Damakant Jayshi

The Marathon County Board of Supervisors this week rejected funding for a pilot program that sought to reunite eligible families with children living in out-of-home care settings.

The program, which required a two-third majority of votes, would have saved the county $168,000 over a two-year span, said Director of Social Services Vicki Tylka. The county will now return the $327,100 grant.

“We will not have that savings since we didn’t accept the grant,” Tylka said.

During the board meeting on Tuesday, the issue drew robust debate on both sides.

The main component of the two-year Family Keys project was a transitional home where parents who have met all court-ordered requirements can live for a short period and be reunited with their children reunited. Requirements imposed by the court include parenting education, AODA and/or Mental Health evaluation and counseling, supervised or unsupervised visitation with their children, cooperation with a case manager, and safe and adequate housing. Even if the parents meet all requirements but lack safe housing, they cannot have their children back. The Family Keys program aimed to address this gap.

“The county is responsible to arrange for and provide for the court ordered conditions when families need assistance meeting them,” Tylka told Wausau Pilot & Review. “In the housing area, if safe and accessible housing is a barrier for a family, the department is currently required to assist in arranging or providing for this need. Grant or no grant, this doesn’t change the county’s obligation.”  

The program would have paid for rent, utilities and furnishing – but not food – so that families can save money to ultimately secure their own permanent housing. Tylka emphasized that the project aimed to cover multiple families during the project period.

The measure received the majority of the votes on the 38-member board, but it fell three votes short of the two-third majority required for a budget transfer.

Those who spoke in favor of the pilot program said the “locally-crafted but federally funded” effort would help avoid foster care for some children, saving the county money.

Marathon County administration’s senior staff also made a strong pitch for the project, saying the county board would retain authority over Family Keys, which relied on federal funding with no local match. Tylka also said the program would not rely on the county levy after the grant period ended.

Critics cited fears for the safety of children living in a transitional home and parents being in that situation as a result of their “bad choices.” Others said the project was a covert effort to push the county to fund public housing, and expressed concern over the “political agenda” of the family foundation, Casey Family Programs, involved in the project. Some supervisors questioned whether the county has a mandate to provide housing to these families, under the Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018.

A few supervisors, including some in favor of the pilot program, asked whether a single-family home, instead of a congregational home, could be made available. Others wanted to know whether 24-hour supervision could be provided. Some were openly worried about the prospect of children living in such a large home with other families with adults, concerns that were also expressed in recent committee meetings before Tuesday’s board meeting.

County Administrator Lance Leonhard and Tylka tried to allay those fears before the board voted on the matter.

Leonhard pointed out that whether the children live in an apartment with multiple people or whether they move in with family, children are placed with the parents, so it’s ‘in home’ placements, but they live in the home of someone else. That happens very frequently, Leonhard said.

“So, I am challenging all of us to think outside of our own lens of experience,” he said.

Tylka said families could opt to live in another house with each other if they wanted to and if they could afford it. The question is, she said, whether or not they have the money to access housing at all, let alone sustain it. “These families are not required to have 24-hour supervision,” Tylka said.

“Many people (thankfully) never interact with the child protective services system,” she said. “At times, assumptions are made regarding parents whose children are removed from their care.”

“Our work with these parents shows us they are not ‘bad’ people, they are many times people who have had bad things happen to them during their life.”

She said many parents have had trauma in their lives involving some kind of abuse, neglect, parent incarceration, alcohol or drug use, or suicide in their family as a child, and may struggle within their own ability to parent.

“It is the county child welfare agency’s legal responsibility through federal and state laws to intervene, address safety concerns and provide supports and services to these families,” said Tylka, who added that many parents do achieve success and are reunified with their children.

Tylka said Marathon County was one of three counties chosen for the pilot program for two reasons: lack of safe and accessible housing for child welfare families and child service agencies that have expressed a lack of housing as a barrier to families reuniting. La Crosse and Wood Counties were also chosen for the program.

Some supervisors who opposed it said they did so to prevent future financial burden for the county. Supervisor Tony Sherfinski said government programs such as Family Keys “don’t die,” expressing his suspicion that the program wouldn’t continue at taxpayer expense.

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 federal grant came from supervisors who consider themselves fiscally conservative.

Supervisor Matthew Bootz pointed to this aspect.

“This is a grant. We are talking about saving taxpayer dollars, and in the next breath say we are not going to accept funds,” Bootz said.” You can’t have it both ways. If you are going to claim to be fiscally conservative, be fiscally conservative.”

Those who want to save tax dollars should start looking at alternative solutions, he said, while the pilot project was an opportunity to trying something new. 

“One thing is certain: it is easy to find a problem. It’s coming up with solutions that is hard,” he said.

Supervisor Chris Dickinson disagreed with Bootz and said it is “fiscally responsible to reject a grant,” pointing to billions of dollars spent by the federal government last year on housing. He also said it is “fiscally responsible to consider the future.”

Dickinson also suggested that the Casey foundation’s role needed a closer look. The foundation is working with the federal government to help create these kinds of programs, he said, referring to the Family Keys project. “The money is coming from organizations that have a particular mindset about how to drive that fund,” Dickinson said.

The supervisor from Dist. 29 also said that the Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018 did not say “that kids couldn’t go to foster care,” adding there is “no requirement to take all kids out of foster care.” He added that a supervisor’s responsibility requires taking emotion out of the decision-making process.

But Bruce Lamont, who has voted with Dickinson on many issues, had strong words for those who opposed the project and asked whether his fellow supervisors would change their opinion if their own children were involved.

“With discernments, we also have to use our hearts in these matters,” Lamont said. “If it was you, would you try it if there was an option to be reunited with your children?”

That call failed to sway enough supervisors.

In the end, 14 supervisors voted no, effectively nullifying the support of 23 who had voted in favor of the project.

Earlier, Board Chair Kurt Gibbs said that a two-thirds majority was necessary because the current budget was adopted without the $327,100 grant, which meant a budget transfer was required. The Human Resources, Finance & Property Committee accepted the grant, but a board vote was required for the funds to be allocated to the appropriate department.

Before the supervisors voted, Corporation Counsel Michael Puerner said if the board were to deny the budget transfer resolution, the grant funds would be returned. That is now a reality.

[To view the final vote, go to page 4 of the PDF document. For the video, click here.]