Damakant Jayshi

A project that aims to provide safe housing for families court-cleared to reunite with their children has been revised and will be presented to county leaders next month.

The revised Family Keys project will likely have a single-family housing as opposed to congregate living, according to Marathon County officials. The Marathon County Health and Human Services Committee will review the revised proposal Oct. 5, officials said.

The Wisconsin Department of Children and Families is working with county staff to address the concerns by some members of the Marathon County Board of Supervisors who rejected a budget amendment for the program.

“Currently, Marathon County and our partners are in the initial planning stages to change the initial congregate living model to one of a single-family housing assistance model,” County Administrator Lance Leonhard told Wausau Pilot & Review.

“We are confident that our revised program will assist us in serving children and families in need in our community,” he said. “Should the Health and Human Services Committee approve doing so, this program would then be incorporated into the annual budget process, which would allow us to receive the grant funds in January of 2023 and to continue participation in phase 2 of the program.”

The budget with the grant still requires board approval.

The pilot phase of the program was to begin in August and run for two years. After that period, the county could continue to participate in the second phase or opt out. The federal grant for the 2-year pilot project was $327,100.

Details of discussions between the county and the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families are not fully clear, but the revised program appears to be inching closer to finalization – after the initial version failed to get a nod from the Board of Supervisors in July.

Although the project saw a majority support from the 38-member board, it did not receive the two-thirds required for a budget transfer of the grant. The higher threshold for approval was required since the current budget was adopted without the grant amount.

Last month, Wausau Pilot & Review reported that the DCF had expressed interest in a revised project by addressing concerns expressed by supervisors, including those who supported the family reunion project.

According to Administrator Leonhard’s briefing to the HHS Committee last month, discussions with the state agency centered on resolving concerns over the congregate living aspect of the program, concerns the idea that the county would be providing public housing, and the concern about how quickly program participants moved from grant-supported housing into a home of their own.

The discussion with DCF, Leonhard told the committee, looked into the possibility of having single-family housing instead of congregate living. Some supervisors who voted against the project said that they would support it if the program opted for single-family units instead of putting three or families together for months in a transitional home.

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. 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.

Leonhard said Marathon County continues to experience challenges in assisting child welfare families in securing safe, adequate housing options and that housing continues to be a barrier to families who have completed their court ordered conditions and are deemed eligible to have their children returned to their care but cannot have their children returned due to unsafe housing conditions.

The Family Keys initiative supports Marathon County’s statutory requirement to intervene and provide services to child welfare families to allow children to continue to remain in the home or be reunified with their family as soon as conditions have been met, Leonhard added.

Damakant Jayshi can be reached at damakant@wausaupilotandreview.com. Contact Wausau Pilot & Review’s editor and publisher, Shereen Siewert, at editor@wasuaupilotandreview.com. Follow Wausau Pilot on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/wausaupilot.