Walworth County busy protecting neglected or abused children
A small child could be living in a house covered in animal feces with a fridge full of mold.
A young boy might have cigarette burns on his arm.
Such incidents involving parents who are unfit to raise their children are becoming more common in Walworth County.
Forty-four cases to terminate parental rights were filed in 2007, up from 25 cases in 2006.
"These are moms and dads that should not have a baby," Deputy Corporation Counsel Michael Cotter said. "People think it's a big-city problem. It's here. It's down the street."
Parents lose their children for reasons ranging from neglect, physical and sexual abuse, abandonment, mental illness and disabilities, he said.
And adjudicating the cases is expensive.
The county spends $50,000 to $100,000 per child to terminate parental rights, including the cost of foster care, treatment, attorney's fees, counseling, psychiatric services, court costs and other expenses, Cotter said.
The reason for the recent increase can be attributed to population growth, he said. Teachers and law enforcement officials also are better at recognizing and reporting the problem.
The process of taking children from their parents often begins when law enforcement officials or teachers discover a problem, Cotter said.
Fixing the child's home life without removing the child is the goal, said David Thompson, deputy director of Walworth County Health and Human Services.
"We want to keep them in the home whenever possible," he said. "Foster care is not the best way to raise a child."
If an investigation verifies that the child is in danger, however, the boy or girl is taken away, Thompson said.
A court hearing is held immediately, Cotter said, and the child is placed into foster care.
A petition stating why the children should be protected from their parents later is filed in court.
Health and Human Services then helps the families.
"The main goal is to protect the child," Cotter said. "The next goal is to make sure the family unit is reunited."
Moms and dads might attend parenting classes, drug treatment or receive other social services, he said. They also might undergo evaluations.
The hope is to teach them to be good parents.
Maintaining the bond
Children can spend months or years in foster care during the termination process, but they have supervised visits with their parents.
"There is an ongoing effort to get this bond back together," Cotter said. "The county has to try and re-establish the bond between the child and the parent."
The children are returned home as soon as the parents are deemed ready. A plan for follow-up care is put in place.
But parents can't get their children back until they recognize their own faults.
"These parents, they don't think they're bad parents," Cotter said. "They love their child."
If parents don't change, they might lose their child forever.
A jury trial can be held to determine whether grounds exist to terminate parental rights, and a judge has to decide whether it's in the best interest of the child.
In rare cases, the parents volunteer to give up their kids, he said.
The final step is adoption.
People don't like the government taking away their kids, Cotter said, and the cases are often contentious.
"This process is very technical and very supervised," he said. "You just can't go into somebody's house and say, ‘You're a bad parent. We're taking your kid away.'"
The cases are stressful for social workers, Thompson said.
"It's very, very difficult to on a daily basis to run into children who have been severely, severely physically and emotionally abused," he said. "The day-to-day work is tremendously difficult."
And the problem is not going away, Cotter said.
The county hopes to hire an additional attorney next year to focus on the cases, he said, and that attorney's salary will replace the current cost of hiring outside lawyers.
The new position will give the county two attorneys handling the cases nearly full time.
"This is hard," he said. "This isn't fun."