Sunday, March 31, 2019

Wisconsin 'serious incident reports' provide fuller view of Oshkosh foster home where child neglect is alleged

This is an excerpt from one of nearly 50 "serious incident reports" filed in connection with a local foster home.

By Miles Maguire
In the last five years, nearly 50 “serious incident reports” have been filed with the state in connection with the Oshkosh foster home that prosecutors say was the site of felony child neglect.

The reports describe multiple instances of runaways, suicide threats, aggressive behavior, one account of sexual contact and some low-level criminal activity, such as disorderly conduct, shoplifting and apparently the possession of a small amount of marijuana by a foster child staying at the home. The residence is on 11th Avenue.

But the operator of the home, Alan D. Small, believes that these reports, as well as the criminal charges against him, create a misleading impression because they do not reflect his record or the condition of the children who have been staying with him.

“I’m working with kids that nobody else wants to work with,” he said. “These are the hardest level of kids that are not in institutions.” He said many of his former foster children stay in touch with him after they leave his care. “My kids do well.”

It is not clear what happens with the serious incident reports once they are filed with the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families. A spokesman for the agency did not respond to a request for comment.

Small has been working as a Level 4 foster parent since 2009, records show. To qualify he had to complete specialized training to prepare him for working with children with extreme behavioral issues, which may include physical aggression, sexual promiscuity and self-harm.

According to DCF records, Small has been trained in trauma-informed care and nonviolent crisis intervention, including how to apply certain kinds of physical restraints that can keep aggressive behavior from spinning out of control.

Small was charged Feb. 27 with three counts of felony child neglect after police were told of living conditions that included a lack of access to the bathroom and alarms on bedroom doors.

Small’s point about dealing with youth who could not be taken in elsewhere is borne out by some of the incident reports. In a 2017 case, Oshkosh police became involved when a student from the Small home showed up at South Park Middle School with bite marks. The student was from Washington County.

When the social worker from that county was alerted to the situation, the case was “screened out,” meaning that no further action was deemed necessary, according to state records. But the police officer assigned to South Park wanted to know why so many of the children sent to Oshkosh are from other parts of the state.

The officer contacted Laura Phillips, clinical director at Macht Village Programs, a foster child referral company in De Pere that oversees the Small home. 

Phillips explained that the Oshkosh foster home was used because it had been rated at Level 4, meaning it could take in children with severe behavioral problems. “Foster homes that can adequately support children with intense needs are a scarce resource,” Phillips said, according to a report she filed with the state about the incident.

Other residents at the Oshkosh foster home over the last five years have come from Brown, Kenosha and Oconto counties, according to state records.

In a January 2014 incident that began at the Gem Roller Rink in Appleton, police were called when a 10-year-old foster child became upset and ran outside into the below-zero night without a coat or hat. The boy was apparently outdoors for more than an hour and was taken by police to St. Elizabeth’s.

Police said he was “banging his head, kneeing himself in the face, biting himself, running around the hospital, screaming, swearing, demanding to go to jail,” according to a DCF incident report.  Eventually the situation was resolved with the boy returning to the Small foster home.

Phillips, who wrote the incident report, noted that one Appleton police officer said “he had never seen a child be so out of control and have a foster parent want to take care of the child.” The officer told Phillips he was very “impressed … with Mr. Small and his ability to stay calm in such an intense situation.”

Small denied the accusation that children in his care used “toilet buckets” as described in the criminal complaint against him. “There were commodes … with handles and toilet seats,” he said.

He acknowledged that feces were dumped in the yard but described that as a lapse in judgment by his mother, Barbara R. Peterson, who assists him in running the foster home.  Peterson, who has also been charged with child neglect, did not respond to a request for comment.

Small and Peterson are currently free on $1,000 signature bonds and due back in court April 8.
Small acknowledged that foster children in his care have been confined to their rooms, which are equipped with alarms, but he said this was a safety precaution. The two boys who triggered the police investigation had previously run away from the home, and one had attempted sexual contact with the other, according to state reports.

After an August runaway incident, the Macht company required Small to “install door and window alarms throughout the home,” according to state records.   

“If I wasn’t doing that, then I could see them charging me with neglect,” Small said. He added that all of the “serious incidents,” which are defined by state rules, that have occurred at the house have been documented and reviewed by a social worker.

“I’m not doing anything illegal or trying to hide anything,” Small said. “I wouldn’t put these kids in harm in any way, shape or form.”

Sunday, March 24, 2019

UW Oshkosh campus is struggling to balance concepts of free speech, safe space after campaign incident

Photo by Miles Maguire

Hundreds of students gathered at UW Oshkosh to describe their experiences with various forms of campus bias.

