(also known as Jeanine B. v. Thompson)
FILE NO., COURT, AND DATE FILED
No. 93-C-0547 (E.D. Wis., Jun. 1, 1993)
877 F. Supp. 1268 (E.D. Wis. 1995); 967 F. Supp. 1104 (E.D. Wis. 1997); 2001 WL 748062 (E.D. Wis. Jun. 19, 2001)
CLEARINGHOUSE REVIEW NO.
ATTORNEYS FOR PLAINTIFFS
Marcia Robinson Lowry
Children's Rights, Inc.
330 Seventh Avenue, Fourth Floor
New York, NY 10001
Fax: (212) 683-2210
ACLU of Wisconsin
207 E. Buffalo Street, Suite 325
Milwaukee, WI 53202-5712
Fax: (414) 272-0182
This class action against the Governor of Wisconsin was brought on behalf of foster children and other victims of child abuse and neglect in Milwaukee County. The complaint alleged that plaintiffs did not receive timely and appropriate investigations of abuse/neglect, services to prevent entry into foster care, or appropriate case planning and services once they entered foster care. In addition, children were placed in inadequate and unmonitored foster homes, and did not receive services to allow them to return home or to increase the chance of adoption should they not return home. Finally, the complaint alleged that children with disabilities in the foster care system were discriminated against in the provision of case planning and services. The lawsuit sought injunctive relief to ensure that the county’s foster care system complies with federal statutory and constitutional law and with Wisconsin state law.
HISTORY AND STATUS
As the case neared trial, the state took legislative and executive action to begin planning the take over of the county-run child welfare system. Affidavits submitted by plaintiffs in the fall of 1996 demonstrated that the state’s planned takeover had not translated into real systemic changes. After the court refused to rule on plaintiffs’ request for emergency relief, in May 1997, plaintiffs petitioned the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. The Seventh Circuit also declined to rule. The district court subsequently denied plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction.
In January 1998, the state took over the child welfare system. The district court requested briefing on the enforcement of Title IV-E claims in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Blessing v. Freestone, 520 U.S. 329 (1997). On January 30, 1998, the district court found the statute enforceable only as to case plan and review requirements. The court dismissed all remaining claims against the county defendants as moot due to the state’s takeover of the system.
After a six-month investigation, plaintiffs concluded that the state in its new role was failing to protect children. After the court dismissed a supplemental complaint re-alleging substantive due process claims, in December 2000, plaintiffs filed an Amended Supplemental Complaint, adding five new named plaintiffs and a new claim that the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare (BMCW) was violating the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) by not moving children towards mandated permanent legal placements.
In December 2002, the Court approved a Settlement Agreement, calling for significant systemic reform, including performance measures for expediting permanency for foster children; performance measures governing the investigation and substantiation of abuse-in-care allegations to ensure the safety of children in BMCW; a caseload cap of eleven families for each case manager; and disciplinary action for BMCW case management sites that do not meet 90% compliance with monthly face-to-face visits of foster children by their case manager.
In November 2003, the parties agreed to a minor modification of the settlement, and plaintiffs continued to monitor compliance.
In March 2005, the Settlement Monitoring and Comprehensive Case Review Reports for 2004 were released. The reports documented continuing improvements to the system, as well as growing problems. BMCW submitted a corrective action plan to address non-compliance on six settlement performance measures and related issues: (1) children being subjected to an increasing number of placement moves while in state custody; (2) children not having their adoptions finalized quickly enough; (3) children not being reunified quickly enough; (4) too many children being maltreated while in custody; (5) a spike in caseload averages at one of the case management sites; and (6) lengthy stays in adolescent stabilization and assessment centers.
In July 2005, plaintiffs determined that the proposed action plan was inadequate due to lack of funding to address staff turnover, and submitted the case to binding arbitration. Subsequently, the governor issued an executive order requiring DHFS to budget over $1.65 million over the next two years for the necessary caseworker retention and training initiatives. Plaintiffs’ arbitration submission was resolved amicably.
By the end of 2005, BMCW had successfully implemented many of the 2002 Settlement Agreement’s court-ordered reforms, improving case practice and outcomes for foster children. However, by January 2009 BMCW had not reached compliance with all aspects of the court-ordered reform. BMCW agreed to a new Corrective Action Plan which mandated specific changes, including: increased monitoring of agencies and facilities in the child welfare system; consultation with national experts to develop a foster home recruitment and retention plan; an increase in available foster homes by the end of 2009; additional key staff positions; improved mental health assessment and crisis services for children; and improved training for caseworkers and judges who preside over child welfare hearings.
A March 2010 report found that BMCW had made progress in child welfare reform, but still lagged behind in certain critical areas. Children continued to be shuffled through multiple placements and spend too much time in temporary assessment centers. The report also noted a record high turnover rate in the BMCW workforce, contributing to high caseloads.
BMCW continues to follow the Corrective Action Plan developed to bring the agency into compliance with the 2002 Settlement Agreement, and plaintiffs continue to monitor monthly progress.