Fixing What’s Broken

Earlier this year, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on fraud and abuse within the ‘Wisconsin Shares’ program. Wisconsin Shares provides a child care subsidy to low income families struggling to hold a job and was part of the historic Tommy Thompson era overhaul of the state’s welfare program.

When “Welfare to Work” or W2 was enacted the state experienced a dramatic decrease in the number of people ‘on welfare.’ In the mid nineties, Wisconsin had over one hundred thousand people on welfare. Today about 9,000 families participate in the W2. In order to receive W2 program support, these families must follow strict rules about working.  The child care subsidy provided through Wisconsin Shares is important to help these parents maintain their employment.   

Unfortunately, this critical program has become the subject of newspaper stories about fraud, abuse, lack of background checks and even sex offenders giving the same addresses as child care providers.  These shocking stories have spurred action from Legislative and state officials.

As co-chair of the Joint Committee on Audit, I became familiar with details of the problems with Shares.  Through the work of Legislative Audit Bureau staff, significant weaknesses in the program were identified.  It became very clear that, from the beginning, the necessary safe guards were not put in place to protect the Share program from fraud and abuse.  The Audit committee is working closely with the Department of Children and Families to quickly put those safe guards in place.  The committee and Audit Bureau staff will continue our comprehensive evaluation of Wisconsin Shares.

I also worked on legislation to reform the Wisconsin Shares program as a member of the Senate Children and Families committee.  The chair of this committee, Senator Bob Jauch and Representative Tamara Grigsby, chair of the Assembly Children and Families committee immediately began crafting legislation to address the problems with Shares. 

Prior to introducing their bills, Senator Jauch and Representative Grigsby issued a joint statement that really spoke for the entire Legislature; “We are all deeply troubled by the stories of those who seek to steal from society and put children at risk.  We are equally troubled when we identify flaws in a regulatory system that is supposed to ensure maximum protection for children.  As stewards of children’s safety and well-being we must continue our commitment to provide the tools necessary to overcome these obstacles. It is essential that we fix the problems we see and work to assure a system that prevents the problems in the first place…we must also acknowledge that our laws are completely inadequate and need to be fixed now.”

The proposed law our committee worked on requires annual background checks on all child care providers and their employees; officials overseeing child care providers must conduct criminal history checks every three months and bans any person convicted of a long list of crimes from ever becoming or working for a child care provider.  The bill would also immediately suspend payments under Wisconsin Shares to child care providers under investigation for that same list of crimes. 

The bill includes language to protect those who report suspected fraud. Any worker who, in good faith, reports fraud would be immune from any civil or criminal liability or disciplinary action.

As I sat through public hearings on the problems with Wisconsin Shares in both the Senate Committee on Children and Families and the Joint Committee on Audit, I wondered why these common sense regulations were not put in place fourteen years ago when the program was created. Then I am reminded of the old sayings, ‘there are two good times to plant a tree, forty years ago… and today.

Then it is time to get back to the hard work of getting to the root of problems and fixing what’s broken.