By Miles Maguire

Last October the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh commemorated the 50th anniversary of Black Thursday, a low point in race relations on campus when 94 black students were arrested after occupying offices in the school’s main administration building. The subsequent expulsion of most of them left a lasting impression of Oshkosh as an unwelcoming environment for minorities.

Over the years the school has worked to change its reputation and by some measures has made significant progress. At its February meeting, the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents honored UW Oshkosh with a special diversity award for an initiative to attract more students from underrepresented groups. The school was cited for boosting enrollment among students of color by more than 4 percentage points from 2013 to 2018.

But on March 18 roughly 200 students filled the ballroom in Reeve Student Union to call out the school and its leaders for “homophobia, racism and other forms of discrimination on campus and in our community.” After hearing from roughly two dozen students and staff, who described violence and threats of violence but also some encouraging signs of progress, the four student organizers presented a list of demands for the university to address.

Looking them over, Chancellor Andrew Leavitt acknowledged that many of the demands were similar to the ones that students had made 50 years ago as part of the Black Thursday demonstration, including hiring more faculty and staff from minority groups and changing the curriculum to foster a sense of inclusion.

The new list of demands and the open forum to discuss campus climate came about in response to an incident in which a derogatory statement about student government candidates was posted on social media. According to multiple accounts, the statement read, “UWO Vote for these guys unless you want a lesbian or hmong to win.”

The words were superimposed on a picture of two white males who were running for office--and who went on to win the election, according to preliminary results.

All six of the students running for the top positions in the Oshkosh Student Association issued a joint statement decrying the social media message. “We all commit to standing together today to acknowledge that our campus has racism and homophobia among many other issues,” the statement said.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Wisconsin Department of Justice is reviewing cases against two former UW Oshkosh officials

These images are carved on the exterior of the Winnebago County Courthouse, where the criminal case against two former officials of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh is scheduled to resume next month.
By Miles Maguire

With two former top officials of UW Oshkosh due back in court next month, the new attorney general is reviewing the criminal and civil cases against them.

“The Department of Justice is evaluating the appropriate disposition of these matters,” said Rebecca A. Ballweg, the agency’s deputy director of communications.

The review comes in the wake of an agreement between the UW System Board of Regents and the UW Oshkosh Foundation to resolve their differences. The foundation has submitted a plan of reorganization that, if approved at a scheduled March 25 hearing, would allow it to emerge from bankruptcy.

The two UW Oshkosh officials, former Chancellor Richard Wells and former Vice Chancellor Thomas Sonnleitner, have been accused of acting improperly in facilitating financial arrangements between the foundation and the university. They are scheduled to return to Winnebago County District Court on April 2 for a status conference on their case.

The accusations against the two, contained in separate criminal and civil cases, rely on a reading of the Wisconsin Constitution that has been rejected by both federal and state courts as the foundation case has developed. Without that legal support for its position, the state faces a challenge in advancing the charges against Wells and Sonnleitner.

The UW Oshkosh cases were brought by the Department of Justice when it was led by Republican Brad D. Schimel. He was replaced by a new attorney general, Democrat Josh Kaul, who was elected last fall. 

The civil case seeks the recovery of “actual damages” suffered by the UW System because of actions taken by Wells and Sonnleitner. But late last year, the university regents said in a statement that they were “pleased” to take over two real estate projects at the UW Oshkosh campus. This language of the regents' announcement suggests hat there were no financial losses suffered by the school when the value of the buildings is compared to cash outlays.

To succeed in the criminal case, the state would have to show that Wells and Sonnleitner had acted in a way that was inconsistent with their job duties and that showed an intent to obtain a “dishonest advantage.” These standards are based on a previous public corruption case that went to the state Supreme Court.

By contrast Wells, for example, has argued that any actions he took to transfer funds from the university to its foundation were within the scope of his authority. He has also argued that his actions “conferred a benefit” upon the university based on its construction of real estate assets that have been used to help the school and its students.

Raymond M. Dall’Osto, Wells’ attorney, did not respond to a request for comment.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Oshkosh homeowners on Hazel Street will have to pay $500,000 in special assessments after council vote

Source: Google Street View

Part of Hazel Street will be rebuilt, and adjacent property owners will pay for it, starting later this year.

By Joseph Schulz

The Oshkosh Common Council approved special assessments on March 12 of more than half a million dollars for road work on Hazel Street, from Washington Avenue to Irving Avenue.

The half-mile stretch where construction will take place will cost 37 property owners $512,000 in special assessment fees, according to city engineering estimates.

