Speaking up for Special Needs: Lawmakers taking action on child abuse and neglect reports

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MADISON -- In November, the FOX6 Investigators began speaking up for kids with special needs. Now, FOX6's series on child abuse and neglect is getting the attention of lawmakers.

In 2015, 66 kids in Wisconsin died or were seriously injured because they were abused or neglected. With one day left in the year, state lawmakers were finally asking how and why.

"Before I start though I've gotta say I'm very disappointed in what happened at the last hearing," Rep. Jessie Rodriguez (R-Oak Creek) said.

Assembly Committee on Children and Families hearing

Assembly Committee on Children and Families hearing

At the last hearing of the Assembly Committee on Children and Families, some lawmakers charged with protecting Wisconsin's children hadn't done their homework.

"It's become very clear to me that there's been a lack of communication, a lack of compliance to Act 78," Rep. Rodriguez said.

In Wisconsin, when a child dies or is injured because of abuse or neglect, the Department of Children and Families has to file a special report explaining what happened and how it happened.

State law requires committee members read those reports. The law also requires that lawmakers hold a public hearing to talk about the reports.

"Aside from 2014, there was never a hearing held on these reports even though this Act passed in 2009. Not one hearing until last year," Rep. Rodriguez said.

At the hearing Wednesday, December 30th, squeezed in before the end of the year, officials with the Department of Children and Families fielded tough questions from lawmakers about kids who have died this year.

Child abuse

"These are vulnerable children in Wisconsin, so part of our job is to look at these individual cases as kind of a second check and say 'what happened here?'" Rep. Jill Billings (D-La Crosse) said.

"The primary concern always when the CPS workers go out is is this child safe? Is this child safe today?" Randy Keys, chief legal counsel with the Department of Children and Families, said.

This year, kids were starved, locked in basements and murdered -- and in most cases, the families had previously been reported to Child Protective Services.

"Somebody dropped the ball," Rep. Robert Brooks (R-Saukville) said.

"These repeat cases are really troubling for a lot of people," Rep. Adam Neylon (R-Pewaukee) said.

In a particularly troubling report, a teenage girl in Waukesha County was locked in her basement for seven years -- even though child abuse and neglect had been reported time and time again.

Child abuse

"24 screened out reports. 24! Those are calls that were not investigated. There's an issue with that," Rep. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) said.

Rep. Robert Brooks (R-Saukville) asked the Department of Children and Families what can be changed to improve cases like that one, but department representatives had no recommendations.

"How can you literally have a case like this and not have one recommendation for what needs to be changed?" Rep. Johnson said.

The child who was locked in the basement has autism.

basement window

She's just one of dozens of children across the state who are being abused and neglected who also have disabilities.

Over the last five years, 15 children with disabilities have died from abuse or neglect after cases were closed or not fully investigated.

''15 kids losing their lives over five years. If that was a result of a toy, we would be talking about a major recall," Rep. Johnson said.

At Wednesday's hearing, lawmakers asked DCF officials whether charges need to be made when cases involve kids with special needs.

"What we're doing is we're following up with Disability Rights. We're meeting with them next week to look and see how we can collaborate and make the system work better," Randy Keys said.

On Wednesday, state lawmakers spent a lot of time talking about these issues, but we're told next week they'll start to take some action - as legislation is expected to be introduced that specifically concerns children with disabilities.

CLICK HERE for a list of members of the Assembly Committee on Children and Families.

CLICK HERE for a link to the 90-day reports.

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