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.
Over the last five years Winnebago County has paid Macht Village approximately $855,000 for “treatment foster care.” That term applies “to children who have emotional and behavioral problems,” the county says on its website.
“Treatment foster homes are designed to provide treatment to children who have emotional and behavioral problems,” the county says. “ The treatment home provides a safe, nurturing and family environment for the child to change behaviors that have created difficulties for the child and the child’s family.”
Foster parents can receive up to $2,000 a month for taking in a child with “exceptional” needs, according to the county’s website. Topel said further analysis would be necessary to determine how the county’s payments to Macht Village were spent and where “service was delivered,” he said.
Macht Village may have earned its money for services provided at a foster home, a day treatment center or a school, Topel explained.
The three boys who were living in the Oshkosh home have been identified in court filings only by their initials, and details about their backgrounds and health conditions are protected by privacy laws.
In 2018 the county expected to pay Macht Village $180,000, roughly 8 percent of its total budget for child foster homes. That figures comes from a budget proposal, which does not include exact amounts but rather estimates of total payments for the current year at the time when the spending plan was prepared.
The 2018 estimate was for “treatment foster care,” according to the proposed human services budget. The budget document shows Macht Village as the largest of seven outside vendors providing that kind of specialized service.
The 11th Avenue house was licensed as a Level 4 specialized treatment foster home, according to DCF. This designation is for the next-to-highest level of care, requires special training and certification for foster parents and is often intended to address the needs of specific groups, such as teen parents, sexually aggressive youth or those on the autism spectrum.
Previously Macht Village has come to the attention of state auditors, but their primary focus was on financial transactions and recordkeeping, not the treatment of foster children. Although the Legislative Audit Bureau found that Macht Village had a relatively large number of licensure violations from 2010 to 2012, DCF records show that its performance has improved since then.
According to the audit report, the state monitors child placing agencies like Macht Village for adherence to licensure and financial requirements. Child safety issues are reviewed if the state receives a specific complaint.
During the audit period, the state received 17 complaints about living conditions with 31 alleged violations for all the child placing agencies in the state. Only five of the complaints were substantiated, and none was deemed serious, the auditors said.