Who is protecting Wisconsin's children from their own parents?
Jermont Terry, Lindsey Morone
WEST ALLIS - Are we doing enough to protect Wisconsin Children?
Kids keep dying because of their parents' deadly decisions. So who’s looking after these parents?
That’s the job of the Department of Children and Family Services but more needs to be done. Children are supposed to outlive their parents, not die because of a mother’s deadly mistake.
Three kids were left locked in a room, home alone inside a burning West Allis house. Four-year-old twin boys, Alex and Adrian Colin, and their five-year-old sister Nayeli, died.
Prosecutors say their mother Angelica Belen ignored countless warnings by police and the Department of Children and Family Services to not leave her children alone.
This case is alarming, but so is the number of Wisconsin children who die at the hands of their parents. It begs the question, why did the state allow the three children to stay in an unsafe home?
Before the deadly fire, Belen faced six child neglect charges. According to a criminal complaint the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare found the mom left her kids alone “in the house for approximately an hour” back in February.
Two weeks later in March someone found the children running around a parking lot in West Allis.
The complaint said Belen left them alone inside a car while she shopped in a store. West Allis Police investigated and said they found the kids living in feces and urine. But still the state allowed the children to stay in the home.
“It’s tragic,” said Jan Buchler.
Buchler is the executive director of the non-profit agency The Parenting Network.
“How do we fail to protect this badly? Here's a parent who might have had a good attitude but didn't have the capacity to change. This was a chronic behavior,” explained Buchler.
The I-Team went to the DCFS headquarters in Madison. We wanted to know why this mother was given so many chances, but they refused to talk. The I-Team even sent emails asking the agency to explain what it considers a “safe home.” All the I-Team got was this reply “the Department respectfully declines your request for an interview.”
It not only declined to talk about this specific case but also the increasing number of child deaths documented on its own website. We’re talking a 50 page report on the most recent child abuse and neglect cases. More than 30 children died because of neglect and abuse in 2011.
Twelve of those deaths were in Milwaukee County alone. When look at the 12 in Milwaukee County ten occurred at the hands of their own parents. This same report showed in 2011, DCFS looked at close to 22,000 complaints of unsafe homes. Almost 90 percent of the time it deemed the homes safe. Only 10 percent of the homes were declared unsafe.
“I think those of us who live in fairly well functioning families have a much higher standard of safety than what is allowed,” explained Buchler.
The I-Team found the state has its own standard, a checklist for determining whether to remove a child from a home. When you look at Angelica Belen case we found even more red flags.
The state considers:
1) Did the safety concern surround hazardous living environment?
2) Did the concern cause emotional problems or a severe physical injury
3) Did the parenting practices lack knowledge to provide basic care including necessary supervision?
At least two of the three applied but DCFS allowed the kids to stay with their mother. When asked whether DCFS bears some responsibility in what happened to Belen’s children Buchler admits she doesn’t have all the facts but added, “on the surface it appears to be that they waited too long.”
It’s unclear if this case is under review or not. Let’s not forget millions of your tax dollars are pumped into the agency. Its mission is to protect children. Since the agency won’t answer our questions maybe they’ll listen to you. Contact the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare at 414-220-7000 or email them at http://dcf.wisconsin.gov/bmcw/contact/