Teacher says Bureau of Child Welfare ignored pleas for help
MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin – A FOX6 Investigation has found that kids with disabilities are dying in Wisconsin from abuse and neglect, despite repeated calls to child protective services.
It’s a frustration shared by many who work to keep kids safe, including mandated reporters like teachers.
“I feel like I failed so much because I don’t view my job as a teacher — I view my job as also protecting them because they are disabled,” says April Eckdahl, a special education teacher in Milwaukee.
Eckdahl says she’s watched the child welfare system in Milwaukee County fail kids in her classroom.
“They need an advocate and I just feel really powerless even though I have done everything I can do. It makes me really, really worried about all those kids,” Eckdahl said.
A FOX6 review of state records shows 15 disabled kids have died in Wisconsin in the last five years, even though there were repeated reports of abuse and neglect to county welfare agencies. Nine other disabled kids were seriously injured, despite repeated calls to child welfare agencies.
Our research got the attention of Disability Rights Wisconsin.
“Until something bad happened, nothing was done,” says Lisa Pugh, public policy director for Disability Rights Wisconsin.
A boy with autism drowned while his mom got high. A toddler with cerebral palsy overdosed on morphine. A blind, paralyzed six-year-old was left in a scalding hot bath. A little girl starved, locked in the basement.
These families had previously been reported to CPS — sometimes dozens of times. When FOX6 took a closer look we noticed most of them had one thing in common. The victims, children with disabilities, couldn’t talk or had a hard time communicating. When that happened, investigations would stall, or be shut down altogether.
“If they can’t have the kid, the student tell them — literally say out loud what is going on, they just close it,” Eckdahl says.
Eckdahl says she spent an entire school year trying to get the Milwaukee County Bureau of Child Welfare to help one of her students with autism. kids Before she became a teacher, she was a social worker.
“She is being sexually abused and nobody is helping her,” Eckdahl said.
In the classroom, her eight-year-old student used Barbie dolls to tell her teacher what was happening at home.
“She turned Barbie over and put Ken on top of Barbie,” Eckdahl says.
Then the student said, “and then boyfriend lays down next to me and says, ‘I’m sorry.'”
Eckdahl says it was the worst thing she’s ever heard.
“It’s classic manipulation. Like, ‘I’m sorry. I’m going to do it again later, but I’m sorry right now,'” she says.
Eckdahl says she reported suspected sexual abuse and neglect at least 15 times. When caseworkers would come out to the school, though, nothing would happen.
“It took me a long time to build that relationship with her. They are not going to tell some random person that they just met. They need to build a rapport with someone,” Eckdahl said.
She says children with autism will often have a lot of anxiety. They will repeat themselves and change the subject to avoid talking about traumatic or uncomfortable topics. That’s why, Eckdahl says, specialists should be brought in to interview these kids after allegations are reported.
After reviewing FOX6’s research, Disability Rights Wisconsin officials saw a pattern.
“It appears that clearly there’s no one in the room or required to be part of that investigative process that would have any level of expertise in communicating with a child with a disability that has difficulty communicating,” Pugh said.
It’s an issue that’s now getting the attention of lawmakers in Madison.
“There’s been a number of situations in which we’ve had children die in this state. We’ve had a number of situations in which children continue to be abused. So we have to make some changes,” says Ismael Ozanne, the Dane County district attorney.
One of those proposed changes comes with the Justice for Children package.
“The need for this legislation is now,” Ozanne says.
The Justice for Children package is a series of bills, supported by Attorney General Brad Schimel, aimed at making Wisconsin kids safer.
“Many cases involving children with special needs indicate repeated calls to child protective services and in one fatal case there were more than 20 calls,” Pugh testified.
While the legislation doesn’t specifically focus on kids with disabilities, if passed, it would require Child Protective Services to get police involved every time abuse or neglect is reported.
“We are asking human services to actually share information with law enforcement and the prosecution,” Ozanne says.
Remember the girl with autism in Brookfield, forced to live in her basement? Her family was reported to county child welfare agencies 40 times in eight years. It wasn’t until a concerned citizen called police directly that she was removed from her home.
In Dane County, another teenage girl with disabilities was helpless and suffering.
“We found that child had been in the basement for six years.
That child had been malnourished to the point of having her physical growth permanently stunted,” Ozanne said.
Her family was reported to the Dane County Department of Health and Human Services eight times, but nothing was done until police got involved after the girl was found wandering the streets.
“That is a problem,” Ozanne says.
Eckdahl agrees. She says when she walked her student to her bus at the end of the school day she felt helpless.
“I feel like I am sending her right back to be abused,” Eckdahl said.
Eckdahl made a trip to Madison to advocate for her former student, whom, she says, is still not safe.
“This was a little girl with autism,” she told lawmakers. “And she was trying to do the best she can to articulate to us, the people that she trusts, what’s going on with her.”
She told lawmakers what she’s been trying to tell the Milwaukee Bureau of Child Welfare for a year.
“I don’t think I should have to be worried when I put her on the bus. I don’t think I should have to be calling 15 times and then still have a case shut. Their jobs were made to help and protect kids,” Eckdahl said.
Disability Rights Wisconsin has initiated an investigation to see if the Milwaukee Bureau of Child Welfare followed proper protocol when investigating the teacher’s reports.
The organization also hopes to craft new legislation, to be introduced next year, that would specifically address the investigative process used in Wisconsin when victims of abuse and neglect are children with disabilities.
On this day in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addresses Congress in an effort to move the nation away from a foreign policy of neutrality.
The president had watched with increasing anxiety as European nations struggled and fell to Hitler’s fascist regime and was intent on rallying public support for the United States to take a stronger interventionist role.
