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County DHS part of state project to improve child welfare

Leader-Telegram - 1/19/2021

Jan. 18—EAU CLAIRE — The Eau Claire County Department of Human Services will participate in an upcoming state project to improve child welfare.

The project will gather information from 13 Wisconsin counties about their work to keep families together in a safe environment. Those findings will be shared around the state in a final report in March. The process involves interviews with department leaders, observations of workers and discussions about successes and challenges of current child welfare work.

The project stems from Family First, the federal legislation passed in 2018 that provided more funding to states for in-home prevention programs aimed at keeping children with families. Its intent is to reframe and rethink "the child welfare system so that it becomes a system where children maintain that connection with family," DHS Director Diane Cable said.

In November, the state recognized the Eau Claire County DHS as one of 13 Wisconsin county operations that will take part in the project, which is a partnership between the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, the state Division of Safety and Permanenceand Root Inc.

Cable was excited to share the news with her staff, and she said the acknowledgement provided encouragement during a supremely challenging year.

Colleen Bates, County Board supervisor and DHS Board chair, hopes the collaboration can "create a pathway that others may be able to look at and say, 'Will that work here?'" she said. "It's sharing information about programs that work."

In Eau Claire, DHS work has recently shifted to "incorporate a circle of care," Bates said. That includes focusing on preventing childhood home removals by becoming involved earlier and maintaining connections with families showing risk signs. That holistic, proactive approach ideally decreases the number of children removed from homes and placed in alternate care, which can potentially be costly and detrimental to children and parents.

"Being able to identify needs and meet those needs really and truly can lead to prevention," Bates said. "That means we spend a whole lot less money and have a whole lot more families stay intact."

That type of early intervention is part of efforts at DHS to "turn the ship" toward better personal and budget outcomes, Cable said. It is an ongoing process, but recent financial progress seems to have occurred. DHS has losses of about $40,000 through the first 10 months of 2020, a substantial improvement from seven-figure overages in the previous three years.

Working with families requires consistent communication, and that is made more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic. Cable praised DHS employees' work in adjusting to challenges like access to technology and talking through video conferencing instead of in person.

"The word 'connections' is incredibly important," Cable said. "Our work is not a checklist approach. There are tasks to be completed, but it is a discipline of the art of social work practice and how we engage and work with individuals and families where they are ... When adults are doing well, kids are doing well also."

For the state project, Cable was interviewed in December about child welfare in Eau Claire County. She said challenges include funding, better allocation of those funds and more support to address mental health needs.

"This can't be just about getting money; it also has to be about, 'How can we do things another way?'" Cable said.

Receiving more money is far from a guarantee, but if DHS funding increases, figuring out how to better spend the money will be made more challenging by the effects of coronavirus. Cable said the pandemic has widened health gaps between people with different income levels.

"COVID has really highlighted the haves and have nots," Cable said.

Katherine Schneider, County Board supervisor and DHS Board member, said another challenge involves the likely increase in substance abuse that has occurred during the pandemic, which could cause family trouble and result in long-term financial strain on DHS.

"Trying to do these great things that we're doing and continue to keep as close to budget as we can — that balancing act is where my focus goes," Schneider said.

DHS appears to be progressing in child welfare, but the ongoing work is made more difficult by the pandemic. The state project should illustrate what the county is doing well and provide information on areas to improve.


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