JEFFERSON — A new law signed Feb. 5 will lower the bar for receiving adoption-assistance money from the state, aiming to increase the number of children moving from temporary protective care such as foster homes into permanent situations.
Act 92 allows families adopting children ages seven or older or groups of two or more siblings to receive extra funding from the state.
In the past, the bar for this extra money was set at age 10 or older or sibling groups of three or more.
Brent Ruehlow, deputy director of Jefferson County Human Services, said he is optimistic about the bill and its intended purpose of getting more children into loving homes.
“We want more kids eligible,” Ruehlow said. “By doing so, we think we’re giving kids a bigger opportunity to reach permanence in a more solid manner.”
But, Ruehlow said that he is not exactly sure what the new law will look like in practice and is waiting for more guidance from the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (DCF) and the Wisconsin County Human Service Association (WCHSA).
“By lessening the age from 10 to seven and then the sibling group from three to two, we think that’s going to open up a bigger basket for more kids to be eligible for adoption assistance,” Ruehlow said. “But is it really, truly, going to do when it’s intended to do?”
The new law essentially has amended only two words of the existing DCF administrative code, but it intends to open the assistance up for many more children.
The DCF administrative code allows for assistance to be made available for families adopting children with a number of special needs.
Act 92 changes the age limits and number of children in a sibling group, but the code provides for funding of several other circumstances. Included in the code are children with five or more needs classified as “moderate or intensive,” children with family histories of mental health problems and children who have had four or more placements with extended family or foster homes, among others.
State Rep. Barbara Dittrich, R-Oconomowoc, is chair of the bipartisan task force on adoption that wrote the bill. Dittrich said the law will dampen the trauma that comes with being in the foster system.
“The whole goal is to widen the category of the number of children who are eligible for adoption existence under an already existing state plan,” Dittrich said. “The longer the kids are in the system, the worse it is for them emotionally. It’s a win-win; we’re very excited the governor signed it. We think this will be positive for counties in that it will help these kids more rapidly.”
Act 92 isn’t the only piece of legislation relating to adoption that came out of the task force.
There are seven other bills in various stages of the legislative process that will change the way human services departments around the state function.
Many of them make it easier to remove a child from their parents’ custody. Assembly Bill 559 removes a parent’s right to a jury in a termination of parental rights proceeding, while Assembly Bill 560 allows parental rights to be terminated if a child has been out of a home for 15 of the last 22 months.
While Act 92 made it through the process without any amendments, others in the package have garnered a lot of debate and a lot of amendments.
“I will tell you, it’s a very complex issue to begin with,” Dittrich, who represents the 38th District, which includes a northern portion of Jefferson County, said. “No matter what we did, it was going to be a tough process. We really addressed the things we heard most mentioned by people in these hearings. That being said, one thing I’ve told people from the start of this package, is this is just the beginning. It’s such a big issue.”
All the bills in the package have been received by the senate after passage by the Assembly. Dittrich said she’s hopeful the senate will manage to get them through.
“In the different bills, we’ll see if they make it through the process. They all have passed out of the assembly, we’ll see what the senate can get over the finish line,” Dittrich said.
With the package out of her — and the task force’s — hands, Dittrich said, she’s already looking toward the next round of legislation around this issue.
“We did nothing to address private adoptions and we don’t have good records on them because they’re private,” Dittrich said. “There’s vulnerability there that needs to be addressed.”
Ruehlow said he expects to have a better understanding of the new law’s impact on Jefferson County after the WCHSA Children, Youth and Families meeting scheduled for March 13.