In his address to the 77th Congress, Roosevelt stated that the need of the moment is that our actions and our policy should be devoted primarily–almost exclusively–to meeting the foreign peril. For all our domestic problems are now a part of the great emergency.
Roosevelt insisted that people in all nations of the world shared Americans’ entitlement to four freedoms: the freedom of speech and expression, the freedom to worship God in his own way, freedom from want and freedom from fear.
After Roosevelt’s death and the end of World War II, his widow Eleanor often referred to the four freedoms when advocating for passage of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Mrs. Roosevelt participated in the drafting of that declaration, which was adopted by the United Nations in 1948.
Lead Investigator in the case, former GBI Agent, facing Child Abuse charges
Monroe County, Georgia – Prosecutors are no longer seeking the death penalty in a deadly child abuse case because the lead investigator in the case is facing child molestation charges.
Amanda Hendrickson is the woman accused of killing her 5 year-old daughter Heaven Woods in May of 2014. Lawyers argued more than 100 pre-trial motions this afternoon as Amanda Hendrickson sat quietly in court.
District Attorney Richard Milam says one reason they dropped the death penalty is because of the lead investigator in the case. Milam says that’s former GBI agent Charles Woodall, is facing child molestation charges. “(If we) call him in as a witness brings into the trial all of the things that he’s accused of doing. So therefore, we’re going to try to avoid that as much as possible but when you’re asking a jury to make that consideration you really need to give them everything,” said Milam.
Milam says now they’re seeking life with or without parole in the case.
One of Hendrickson’s defense attorney’s Burt Baker says dropping the death penalty is appropriate in this case. Baker says Hendrickson has an intellectual disability. “Our client was given an IQ test, in the I believe it was the third grade, where she scored in the intellectually disabled or mentally retarded range,” said Baker.
Woods died in a Monroe County hospital with a broken arm and five broken ribs. Hendrickson’s boyfriend, Roderick Buckner, pleaded guilty in June to first degree child cruelty in the case, he received a life sentence. “Milam says Hendrickson’s trial is currently scheduled for September.
Federal judge finds Texas has “broken” foster care system, says she’ll order changes
AUSTIN, TX – Long-term foster care in Texas is “broken” and routinely does grave harm to children already dealt a tough hand, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack of Corpus Christi said the state violated the Constitution by keeping about 12,000 youngsters for years in an underfunded and poorly run system “where rape, abuse, psychotropic medication and instability are the norm.”
Defendants John Specia and his staff at the state Department of Family and Protective Services have “the best intentions, she wrote. ” But the system, despite 20 years of reports and attempted fixes, keeps harming the children it’s supposed to help”, the stinging opinion reads.
Jack, an appointee of former President Bill Clinton, ruled in favor of nine children who sued the state in 2011 on behalf of all Texas children in long-term foster care.
Their lawyers, who included members of the Dallas-based Haynes and Boone firm, said Texas’ foster care system forces thousands of youngsters to live in poorly supervised institutions. The department frequently moves the children from one place to another and often splits up siblings, plaintiffs said.
Jack agreed, saying Texas routinely violates the children’s 14th Amendment rights to be free from harm while in state custody.
Julie Moody, a spokeswoman for the protective-services department, said it’s disappointed with Jack’s ruling. The state has insisted that plaintiffs’ lawyers have ignored recent improvements that followed the Legislature’s sweeping changes to Child Protective Services in 2005, along with an overhaul of foster care two years later. They also repeatedly boosted the agency’s budget — Texas current spends $1.4 billion a year on Child Protective Services.
“Texas performs comparably with other states in this area, and has steadily improved,” she said.
While Texas fiercely contested the suit, officials didn’t immediately say whether they would appeal Jack’s ruling.
The case centers on children removed from their birth homes by Child Protective Services who then linger for at least a year, sometimes 18 months, in foster care. Because CPS and its contractors have been unable to reunite them with their birth families or find a lasting home with relatives or an adoptive parent, the youngsters are in limbo.
Even though judges work to try to avoid it, many children then enter CPS’ “permanent managing conservatorship.” At that point, the state often drops the ball because the law does not require that the children have their own lawyer and another adult advocating for them, plaintiffs argued – and Jack agreed.
She found that CPS has too few conservatorship caseworkers, so their huge caseloads cause them to fail to pay enough attention to their charges.
“Texas’ foster care system is broken, and it has been that way for decades,” Jack wrote. “It is broken for all stakeholders, including DFPS employees who are tasked with impossible workloads. Most importantly, though, it is broken for Texas’ [permanent managing conservatorship] children, who almost uniformly leave state custody more damaged than when they entered.”
Jack said that within 30 days, she would appoint a special master to develop a sweeping plan for improvements.
The cost to the state is uncertain but likely to be in the millions. CPS has authority to employ more than 9,200 people, though turnover is a chronic problem, as the judge noted.
Jack said she’ll ask the special master to recommend how many more CPS workers should be hired and how many more child-care licensing inspectors should be added.
She’s requiring each child in long-term care to have an attorney ad litem as well as a court-appointed special advocate.
The judge also said the special master will study “child-on-child abuse” at group homes and treatment centers. The master will push for the state to move children who do not have severe physical or behavioral impairments into the least restrictive settings possible.
CPS also would have to improve case files it keeps on the children – including annual photos, to help in identifying runaways. The state also will have to stop placing certain foster children in unsafe placements like “foster group homes that lack 24-hour awake-night supervision,” Jack said.
Marcia Robinson Lowry, the founder of New York-based Children’s Rights, which led the effort and has filed similar suits in more than a dozen states, called Jacks’ decision “stunning” and painstakingly researched.
“Texas certainly has one of the worse foster care systems in the country,” Lowry said.