7 INVESTIGATES: Opioids, meth driving spike in Marathon County foster care

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MARATHON COUNTY, Wis. (WSAW) -- In 2014, Patrick and Sandy Schmidt were just entering the foster care scene in Marathon County.

“I remember being woken up at 12:30 in the morning,” Patrick recalled. “I had fallen asleep on the couch right behind us... I heard, like,this baby crying. I’m like, ‘Am I dreaming? What’s going on?’ And I look over, there’s a little baby and Sandy laying right next to me.”

Patrick was describing their first call for an emergency foster child placement, the beginning of a journey their family is still on today. But as time went on, Patrick noticed the calls for help were coming in more and more often, and he started asking questions.

“We kept getting phone calls that kids were needing a place to stay, and they didn’t have enough homes,” he said. “I found out that there were more kids being placed in Out of Home (OOH) care than they had ever had experienced in the past.”

That statement was true five years ago, and it’s still true today--as it has been for every successive year since 2014. In 2011, 36 children were in the Marathon County foster care system, according to data provided to 7 Investigates from the Marathon County Department of Social Services (MCDSS). That number does not include children receiving specialized foster care, which ranges from an additional 9 to 21, depending on the year. At the end of May 2019, the most recent complete month for which data was available, the number of children currently in the foster care system for 2019 was at 89. That’s the highest number recorded for Marathon County, according to MCDSS director Vicki Tylka.

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Number of children in regular foster care in Marathon County between 2011 and 2019

Multiple foster parents, social services workers, and other experts that 7 Investigates spoke to over the past several months attribute the increase to the opioid and methamphetamine epidemics impacting the state.

“Everyone says the same story,” Marathon County administrator Brad Karger told us. “The growth in foster care is consistent with the growth and the use of illegal drugs.”

But that growth is weighted toward methamphetamine use in the county, despite opioid addiction gaining more widespread attention, Karger and other experts said.

Wisconsin statewide data indicates 80% of its foster care children are in OOH care due to substance abuse issues, and while that data isn’t specifically recorded for Marathon County, Tylka believes the percentage is correct.

“It hit Marathon County especially hard,” Patrick noted. But both now and years ago when he first observed the uptick in calls, the equation isn’t being balanced with an increase in foster homes.

MCDSS data indicates the number of licensed foster homes in Marathon County has stayed between 44 and 60 since 2011, averaging 54 each year. That doesn’t mean they aren’t getting new families, Tylka noted, but that new families are often balanced out with other families leaving the system. Right now, there are 60 active licensed foster care homes. In 2011, there were also 60 licensed homes. The number dipped to 44 in 2016, but it’s never risen above 60--despite the number of children in the system doubling during the same period of time.

Description

Number of foster homes in Marathon County between 2011 and 2019

But that’s not because new families aren’t coming into the system, Tylka explained. New families are often counter-balanced with others leaving the system--so while the number remains the same, the families represented do not.

Tylka also noted that an un-recorded number of those homes each year is designated for specialized foster care or one-child-only homes. In 2019, the only year for which she was able to pull that information, 14 out of the 60 current licensed homes are child-specific.

“We’re staying about the same in terms of the number of foster parents that we have,” Tylka said. “We’re relying a lot on relative care. If we didn't have relatives available, we would be in a much worse position.” And important to note--the numbers of foster children included in this investigation do not take into account the children who are in kinship care or receiving specialized treatment.

The widening gap between the number of children in the system and the number of homes available to take them in means some children are sent to homes outside the county when there is nowhere else to go.

“Now they don’t get to go back to their same school or see their relatives or their coaches or their friends,” Patrick explained. “Now they’re in this foreign place with these foreign people. That just adds another experience of trauma to a kid who’s already in a really rough situation.”

That’s one of the reasons the Schmidts are always working to recruit other families.

“To take one child--and it can even be short-term,” Sandy explained. “It’s a small baby step that is super helpful; even just one family.”

“It’s a huge commitment, it’s a huge sacrifice,” Patrick mused.

“But I couldn’t imagine doing something more fulfilling in our county, with children in our own backyard.”

Part 2: Marathon County stretched thin on on foster care funding
Web Extra: "A Kind of Hard I'll Never Know"
Part 3: Foster children paying the price of substance misuse
Part 4: One mother's struggle with addiction, and the foster parents who helped her
Part 5: Longer stays in foster care prompt lawmaker's move toward easier termination of parental rights
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Editor’s notes: The children portrayed in the video footage are not in the foster care system, and have full parental permission to appear in this series.