More and more children are going through the foster care system throughout the state, and local workers are trying to keep up. In Wisconsin, about 7,800 children went through the foster care system as of July 1. Here in St. Croix County, 47 children are in that system.
“That number has significantly increased in the last couple years,” St. Croix Foster Care Coordinator John Bretl said.
Bretl has worked with the county foster care system since 1991, and said they now have more kids in their care than ever before.
St. Croix County is not alone in the increase. In fact, Bretl said it is in better shape compared to some of the other counties.
The main cause of the increase is drug use, especially of methamphetamine and opioids.”This is absolutely the reason for our increased numbers,” Bretl said.
About 90 percent of St. Croix County’s cases involve substance issues with the parents. Parents found to be actively using and not caring for kids falls under the category of neglect, prompting removal from the home.
Other reasons children will be brought into the foster care system include other forms of neglect or physical or sexual abuse.
“Most kids are in care because of neglect,” Bretl said.
Children can also become a part of the system based on their own actions if they are found to be uncontrollable, have a large amount of truancy or other behavior.
“If they’re considered to be a danger within the community or at school,” Bretl said.
Removal can be court-ordered or voluntary, but Bretl said right now all of the county’s cases are court-ordered.
Cases are managed by the 20 staff members that make up the St. Croix County system, including Bretl, two supervisors, child protective ongoing workers, initial assessment workers and juvenile justice workers. Caseloads have continued to increase, and the county has approved additional hires.
“That will create some relief for some workers that have incredibly high caseloads,” Bretl said.
With most cases the main goal is to reunite the children with their parents. So staff work with the families to help comply with court orders, including programs like counseling, parenting classes and substance abuse help.
“Anything we can provide to them we will to help them,” Bretl said.
Once in the system, kids are placed in one of four levels – relative placement, general foster care homes, group homes or treatment centers.
When placement with a child’s relative is not an option, St. Croix currently has 24 foster homes to care for the children in its care.
Bretl decides where a child is placed by considering the needs of the child and who can best fill those.
“I work very hard to make good matches,” he said.
The system wants to avoid what it calls disruptive placements, when children bounce around between foster homes.
“I’m not prepared to place a child with just anybody,” Bretl said.
When placing a child, Bretl said families should have the mindset that it’s permanent. Most children are in the homes from 12-18 months, but he said that can easily change.
“If they can’t make that commitment… then I’m not going to place that child with them,” Bretl said.
With the system growing, more foster parents are needed.
“I need homes not only for young kids but for teenagers as well,” Bretl said.
To be a foster parent, a person must be at least 21 years old. Bretl said he also looks for a variety of characteristics. Foster parents need to be patient, nonjudgemental and understanding.
“You’re going to be working with families that have made some poor decisions,” Bretl said.
Foster parents also need to be flexible, willing to rework their life to meet the needs and schedule of their foster child just like they would with their own child. Helping a child who has been removed from their home, and has often dealt with traumatic experiences, requires more than just love, Bretl said.
“You have to be willing to educate yourself,” he said.
Consideration also includes looking at applicants’ histories to see if they have a record of good judgement and stability. Though Bretl said sometimes those who have faced their own challenges often make the best foster parents.
“That’s not saying that they have to be perfect,” Bretl said. “That’s not the case at all.”
Overall the process can take four to six months from the first inquiry call.
“It’s a pretty invasive process, but it has to be,” Bretl said.
Once selected foster parents get preplacement training with six hours of online classes. After getting their license they have 30 hours of in-person training to complete and 10 hours of ongoing training every year after that.
“Hopefully that training helps prepare them for fostering,” Bretl said. “We believe that education and training is a very important role in the program.”
Even after training, the parents have the resources of the county system.
“You can’t do it only on your own, it has to be a team effort,” Bretl said.
Foster parents can be licensed for up to four children, but the system rarely places more than two in a home.
“I don’t want to overwhelm my foster parents,” Bretl said.
They do work hard not to separate siblings though, Bretl said.
The most challenging part of fostering is often the end, when the child leaves the home. Though Bretl said it is a joyous moment, it is still often difficult for the foster parents.
“We work really hard at preparing foster parents for that,” Bretl said. “It’s a loss for a foster parent.”
Being a foster parent is a challenging but rewarding process – helping the child adjust, continue after traumatic experiences, creating a new schedule with them, and most times eventually saying goodbye.
“It will be in most cases a wonderful experience for those folks as long as they go into it with reasonable expectations,” Bretl said.
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