When a Dane County social worker last summer sent six-week-old Anastasia Vang back home, where police say her mother tortured her to death, county officials called this an "aberration."
Lynn Green, head of the county's Human Services department, told Isthmus the baby's death was "not reflective of the work we do." (See Madison.gov, 2/14/08.)
The Health and Human Needs Committee, which oversees the department, apparently agreed. At a meeting in February, members sympathized with the social worker and praised the department's response to the case. Committee members declined to question Green extensively, even though a state review faulted the county's actions. None of the members had even read the state's report, available a week before the meeting.
Now another child who relied on Dane County's protection has died. In 2005, the county inexplicably granted Lynda Sykes guardianship of her niece, Deshaunsay Sykes-Crowder. In years prior, Sykes was convicted of crimes for stabbing people on three separate occasions, once drawing a 30-month prison sentence, and for hitting a woman on the head with a gun. She was also convicted under federal law of using false Social Security numbers to get loans.
Yet, somehow, Dane County decided that Sykes would make a good guardian. After Sykes got Deshaunsay, she moved to Ohio, where last month authorities charged her with beating and suffocating the 6-year-old to death.
Was this incident an aberration too? If not, the lethargy shown by county officials is troubling.
Supv. Sheila Stubbs, chair of the Health and Human Needs Committee, didn't know about Deshaunsay's death and a pending state review of the county's actions in the case until contacted by a reporter. After checking with the county's corporation counsel, Stubbs refused to comment, citing confidentiality. Besides, "It's not considered our case because the incident did not happen in Dane County."
Green is singing from the same hymnal. "I'm finding it interesting that people are trying to make a link to Wisconsin," she says, noting that Ohio decided to give the child back to her aunt, after removing her for abuse. "I read this as an Ohio responsibility."
Yet it was Dane County that made the placement to begin with, despite alarming signs of Sykes' unfitness. Indeed, the murders of both little girls raise disturbing questions about the ability of Dane County to handle child welfare cases. Unfortunately, Dane County officials seem ill equipped - or too uninterested - to ask them.
After it became known that a 911 operator failed to respond to a call from Brittany Zimmermann's cell phone on the day she was murdered, the furor was immediate.
County supervisors addressed the issue in multiple committees. Some members organized a town hall meeting. The County Board ordered an independent audit of the 911 Center and now requires the center to submit monthly updates.
There is still a sense that the county is not upfront about all the center's problems, but at least supervisors are involved. The response to these two deaths, in comparison, has been lackluster. No town hall meetings. No audits. No real engagement.
County Board chair Scott McDonell acknowledges a disparity, but says the public was inflamed by the 911 incident. "The media attention locally was intense," he says. "That plays a factor."
McDonell also says the board trusts Green, who has been with the county since 1972. Joe Norwick, head of the 911 Center, had been at his post for less than a year.
Health and Human Needs is a powerful committee that oversees roughly half of the county's $460 million budget. But McDonell has a hard time finding supervisors willing to serve on it.
After this spring's election, the committee lost Supvs. Dave Wiganowsky and Mike Willett, dropping its membership from seven to five. "Not a single conservative requested to be on Health and Human Needs," says McDonell. "Everyone wants to be on Public Protection and Judiciary or Personnel and Finance."
None of the board's liberal veterans - like Brett Hulsey, John Hendrick or Kyle Richmond - asked to be on the committee either. Which means less-experienced members like Stubbs are left running a committee that oversees an overwhelming number of programs, from elder care to homeless families to child welfare. And Stubbs is clearly in over her head.
Asked whether county social workers are overburdened, Stubbs responds, "I don't know. I'll leave that up to the department to inform us."
Stubbs met with a group of social workers for the first time last week, though she notes none had asked for help before now. "If workers come to us and say, 'I don't feel I can do my job,' I will do everything in my power to help them."
And Stubbs bristles at the suggestion that there's a problem with child protection in Dane County, after two fatalities. "I wouldn't say two fatalities," she responds irritably, before adding, "Right now, there are social workers protecting the children!"
The state's Department of Children and Families is now investigating Dane County's decision to give Deshaunsay to her aunt, only six months after it issued a report blaming the county for mishandling Anastasia Vang's case. Green, in an interview, says confidentiality laws make it difficult for the county to defend itself.
"We're always in a position of not being able to at least tell the community what our activities are and let people judge the facts," she says.
In the past month, the union representing county social workers has organized two meetings with management, including Green, and has scheduled a third. It wants more social workers and support staff to be hired in Child Protective Services, but is careful not to tie the request to Anastasia Vang.
"This is not in any way a direct response to the tragedy that occurred," says the union rep, Larry Rodenstein. "Rather, these are efforts on our part to create a discussion about what's the best way to address issues."
Rodenstein says new state and federal reporting requirements have increased the amount of paperwork social workers do. The union also suggests the county's caseloads are excessive. On Aug. 1, it says, Dane County's intake workers averaged 22 cases, nearly twice the national standard. And each case can involve an entire family, with multiple children.
The union would like the county to hire 12 additional social workers. At last week's Health and Human Needs meeting, supervisors discussed hiring one additional social worker for 2009, then conducting a staffing study.
"We hope they come up with additional funding without reducing other parts of the department," says Rodenstein, noting that the county recently transferred one social worker to child protective services from another unit. "You've got 20 more cops on the street, but you haven't increased the number of social workers [in Child Protective Services] in years."
The burnout is palpable. Since June 2007, 17 social workers have left Child Protective Services, forcing the county to replace them.
At the committee meeting, Green urged a study to determine whether adding support staff, to answer phones and make copies, would be enough to ease the burden on social workers.
McDonell notes that the failed 911 call prompted an aggressive response because the county had been receiving complaints about its 911 service for years. But no one has complained about Child Protective Services.
"If it seemed like there were systemic problems," he says, "this would get some attention."