Marathon County youth Shelter Home set to temporarily close Dec. 3
WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - The shelter home at the Marathon County Juvenile Facility in Wausau is set to temporarily close Dec. 3 due in part to staffing shortages.
The shelter provides children a place to stay temporarily if they cannot immediately get into the care placement they need.
“It can be children who are in our child protective service system if we don’t have another foster home for that child to go to, maybe it’s this night they can’t take them, but tomorrow morning they can, they may stay at our shelter facility for the evening and then move to a foster home,” Christa Jensen, the child welfare manager at Marathon County Social Services explained.
It can also be used as a consequence for minor offenses that do not put the public in danger, like truancy. The threshold for a child to be placed in shelter versus secure detention, which is part of the same building, is significant. In the shelter, children can come and go; the sheriff’s office chief deputy, Chad Billeb said to think of a nursing home where people have a place to stay, but people are not bound there. While secure detention is essentially like juvenile jail; children who have committed crimes that would cause a public safety issue are placed there.
There is an ongoing evaluation of the shelter home for more than a year and whether it would be in the best interest of the county to continue running it. Billeb said the previous county administrator, Brad Karger, wanted it evaluated a few years ago with an effort to set the county on a priority-based budget track.
In 2018, the evaluation was focused on the secure detention facility, which ultimately remained open and run by the county, specifically the sheriff’s office. Last year, the county began to evaluate the shelter home and focused those efforts this spring as the license to run the facility needs to be renewed in 2022. Billeb stated in a county public safety committee meeting that the county would need to make a decision whether to renew by January.
Currently, the shelter is also run by the sheriff’s office. Of the handful of county-run shelters around the state, Marathon County’s is the only one to be run by law enforcement instead of a social or human services department. Billeb said this creates complications for a few reasons, including contributing to the temporary closure.
Largely, the placements to the shelter are done by the social services department, though occasionally a judge will place children there. However, it is the sheriff’s office staff that manages the facility.
“Those staff have certain requirements and certifications that they must obtain and we don’t have that type of certification and that’s actually what has brought us to this problem.”
While the staff working the facility have received the training necessary to work there, Billeb explained other sheriff’s office staff typically do not need that same certification, so people from other parts of the sheriff’s office cannot simply fill in. He said the training required is more in line with what social workers receive in their normal line of work.
That was the issue that Billeb said led to deciding to close the facility by Dec. 3. Two staff members have either left or put in their notice to leave for other jobs, which would put the facility below the required staffing levels.
“We just don’t feel it’s appropriate to go hire someone for a one or two-month time frame just to tell them that we may be doing something different,” he noted.
So, at the very least the county is potentially looking to transfer the control of the facility from the sheriff’s office to social services, but that also causes complications.
“We know based on all of the programs that we currently run, we could not effectively run that program without contracting that service out. We just don’t have the capacity based on our staff right now,” Jensen stated.
She explained that they are evaluating all of the costs of the potential options the county could have for where and how to provide those services. That includes not only financial costs but also the impacts on children’s care and the impact to the many other counties that currently send children there. She said they have been evaluating the costs to keep the program as is, simply transferring it to social services, contracting to send children elsewhere, and contracting with a private provider to run the facility. She said they are gauging the interest and availability of private providers and would ultimately go through an RFP process, or request for proposal process.
“Does this make sense for us to run? We know that there would be significant cost savings in having someone else provide the service, but there are also obstacles to that in that there would be additional costs to, say social services in transporting children to different locations, harder for families to spend time with those children, attorneys interacting with them,” Billeb said. “So, we’re very aware of that and that’s why we’re trying to be smart about the decisions we make.”
The shelter serves many of the surrounding counties and even counties as far as Bayfield in addition to children in Marathon County. On a given day, there are about three children at the shelter; it can hold up to eight. According to state statute, a child cannot be kept at a shelter facility for more than 30 days per episode unless extensions are approved, but on average in Marathon County, children stay at the shelter home for about 15 days. Between Jan. 1, 2019 and April 9, 2021 306 different children have been at the shelter home 205 times.
“The census of kids that Marathon County uses that facility for is not high enough to justify that type of cost,” he said.
Currently, Billeb stated it cost the county about $550,000 a year for the sheriff’s office to staff and equip the facility, not including utilities. In levy dollars, the estimated cost is about $430,000 a year. Broken down, he said it costs the county about $748 a bed day. The fee they charge other counties to provide services to children is $150 a bed day. The revenue coming in for the services to care for children outside of the county and the fees charged to in-county families, he stated in May, was approximately $80,000 a year.
In contrast, the county increased the secure detention bed days for out-of-county placement was increased to better take on the costs to provide the care. On average about seven juveniles are in secure detention on any given day; the facility can hold up to 20.
He explained so far, it looks like having a private entity run the facility at the current location would cost about $121,000 a year, though they are still researching that cost. They would allow the entity to contract with other counties and that entity would keep that revenue.
“We believe that a model like that would allow us to pay the true cost of that service and allow the vendor to be entrepreneurial and if they want to run a business out of there, they can do that so long as Marathon County has dedicated beds,” Billeb said.
With the temporary closure of the shelter home, Jensen said they would evaluate the needs of each child that would otherwise be placed there and try to not place children beyond the level of care they need.
“We’re going to evaluate, could they be safely maintained in their home. What services do we need to put in place for this family to be successful? How does social services support them, how can the community support them? If they cannot be safely maintained in their home, then we would be reaching out to our foster homes potentially or other group homes to see if they might be able to provide the level of care this child needs. And if it is a shelter care facility that meets their need and that’s where they need to be, then we need to reach out to the few surrounding counties who do have facilities to see if we could potentially utilize their agency.”
The closest shelter facility is in Brown County. Both Jensen and Billeb, as noted previously, said keeping kids in their home county as much as possible is vitally important. Jensen also mentioned they are in need of more families to become foster families, especially for older children and teens.
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