MADISON — State lawmakers charged with protecting Wisconsin's children have potentially violated state law by failing to hold required public hearings on the welfare of children who have been egregiously injured or killed.
In Wisconsin, when a child dies or is injured because of abuse or neglect, the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families has to file a special report explaining what happened and how it happened.
The 90-day reports, available here, are published monthly.
State lawmakers are required by law to read the reports, conduct at least one public hearing a year on those reports, and make recommendations to the DCF based on their review.
"The Children and Families Committee is designed to basically be an overseer, to make recommendations to the Department of Children and Families on these reports," says State Representative LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee), who has served on the committee since 2013. Johnson says the committee has failed to review the reports and hold required annual hearings.
"For the last three years that I've sat on this committee, we've never had an actual 90-day egregious report hearing," Rep. Johnson said. “That’s where we dropped the ball because we don’t hold DCF accountable. We don’t ask the tough questions, and we don’t demand the answers that are needed for us to fix this.”
FOX6 investigators read every report published over the last five years. That's how we found out that children with disabilities are dying at an alarming rate. See our investigation here.
"When you look at these reports and you see children as young as six weeks or a month old with severe head trauma, or severe burns all over their bodies, you know that these children are living a life of hell," Rep. Johnson said.
Johnson is frustrated that not all committee members seem to be actively involved in reviewing the 90-day reports.
FOX6 News tried to ask lawmakers on the committee if they had read any of the 2015 reports.
"No I certainly have not," said State Representative David Heaton (R-Wausau).
State Representative Bob Gannon (R-Slinger), who initially asked FOX6 News why we were at the hearing, joking it "must be a slow news day" said he "briefly went through" the reports.
Most lawmakers avoiding answering the question, with the exception of State Representative Jill Billings (D-La Crosse).
"In the past I’ve felt like not all committee members received the summary reports and that we were not able to do due diligence in our jobs," Billings said. "I encourage all the members of our committee to take a hard look at those 90-day reports and ask questions and make sure we understand what’s happening.”
"Our job is to hold the department accountable and we've failed to do that," Johnson said.
On Wednesday, December 9th, a meeting was noticed to discuss the reports. But because of a technicality in the way it was noticed, lawmakers weren't allowed to ask the tough questions. Legislative counsel was afraid they would violate open meetings laws.
Even though Chief Legal Counsel for the Department of Children and Families, Randall Keys, was present, he refused to answer what he called "surprise" questions about the 90-day reports published in 2015, and pointed questions about investigations involving children with disabilities.
Just this year, nearly 60 90-day reports have been filed. Kids were starved, locked in basements, and murdered. In many cases, the families had previously been reported to Child Protective Services.
"We are required by state law to discuss these cases, to ask the hard questions, to get down to the core, to find out why these incidents are happening," Johnson said. "Who's asking those tough questions? Who's holding the agency accountable? The answer is it's not the state Legislature."
The chair of the Children and Families Committee, Representative Jessie Rodriguez (R-Franklin), says she wants the review of the 90-day reports to be a transparent process, but admits there's been a lot of confusion this year.
It is her first year chairing the committee, which has had similar organizational issues in the past.
On Wednesday, FOX6 News asked Rep. Rodriguez whether failing to have a meeting in 2015 to discuss the reports would be a violation of state law. She called us back on Thursday and said a meeting would be scheduled before the end of December.
She previously told FOX6 there was an open question about whether state law actually requires a public hearing on the 90-day reports. In past years, meetings have only been held to discuss generalized quarterly and annual reports submitted and prepared by DCF.
To see if your elected representative serves on the Assembly Committee on Children and Families, check here.
Many of them are freshman representatives.