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Department makes greater effort to keep kids at home, says Bicha

The Human Services Department has a different focus than it had years ago and other professionals who work with children might not see the whole picture, said Reggie Bicha.

"We don't do things that we did three years ago or five years ago," said Bicha, director of Pierce County's Human Services Department for less than three years.

He said that as the federal government completes assessments of state children and family services programs, Wisconsin has been making changes. Those will include a new statewide computer system, more help for counties to train social workers and revision of policies and standards.

While Wisconsin has a statewide welfare system, until now "there was really very little state direction and oversight," said Bicha.

He said Pierce County has been working for the last several years to come into compliance with new standards that set child safety as a primary goal but also value family participation.

While safety is the first goal when working with allegedly abused or neglected children, social workers now do greater assessments in an effort to work with families to help them take steps to make their homes as safe, said Bicha.

His department operates under "a philosophy I call 'no wrong door,'" said Bicha. "We don't want services delivered to a family based on how they came into the agency."

He used the example of a household that includes a 14-year-old with attention deficit disorder, an alcoholic mother and a father with anger management problems who just lost his job. Law enforcement and social workers could have been called to the home for any number of reasons.

Since working with just one person wouldn't solve the family's problems, social workers attempt to involve the family in a plan that addresses multiple issues, said Bicha

"Now we're finding out it's really valuable to get a lot of information up front," said Bicha.

"Instead of just 'Johnny came to school with a bruise,'" intake workers hope a referral from a source such as a guidance counselor can give much more information about the child and his circumstances, said Children, Youth and Families Program Manager Kris Miner. That means a referral call that once would have taken 10 minutes can take as long as 45 minutes, she said.

"At what point should government intrude in the individual rights of a family and a child?" asked Bicha. He said the goal of the screening process is to determine when that threshold is met.

Miner said that as supervisor she makes screening decisions, deciding whether to use an informal disposition or to request the formal court-supervised CHIPS (Children In Need of Protection and Services) action.

But, she said, that's not really a change because her predecessor always had to sign off on those decisions.

"We do use 72-hour holds less," said Bicha.

Miner said workers try to find more creative ways to deal with juveniles who violate intensive supervision rules, said Miner.

"I felt that we were using the holds a lot when I came in," she said. "Let's get creative in our options and do something different."

For example, she said, a social worker might talk with parents to choose a suitable consequence for a child who illegally obtained a pack of cigarettes rather than having him taken into custody.

Automatically putting a child in detention desensitizes him to jail as a punishment, she said.

"Not to mention what they can learn from other folks who are in juvenile (detention)," added Bicha.

Police officers who get the original call about a child in trouble would know if the kid is sent to detention, but they might not be informed when another method is used to deal with the problem, said Miner.

Communication between her department and other agencies could be improved, admitted Miner. "We're still trying to find out if we're talking the same language."

A new staff plan includes one less social worker. That reduction is justified because caseloads are down, said both Bicha and Miner.

While the number of calls to intake workers is up, the number of investigations is steady or slightly decreased, said Miner.

Juvenile justice referrals are also down, said Bicha. He said that while there were 250 delinquency referrals in 1998, there were only 190 in 2003.

"This is a statewide phenomenon," said Bicha, who had no explanation for the decline.

But Pierce County's drop isn't because of county policy, said Miner.

Under state regulations, "It's almost like we don't have the option to turn people away," she said.