County rejects Family Keys grant
In a stunning show of force, a group of conservative hardliners on the Marathon County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday blocked accepting a twoyear $327,100 Family Keys pilot project grant from the state Department of Children and Families. The grant would have funded three apartments in a building in Wausau for parents who have completed court-ordered rehabilitation and would be eligible to get their children back, except for a lack of safe housing.
The motion to accept the state grant failed 14-23. A two-thirds board majority was needed to approve a budget amendment.
The Family Keys project was supported by local Republican assemblyman Rep. Pat Snyder, several conservative-voting county supervisors and a raft of local civic agencies, including the Greenheck Foundation, the United Way, North Central Community Action, St. Vincent De Paul and the City of Wausau Police Department.
Snyder, chairman of the Assembly Children and Family Committee, said he strongly supported the Family Keys program as a way to try and keep struggling families united. “It’s tough for these kids to be removed from their parents,” he said. “These kids go into foster care and, when they age out, they become homeless or wind up incarcerated.”
But the conservative hardliners were undeterred.
Leading the opposition to the grant were supervisors Tony Sherfinski, Schofield, Chris Dickinson, Stratford, and David Baker, Kronenwetter.
Sherfinski said the grant program would be a “toe in the door” to create more government. Baker said the grant could issue in a “new entitlement” that further eroded “individual freedom.” Dickinson said Marathon County didn’t need to participate in a program guided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s agenda of equity, diversity and inclusion. He said other counties should test out the housing program, not Marathon County.
Vicki Tylka, Social Services Department director, valiantly tried to defend the program against these and other criticisms. She said the program, as a two-year pilot, would be tracked to see if it could help successfully reunite families and, in the process, save county tax dollars spent on foster care. She said the county in 2022 budgeted $5,317,786 for taking care of children in need of protection. In 2021, the county social services department investigated 1,592 cases of reported maltreatment of children. Tylka said the Family Keys pilot project was estimated to save the county $168,000 over two years. The director said the housing program would not compromise the safety of children. “We have a strong record of protecting children,” she said. “We do it every day.”
Tylka said the Family Keys program followed a federal Families First Prevention Services Act passed in 2018 that says the first priority of social services agencies should be to keep families whole consistent with the safety of children.
Marathon County was one of three counties in Wisconsin offered a Family Keys grant. Both Wood and La Crosse counties have accepted their grants.
County board opposition followed community conservatives who expressed opposition to the Family Keys grant on Thursday.
Tanya Riehle, Wausau, for example, questioned the “hidden agendas” of federal and state agencies funding the Family Keys program. She worried about placing vulnerable children in the control of “unelected bureaucrats.” She noted that the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which is dedicated to inclusion, equity and diversity, supports the program. She then charged that the Family Keys program repeated the Community For All resolution program for the county.
Joanne Leonard, Wausau, told supervisors to vote against accepting the grant, saying that she resented the federal government interfering in what should be local business and eroding local control of government.
Erin Crawford worried that the twoyear program would “forever stay on the books” and would lead to an everexpanding government.
Voting to turn back the Family Keys grant were supervisors Baker, Covelli, Dickinson, Hartinger, Marshall, Morache, Niemeyer, Ritter, Seubert, Shertfinski, Sondelski, Straub, Ungerer and Wilhelm.
Voting for the grant were supervisors Aarestad, Bootz, Buch, Bushman, Drabek, Gibbs, Gisselman, Gonnering, Hart, Krause, Lamont, Langenhahn, Leahy, Lemmer, Maszk, McEwen, Oberbeck, Robinson, Rosenberg, Seefeldt, Van Krey, Venzke and Xiong.