On May 1st, nineteen month old Alicia Burgess was suffocated to death in her home in Milwaukee. Child welfare workers had been alerted to serious abuse and neglect problems but failed to act.
Alicia’s tragic and avoidable death comes less than six months after a seven month old baby was starved to death in her Milwaukee home. The state-run Bureau of Child Welfare had been warned of concerns about this child’s health as well.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is right when it declares that “This lethal incompetence must end.” But another study by the Legislative Audit Bureau, the only action the Journal’s editorial board suggests, is not a solution to this deadly and unacceptable state of affairs.
How many more innocent children will die before this community acknowledges that its experiment in privatizing the child welfare system has failed?
For decades Milwaukee County ran the community’s child welfare system. Highly educated and experienced social workers collaborated with other public agencies including Children’s Court, the public schools and the Milwaukee Police Department to protect abused and neglected children.
But the County, under financial pressure from unfunded state mandates, declining state revenues, and competing demands for scarce dollars failed to maintain its investment in protecting abused and neglected children.
By the 1990’s Milwaukee’s Child Welfare system had the highest caseload ratios (over 100 to 1) in the nation.
Case workers had so many families assigned to them that it was impossible to engage in the intensive social work required to save children and restore families. A lawsuit was filed against the County and the State on behalf of Milwaukee’s abused and neglected children.
Rather than address the dysfunctional, under-funded system by hiring more professional social workers and adequately investing in needed programs, state and local officials led by Senator Alberta Darling scapegoated the experienced, highly educated and unionized social workers and proposed privatizing the system. But public control and professional social workers were never the cause of Milwaukee County’s Child Welfare System’s problems.
In response to the lawsuit, the state established the State Bureau of Child Welfare which is more bureaucratic and costly than the system it replaced. Highly educated social workers with years of experience were replaced with young, less educated, inexperienced personnel. The result has been a system plagued by record high turnover rates even as caseloads have been reduced. Quality was sacrificed on the alter of low cost! And we outsourced foster care and safety services. These are the bitter fruits of privatization.
The idea that private agencies whose commitment is to profit, not care, should be responsible for our most vulnerable children has always been misguided. Privatization promises to address social needs on the cheap. But in this world you get what you pay for. Unfortunately, in Milwaukee County it’s our children who are paying the most for this misguided social experiment.
The Journal Sentinel editorial board recognized these problems in March 2005 when it argued that the County should resume control of Milwaukee’s child welfare system to ensure the children’s safety and restore public accountability. How many more children will die before we heed this advice?