RACINE COUNTY — With more children ending up in foster care due to parents struggling with mental illness and addiction, among other issues, some have said the situation has risen to a state of crisis.
Because of the crisis, last year Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, formed a task force to devise solutions. One of the laws that came out of that task force goes into effect today in Racine County.
The law will change the way certain court cases involving children are represented. Some are hopeful this will help keep more families together or help them reunite faster.
Child in Need of Protection or Services (CHIPS) cases, are court cases involving the general well-being of children. Previously the law had stated that the Office of the State Public Defender may represent children in CHIPS cases, but not parents.
Act 253 will allow the Office of the State Public Defender to also represent parents in CHIPS cases in Racine, Kenosha, Brown, Outagamie, and Winnebago counties. This program will continue for the next three years.
“It provides authority and funding for the state public defender’s office to appoint counsel for indigent parents in a five-county pilot,” stated Sam Christensen, the Racine County clerk of courts.
The pilot program requires the Office of the State Public Defender to keep track of the impact their representation has on the process.
“We look forward to working with the judges and county human services staff to ensure that the pilot is able to demonstrate the impact it has on these cases,” said Adrienne Moore, regional attorney manager for the Racine Region of Public Defenders Office.
Moore said the impact to Racine and Kenosha trial offices will be “significant.” Last year, Moore said, there were nearly 400 CHIPS cases filed between the two counties.
Prior to the law change, parents were required to pay for lawyers in CHIPS matters or go without representation. If they could not afford a lawyer, the county could assist some parents with the cost of appointing a lawyer, but this was not routinely done, as CHIPS cases do not require parental representation.
With the implementation of the pilot program, the public defender’s office will also be able to represent parents, saving the county money.
To handle the extra load, Moore said the public defender’s offices in the pilot counties will need to find private bar attorneys to handle some representation for parents.
“I believe there were many parents who just went along with CHIPS actions because they did not have money to retain an attorney to advocate for them in these cases,” Moore said. “I also believe that an attorney will be able to ensure that reasonable conditions for reunification are placed on parents should CHIPS actions be found to be appropriate.”
Moore said she is happy the Legislature included Racine as part of the pilot program.
“We hope that the work on these cases will increase the number of families that are reunified so that the need to terminate parental rights will be reduced,” Moore said. “There will likely be other costs reductions, like foster care and appointment of counsel at county expense, that could impact county budgets.”
“We hope that the work on these cases will increase the number of families that are reunified so that the need to terminate parental rights will be reduced.” Adrienne Moore, regional attorney manager for the Racine Region of the Office of the State Public Defender
UNION GROVE — In response to reports of a few students at Union Grove High School using electronic smoking devices, commonly known as vapes or e-cigarettes, the village is mulling an ordinance that would ban the use or possession of the devices for people under 18.
The Village Police Commission on Tuesday advanced the ordinance to the Village Board for consideration. If passed, the ordinance also would ban vaping in any village-owned or village-leased property. Additionally, selling or giving a vaping device to minors would be prohibited. The penalty for violation would be a forfeiture.
The proposed ordinance comes amid a rise in e-cigarette use among teens: Nearly a third of high school seniors used some kind of vaping device in 2017, according to a December report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
A little more than one-10th of those seniors used the devices to inhale marijuana, according to the report.
“The popularity of illegal substances being used in (e-cigarettes) has also escalated,” Sgt. Scott Litwin of the Racine County Sheriff’s Office said during the Police Commission meeting. “There’s all sorts of marijuana (e-cigarette liquid) that you can buy now, too, so it’s becoming all the rage.”
The Sheriff’s Office brought the issue of underage vaping to Union Grove’s attention after learning of the local students using electronic smoking devices, said Village Trustee Ryan Johnson.
“As far as I know, it was just one or two students, but instead of allowing it to become a problem, we need to kind of get ahead of it,” Johnson said.
Carl Kump, owner of the Downtown Racine vape shop Vapemeisters, which does not serve minors, said he was skeptical of how effective the proposed ordinance would be. Citing underage marijuana, alcohol and tobacco use, he said minors will still find a way around the ordinance.
Kump said that while he does not believe minors should vape, it should be a parental issue, not a legal issue.
“Why have the police do something a parent should?” Kump said.
E-cigarettes are generally considered to be safer than regular smoking, but are still not harmless. Some people use nicotine-infused vapor fluid to quit smoking, but the Food and Drug Administration has yet to classify them as “quit smoking” devices. The proposed Union Grove ordinance acknowledges this, but makes note of harmful chemicals such as lead and carcinogens present in some vape fluids.
There are no state laws on the books regarding vaping, but as far back as 2013, legislators have introduced laws to both include vaping in the legal definition of smoking and to exclude vaping in the definition. None of the bills has gone past a hearing.
The ordinance could go before the Village Board for approval as soon as July 9.
“The popularity of illegal substances being used in (e-cigarettes) has also escalated.” Sgt. Scott Litwin, Racine County Sheriff’s Office
RACINE — In what it called, “a small test of change” Racine Unified along with community partners worked to improve reading levels for elementary students by providing them with tutoring and a diverse range of new books to read.
The project was implemented in first grade classrooms at Julian Thomas, 930 Martin Luther King Drive; North Park, 4748 Elizabeth St.; and Wadewitz, 2700 Yout St., in late January and early February.
Through the program, the district provided the schools with tutoring stipends and money for books.
Maggie Morgan, Unified’s Title I professional development & intervention coordinator, said the program made a difference for the students who took part in it.
“The book stipends for the targeted classrooms allowed teachers to purchase culturally diverse books and engaging books at lower reading levels and books for shared reading,” she said.
The district provided about $1,000 to each school for more options in fiction and nonfiction, and for bilingual students, as well as more material for shared reading and additional books for students below the first grade level. The money also provided for books with diverse sets of characters.
The tutoring program provided a half-hour of reading intervention to students in a small group setting or one on one, four days a week, either before or after school. All students involved in the test showed improvement in reading, with some improving drastically, Morgan said.
The idea for the tutoring and additional books came from a brainstorming session by teachers, principals, social workers and counselors that focused on academic discrepancies between racial groups.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, on the 2016-17 Forward exam black elementary students had a 10.1 percent proficiency rate in English language arts, compared to 39.4 percent for their white counterparts.
Morgan said she didn’t know what will happen with the program moving forward. But if the teachers are willing, and the district would agree to fund it, she would love to see it continue.
Sometimes it’s a difficult decision, Morgan said, between trying to increase the reading levels a little bit of a large group of students working all together or to work one-on-one with one students and help that students a lot. But one-on-one help often makes a huge difference for that one child and his or her family.
“When you’re working one on one with a student, their confidence does soar, and their achievement just accelerates that much faster because you can tailor their lessons to their needs,” Morgan said.
She said it’s a much better option for the student and teacher to do one-on-one work before or after regular classes.
Although the program seemed to help students improve their reading, Morgan and her colleagues observed that chronic absenteeism and trauma were barriers to improvement.
“Both of these barriers are systemic issues and classroom teachers need support in handling these issues,” Morgan said.
This project was just one piece of a collaborative leadership effort by Unified, Higher Expectations, United Way, the Racine Police Department and the Johnson Foundation, focused on race, equity and inclusion.