing.

The target period for families living at a large transitional home, which includes individual bedrooms and bathrooms but common living and kitchen space, is three to nine months. Depending on the size of each family, the Department of Social Services aims to serve three to four families at a time. A dedicated case manager will assist.

If qualifying parents cannot find a safe and adequate place to live, they cannot have their children back, resulting in their children continuing with out of home or foster care setting. And most of these parents are unable find housing, either due to steep rent or a lack of demonstrated rental history, past addiction or criminal record issues or a combination of these factors, people involved in child protection services say. About 10% of the children in foster care in Wisconsin are in such a situation because their parents, who are otherwise qualified to have them back, lack safe housing and other viable options, county officials say.

Family Keys is aimed to address that, county officials and top leadership of the government said. Marathon County, one of the three counties chosen for the pilot project, must first formally accept a $327,000 grant to launch the project.

The two-year grant totaling $327,100 is attached to the federal Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018. According to the Act, “the focus of the current child welfare system (is) toward keeping children safely with their families to avoid the trauma that results when children are placed in out-of-home care.” In addition to Marathon County, the project will be launched in Wood and La Crosse counties if they accept the grant. The Wisconsin’s Department of Children and Families will likely replicate the program statewide if results are positive.

The Board of Supervisors will likely make a decision on the grant on Tuesday, July 19. Some residents are opposed.

Besides Schmidt, those who spoke in favor of accepting the grant are Rep. Patrick Snyder (R – Schofield), Deputy Chief of Police Matthew Barnes and Clint Reusch, a former addict who said he almost lost his children due to his addiction.

Tanya Riehle, Joanne Leonard, Erin Crawford and Shantese Tarpey opposed it.

Those speaking in favor of the project spoke of the trauma of separating children from families and the necessity of accepting federal dollars. Those against said children will be used as “lab rats,” that the program constituted “communal living” and a group home setting that they said was not safe for children. Critics said the children could be exposed to drug addicts, and that the program was an intrusion of federal government into local control. Some also said that the county will have to pay for the program after the first phase ends.

But the county will not have to participate after the two-year plan is up, as county officials have repeatedly pointed out. Further, the trend in out-of-home care expenditure means the county would have to increasingly pay more under the current model, since state and federal funding for care placements is decreasing.

Out-of-home care is already very expensive, county officials have said. The 2022 budget for out of home care, including relative, foster care, group home and residential treatment is more than $5 million, with 60% coming from state and federal funds and the rest from the county levy. Most of the opposition to the project comes from supervisors and residents who oppose the county levy being used to support social services.

This is a state grant, with no matching fund required.

“I ask you to pause and think critically about this new demonstration project which is a pilot program that will use children in a grant-funded experiment,” said Riehle, who was one the speakers during public comments, opposing the grant program.

Riehle asked supervisors to research the motive of those supporting the project. She accused the Casey Family Programs, which has provided the funding for the pilot project, of pushing a hidden agenda and having an ulterior motive. Referring to the core values of the foundation – ‘Diversity, Equity, Anti-Racism and Anti-Discrimination‘ – Riehle said it “sounds exactly like the language of the woke, liberal, diversity, inclusion, and equity agenda of the community for all proposal that created so much division in our county last year.”

Shantese Tarpey said it is unsafe to keep children in a home with other families. Tarpey, who said she has been dealing with an addict for 14 years, added “the drug addicts are not bad people but I know what happens with drug addicts. It concerns me.”

But Republican State Rep. Snyder, who addressed the board during the public comment portion of the meeting, made a strong pitch for the project, saying it was part of the Trump Administration’s “family first agenda that is trying to keep the families together.”

“The trauma that the kids go through when they are removed from homes is something, unless you’ve seen it or experience it, it’s tough,” Snyder, who is Chair of the Wisconsin Assembly’s Children and Families Committee, said. “This is a way to be able to get these families together, start to heal and, hopefully, get on their feet and be able to move forward.” He warned that “if they age out of foster care, more than likely they will be homeless, or worse, they’d be incarcerated.”

Rep. Snyder said the project will save money because it will take children out of foster care. He also referred to the housing shortage in the county.

Deputy Police Chief Barnes said that police, with the help of social workers, have to separate children from their parents, an experience that is traumatic for everyone involved.

Barnes said he is aware of concerns for the safety of children in the proposal. “Law enforcement has discussed that in depth and vetted those concerns and found none of them to be valid.”

Wausau and Marathon County, like most places in the country, have a demonstrated shortage of affordable housing units. Places that support such families have been inundated with requests to stay. One such place is the Hagar House in Wausau.

“I learned today that there have at least 20 people who interested to applying to live at the Hagar House,” Schmidt, the certified foster parent who identified himself as a life-long registered Republican and also a financial supporter of the Hagar House, said. “That is way beyond the Hagar House capacity.”

Schmidt is a member of the Citizen Panel Review under the county’s Department of Social Services. He also said some families “would be great parents but don’t have places to house these kids.”

Director of Social Services, Vicki Tylka, agreed with Schmidt.

“They are not bad parents, they are very likely people something bad happened to them in their life that has impacted their ability to parent,” Tylka said.

The Social Services director added that the parents who they invite to live in that setting – the department will screen the families before deciding on their eligibility – will be extremely happy and “highly motivated to make it work because they know what the alternative is. They have had their children removed from them before and that is not something they do not want it to happen again.”

Along with Tylka, Marathon County Administrator Lance Leonhard and Corporation Counsel Michael Puerner again reminded supervisors, who asked several questions about the need and future of the grant program, that the county is legally mandated to provide housing services to children, with or without the program. Leonhard said the county is already providing court-mandated rental support to families in other programs.

One big importance of the 2-year pilot project, Leonhard said, is that it will provide much-needed rental history to parents, following their stay in the transitional home.

A decision could come as soon as next week.