The assessments will pay for paving, sidewalks, water lines, stormwater drains and sanitary sewers. The construction will close Hazel Street for an unspecified amount of time later this year.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Oshkosh Defense is accused of rounding time records to cut pay, reduce overtime in federal lawsuit

Photo by Miles Maguire
Oshkosh Corp. is in the process of a building a new headquarters at the old Lakeshore Municipal Golf Course.
By Miles Maguire
Oshkosh Defense workers are pressing a federal lawsuit that alleges the company illegally rounds time-clock records to cut compensation, especially overtime pay.

Workers argue that since October 2015 the company has used a time clock policy in which “hourly employees’ start and end times for their shifts were rounded in 15-minute increments.”

The problem, the lawsuit alleges, is the rounding did not occur “to the nearest 15-minute interval despite the fact that employees performed compensable work during the period of time which was rounded.” The company is accused of instead rounding in a way that reduced the recorded work time of employees.

“As an example, under Oshkosh Defense’s impermissible time clock rounding policy, if an employee punched in 5:50 a.m., Oshkosh Defense would round up to 6:00 a.m.,” the lawsuit says.

“Likewise … if an employee punched out at 2:44 p.m., Oshkosh Defense would round
down to 2:30 p.m.,” it says. Employees doing “compensable work past the end of their shift” would not get paid for it unless a full 15 minutes had passed.

The lawsuit, filed in October, alleges that this policy has caused a loss of overtime pay at premium rates. It goes back three years because that is how far the Fair Labor Standards Act allows for accusations of willful conduct.

For its part, “Oshkosh Defense denies that it has an impermissible time clock rounding
policy and alleges it does not round employees’ start times, end times or work time,” the company says in a legal filing.

“Oshkosh Defense admits that, if an employee punched in at 5:50 a.m., it would disregard the ten minutes from 5:50 a.m. to 6:00 a.m., but only if that employee’s scheduled shift started at 6:00 a.m. and the employee performed no work from 5:50 a.m. to 6:00 a.m.,” the company says.

The lawsuit was brought by Farrah Marquette, a Neenah resident whose Facebook page says that she used to work as a welder and now runs a machine tool called a press brake. She referred questions to her attorneys.

Although Marquette filed the suit individually, roughly two dozen additional Oshkosh Defense employees have since joined the suit. Her law firm, Hawks Quindel, has begun a social media campaign urging other Oshkosh Defense workers to join the case.

Summer Murshid, one of Marquette’s lawyers, said the number of plaintiffs could eventually reach into the hundreds. The lawsuit asks for the case to be certified as a class action.

We have requested a class list from Oshkosh,” Murshid said. “They are in control of the information regarding how many current and former employees were subject to the rounding policies at issue in this case.”

Oshkosh Defense, a wholly owned subsidiary of Oshkosh Corp., specializes in making military trucks.

In general terms the case seems similar to a 2016 lawsuit against Pierce Manufacturing, an Oshkosh subsidiary, in which workers won a $5 million settlement. But the specifics of the Oshkosh Defense complaint are different.

In the Pierce case, workers said the company had not paid them for part of their scheduled breaks, and the company acknowledged this problem and made schedule adjustments, according to court records.

“Because of the ongoing nature of the case, we are unable to comment,” Katie Hoxtell, a corporate spokeswoman, said regarding the current lawsuit.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Oshkosh foster home fell through regulatory cracks

Source: Estimates included in budget proposals from Department of Human Services.
By Miles Maguire
The Oshkosh house that prosecutors say was the site of criminal neglect of three teenage boys appears to have fallen through the regulatory cracks of both state and county child welfare agencies.

The private company that operates the foster home, where the teens were allegedly forced to use buckets for toilets, has a longstanding relationship with Winnebago County’s Department of Human Services and has been one of its largest vendors of specialized treatment for troubled youth, earning an estimated $855,000 over the last five years.

But because of the way that foster care is administered in Wisconsin the residence, on West 11th Avenue, was not the direct responsibility of either state or county agencies. It apparently was never inspected before the abuse complaint surfaced.

The Oshkosh facility was operated by a for profit company called Macht Village Programs Inc. Macht Village is licensed as a “child placing agency,” or CPA, by the state and is empowered to issue licenses to foster homes.  

“The Department of Children and Families licensed this CPA agency; however, DCF does not directly license the agency’s foster homes,” Gina Paige, DCF’s  deputy communications director, wrote in an email.

While the county does license some foster homes on its own, the Oshkosh home “was not licensed by us, and we have no oversight authority to that home,” said Bill Topel, Winnebago County’s human services director. “That is the responsibility of the organization that licensed them and the state of Wisconsin.”

