Report shows no record home visits were attempted for 120 families with children with high levels of lead

MILWAUKEE -- The Milwaukee Common Council's Steering and Rules Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 31 will discuss and review a 51-page report issued by the Milwaukee Health Department related to the city's Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. Mayor Tom Barrett held a news conference late Monday evening to discuss the findings of the report. The report details serious mismanagement at the health department when it comes to following up with families most at risk for lead exposure.

On Jan. 12, Mayor Barrett first announced he became aware that the health department hasn't properly kept track of whether children exposed to lead ever received outreach services. He said follow-up letters from the health department to families of children with high levels of lead in their blood may not have been sent by the health department in 2015, 2016 and 2017. Health Commissioner Bevan Baker resigned under pressure.

The new report shows how many families may have fallen through the cracks.

Alderman Mark Borkowski

Of the 75,000 Milwaukee children who were tested for lead exposure between 2015 and 2017, an audit of the health department's Lead Poisoning Prevention Program shows hundreds of children tested positive for moderate, high or severely elevated blood lead levels. In those cases, the health department is required to contact the parents, and perform a home visit to remove lead sources, often found in old paint.

The audit reveals there is no paperwork indicating a home visit was ever attempted for nearly 120 of the 320 affected families.

"I'm very concerned. Very dismayed. This is a huge issue," Alderman Mark Borkowski said.

Most alarming, at least two children whose blood lead levels were so extreme, they qualified for a medical lead removal procedure. Those children were returned to  homes where there's no documentation of environmental intervention efforts.

During the same time period, between 2015 and 2017, approximately 6,000 children had elevated blood lead levels in the low category, which should still prompt a letter to be sent to families about what next steps to take. There are records of 1,500 letters being sent out.

"OK, Mr. Mayor, you've been mayor since 2004. Why didn't you know?" Borkowski said.

The report also notes that funding for the Lead Poisoning Prevention Program has fallen from a peak of $6 million in 2009 to just over $3 million in 2018 -- something the mayor pointed out during his news conference.

"Obviously as mayor, the buck stops at my desk -- and I understand that," Barrett said.

Alderman Jose Perez on Tuesday issued a statement indicating Mayor Barrett and his administration "can no longer be trusted to lead the investigation into the broken lead abatement programs within the Milwaukee Health Department:"

"Mayor Tom Barrett and his administration can no longer be trusted to lead the investigation into the broken lead abatement programs within the Milwaukee Health Department. Unfortunately, we have a real problem and my district bears a huge burden because of poverty, density, and the age of the housing stock. The administration has been asleep at the switch and we had every right to expect better for our children and their families.

The recently-released initial report from the Health Department provided Monday evening only made clearer how detached and unaware the Mayor and his immediate circle were to the mismanagement of the department.  The Mayor, by his actions and inactions, has lost the moral authority to lead on this matter. The Council is done with offering deference to the Mayor. He has failed and we are going to fully engage and take responsibility where the administration has failed.

All options – including fundamental restructuring of the Milwaukee Health Department – were on the table as the Council moves forward. No structure, no process, and no person should consider themselves exempt from scrutiny in the case of a failure this fundamental.  The investigation is only beginning."

After the announcement was made on Jan. 12, Mayor Barrett announced the health department was correcting the discrepancy by sending out 6,000 letters to families with children with elevated blood lead levels, and opening three walk-in clinics for lead testing, along with the launch of a hotline for parents with questions.

Health department officials said 31 Tuesday 31 people had received a lead test since the free clinics opened.

Part of the report obtained by FOX6 News on Tuesday detailed a plan of action moving forward, including recommendations for a better record-keeping system, re-training staff and increasing community awareness efforts.