State refused to produce child-separation data, even after counties did

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MADISON – A state agency would not release county data to explain why children are removed from their homes in Wisconsin, information that eventually showed that parental drug abuse is a growing factor.

Interest in the data stemmed from a previous report that drug and alcohol abuse was splitting more central Wisconsin families and stressing caseloads. USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin sought to learn from the department, which oversees child protective services, whether the trend was isolated or widespread across the state.

But the agency responded with roadblocks.

A department spokesman initially said the agency doesn’t track the reasons that children are taken from their parents (which is untrue). Then the state said county-level statistics couldn’t be exported from the agency’s records system (also untrue).

Finally, the public agency decided that compiling the data wasn’t worth staff time.

“We do not have the manpower to undertake such an endeavor,” Joe Scialfa, the department’s communications director, wrote in a January email.

The news organization had asked the Department of Children and Families to provide caseload data showing the number of drug-related child separations for each of the state’s 72 counties. In other words, how often was drug abuse being flagged by social workers as a contributing factor in a separation?

After the state refused to the compile the data from every county, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin asked child welfare officials from 16 counties to produce data from the state records system. A few counties initially insisted that providing the data was the state’s legal obligation, not theirs.

Kenosha County officials, who also cited confidentiality concerns, produced their data after they were informed that a dozen other counties had already done so. An attorney for the county wrote in February, “We agree that there is public benefit in providing the data you are seeking for your report.”

Most of the county officials who were contacted had no idea how to technically export their data. Like state authorities, some argued it couldn’t be done. But one La Crosse County technician figured out the process using the state’s records system and shared her method, which the news network passed along to other counties.

The Department of Children and Families validated the La Crosse County worker’s method, though it was initially skeptical.

“As we have said before, we do not have a mechanism to do such a query without incurring considerable cost and expending significant personnel resources,” Scialfa wrote in a February email. “Please let us know who has been able to respond to your request, so that we may speak to them to see if we are missing a way to provide this information to you that we have not identified.”

The data revealed a growing number of drug-related separations in nearly all of the 16 counties, buttressing anecdotal concerns that drug abuse is splitting more families across the state. Interviews with county officials about the data also found widespread concern that current record-keeping practices are downplaying drug-related separations.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Children and Families said Wednesday that the agency “believes strongly in the transparency of government and has gone to great lengths” to make information publicly available about child protective services. She also commended the news organization’s work.

“Thank you for helping to shine a light on the tremendous threat to our families that Wisconsin, and the rest of the nation, is seeing because of the explosion of opioid dependency,” Gina Paige wrote in an email.

To read our full report, click here. Got an idea for our next investigation? Send an email to tips@gannettwisconsin.com or call our Investigations Hotline: 920-455-5025.

Keegan Kyle is an investigative reporter for USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. He can be reached at kkyle@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @keegankyle.

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