But the state disclaimed responsibility. “DCF has not visited the [Oshkosh] location as it is licensed by Macht Village Programs and not DCF,” Paige said.

A person who answered the phone at Macht Village said no one was immediately available to comment.

According to Paige, the two foster parents at the Oshkosh house had their license revoked by Macht Village on Dec. 28. Eleven days earlier police had visited the house and found the thermostat set to 57 degrees, a smell “of urine and feces” and evidence that toilet buckets from the house had been emptied out in the yard.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Oshkosh foster abuse details emerge in court records

Photo by Miles Maguire
This house on West 11th Avenue is owned by a company that shares an address with Macht Village Programs.
By Miles Maguire

On Dec. 17, the police officer assigned to Oshkosh West High School was called to the assistant principal’s office to talk to a couple of ninth-graders. The boys, both 15, had gotten into a fight while being driven to school by their foster mother. One of them had a mark, which looked like a rash, on his face.

As school officials spoke to the boys, the conversation took a “disturbing” turn, according to a criminal complaint. In this and subsequent talks, the students provided a series of harrowing details: The adults where they lived kept the boys confined to their rooms, forced them to take up stress positions as punishment and made them urinate and defecate into buckets that were kept near their beds, according to the complaint.

Based on this information and additional investigation, the two adults who took care of the boys, 60-year-old Barbara R. Peterson and her 35-year-old son, Alan D. Small, were each charged Feb. 27 with three counts of felony child neglect. They are due in court March 25 for an initial appearance. A conviction on all charges could mean $30,000 in fines and 18 years in prison for each defendant.

The high school boys were removed from the home Dec. 19, but in the intervening two days they were subjected to additional abuse, according to court files. One boy had his toilet bucket removed and ended up wetting his pants when he could not get permission to leave his room.

After the initial meeting with the boys, the Oshkosh West school resource officer went to the students’ home, on West 11th Avenue, to look around. He was accompanied by a police sergeant and a child welfare worker from Winnebago County.

According to court papers, they found that the thermostat in the house was set to 57 degrees, that one boy’s bedroom had an alarm on the door and “smelled of urine and feces” and that the other boy’s room had a “locking clasp on the exterior of the door” and, like the other bedroom, “had a toilet bucket.”

The house has been owned for over a decade by individuals or entities affiliated with a De Pere company called Macht Village Programs. Macht Village is listed in state records as a for profit child placing agency, meaning that it is licensed to put children into foster homes and then monitor their care.

Macht Village specializes in dealing with children with major behavioral issues. Its foster placement operation has been hit with a large number of licensing violations and compares poorly to other foster agencies on state performance measures.

During the visit to the 11th Avenue house, police spoke with Small and Peterson, according to court documents. “Peterson admitted to dumping the buckets of urine and feces outside in the yard behind the garage,” the documents say. The West resource officer said he “located several piles of toilet paper and feces in the backyard.”

The following day the officer was given a note that one of the 15-year-olds had written to a teacher. The boy wrote that Peterson had told him that she knew “how to fight fire for fire” and warned him about a journal he kept. The police visit “made it worse,” the boy wrote, according to the court file.

Sometime that day, according to the court files, the boy’s toilet bucket was removed from his room. On the following day he spoke again with the school resource officer and reported he had “an accident” the previous night.

The boy “said that he was pounding on the door [of his bedroom] and that he could hear footsteps upstairs, but nobody came and therefore he peed in this clothes.”

The boy’s bedroom door was fitted with an alarm so that he couldn’t leave without permission. As described in court papers, the boy “knows that he can’t open the door because the alarm will go off and if the door opens he will have to go to Macht Village and get consequences.”

Macht Village operates a residential program in De Pere. On its website Macht Village says it serves “children whose aggressive behavior presents safety concerns to child, family, school and community.”

The company is one of the smallest of the two dozen foster placement agencies in the state. According to the Department of Children and Families, in 2017 Macht Village placed children who had the fourth highest level of care needs among all the foster agencies in the state.

One of the ways that the state measures the performance of these foster agencies is the outcomes for the children in their care. For 2017, Macht Village recorded one unfavorable and one poor outcome, according to DCF reports for the year, the most recent available.

Macht Village had no optimal, favorable or very favorable outcomes. By contrast two foster agencies, Bethany Christian Services and Rawhide Catch Program, reported 100 percent rates of optimal placements, the best score available.

Despite its small size, Macht Village has had a large number of licensure violations, which are typically paperwork problems related to not maintaining school, medical or court records.

According to the Legislative Audit Bureau, Macht Village had 44 violations from 2010 to 2012, second only to to Harmony Social Services in that period. Harmony, a Milwaukee agency that had 89 violations, is more than 10 times larger than Macht Village.

Mary Macht, a licensed clinical social worker who is listed as president of Macht Village in a federal database, did not respond to a request for comment.

The recent residents of the Oshkosh home, who included one other boy who had been removed in November, detailed to police the harsh conditions under which they said they lived. According to the court file, these included no breakfast, even on weekends; a requirement to empty their toilet buckets in the yard; and the threat of a range of punishments, such as “the plank position, the chicken wing, weighted blanket [and] running stairs.”

Other punishments included standing in a corner or holding a chair overhead. In the chicken position, the boys were told to lift “their hands … behind their back and up high,” according to court papers.

In another punishment, the 15-year-old told police, he was ordered to put a blanket on a table and then take it off the table and to continue the cycle “until he cries or they tell him to stop,” the criminal complaint says.

Monday, March 4, 2019

1,500 times a year, Oshkosh firefighters respond to falls; 2 legislators just learned why this is a problem

Oshkosh Fire Department photo
In a national trend, public safety services are being used to subsidize private businesses, the city fire chief said.

By Miles Maguire
When elderly residents fall in a care facility somewhere in the city, there a good’s chance that the person who comes to help them get back up is a member of the Oshkosh Fire Department.  The calls come frequently, they are expensive and they are part of a national trend in which private businesses are turning to taxpayers to cover their costs.

This is just one of a wide range of local issues that were brought to the attention of state legislators at a town hall meeting Feb. 25. City staff and members of the Common Council tried to explain to Democrat Rep. Gordon Hintz and Republican Sen. Dan Feyen how state-level policy and budget decisions can help, or hurt, the Oshkosh community. Republican Rep. Mike Schraa said he was unable to attend because of illness.

Other issues on the agenda included the unintended consequences of a recent tax law change, a request for support of a library digitization project, the “dark store” property tax controversy, the proposed short-term rental ordinance, bridge maintenance responsibilities and the possibility of replacing the current special assessment system with a transportation utility fee.

The discussion, which lasted roughly two hours, demonstrated how much of the city’s decision-making is driven by state-level policies. Both Hintz and Feyen expressed a willingness to help but could offer no firm commitments. They also expressed surprise at learning that a supposedly neutral change to personal property tax rules ended up cutting into city revenues.

“You’re supposed to be made whole,” Feyen said. “That was the whole concern,” added Hintz.

A bigger revenue issue for cities around the state has to do with chain stores reducing their assessments in a way that shifts the tax burden to homeowners and independent businesses. There have been strongly bipartisan efforts to address this so-called “dark store” issue in the legislature, and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers promised to propose relief in his new budget. But Hintz offered little hope that the law will change.

“It didn’t go anywhere last time sort of because of the gatekeepers, and I don’t think it will go anywhere this time because of the gatekeepers,” Hintz said. “As long as Robin Vos is speaker, it’ll just never pass.”

Vos, a Republican who represents a part of Racine County, is speaker of the General Assembly and has opposed a change in the law on the grounds that it would be a tax increase for those businesses that have been successful in cutting their assessments.

For several weeks the Common Council has been wrestling with the issue of short-term housing rentals for events like the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual AirVenture. One of the biggest causes for concern was a perception that the city was imposing a 10-night trigger for the new ordinance to take effect, but that number actually comes out of state law.

The council voted Feb. 26 to approve a larger number of allowable nights, 16. But, as Council Member Matt Mugeraurer pointed out, this shift will cause confusion because it will conflict with state law. Finding a way to resolve this inconsistency was another topic that was raised with Hintz and Feyen.

City officials also expressed concern about possible future state actions that would either cost the city monetarily, such as making local communities pick up the cost of bridge maintenance, or undo proposed policy changes, such as the plan to replace the current system for street-related special assessments.

On the issue of the fire department having to provide “lift assists” at private, licensed care facilities, Chief Mike Stanley explained that this is an expensive service for which there is no reimbursement from Medicare unless a resident is taken to the hospital.

The department responds to a total of 1,500 to 1,700 falls a year, Stanley said, a number that includes private residences as well as nursing homes.

Feyen initially suggested that the problem was a liability matter and that state law should be amended to remove this burden from nursing home operators.

But Stanley explained that the issue comes down to money. Nursing home operators have figured out that “they can save money by having less providers and less skilled providers” on duty.

“It’s an issue across the country that they’re using public safety services to subsidize their lack of staff,” Stanley said. “Other states have gone to looking at enacting legislation,” he said, “so we aren’t carrying that burden, subsidizing their staff.”