They were eight children, all 12 or younger, each of them students at Longfellow Elementary School.
They lived on Eau Claire’s north side, in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, a hardscrabble mix of homes and a few small businesses bordering Birch Street.
Between mid-December to early January, each of those kids was removed from their homes after authorities determined they were in danger because parents or guardians were using methamphetamine.
In mid-December, authorities removed two brothers, first- and second-graders at Longfellow, from their father’s custody after he passed out at the wheel of his car after ingesting meth while waiting to pick up his boys after school. A week later, shortly before Christmas break, a girl kindergartner at the school was taken from her home after police discovered meth use there.
At that same time, three sisters — in kindergarten, first and fifth grades — were removed from their home after their parents were discovered using meth. Then, days after students returned to school from Christmas vacation, two brothers were relocated from their home when their mother was found abusing meth and her children tested positive for the drug.
A counselor at Longfellow for the past seven years, Craig Hinden is used to dealing with difficult situations faced by the students he helps. The school has the poorest socioeconomic status in the Eau Claire district, and family difficulties aren’t uncommon. But even Hinden was alarmed by the recent rash of meth-related child removal cases at the school.
“It felt like a crisis,” Hinden said. “I’ve learned not to be shocked by much, but I was feeling overwhelmed. You get (meth cases) from time to time, but all of a sudden we got hit with a wave of it.”
While the recent spike of meth cases in the Longfellow attendance area is unusual, the school is far from alone in Eau Claire and across western Wisconsin, where an increasing number of students are being removed from their homes because their parents or guardians are arrested for meth-related activities.
School administrators and staff, social services agencies and law enforcement officials in this part of the state report sharply rising meth use and arrests in recent years, resulting in the removal of more children from their homes when parents or guardians are incarcerated.
In 2010, Eau Claire police arrested 13 people for infractions related to meth. In 2012, that number was 17, but the following year it topped 70 and climbed to 117 in 2014. Through the first 10 months of last year, there were 156 meth-related arrests by the department.
The adverse impact of meth on children is among police Chief Jerry Staniszewski’s biggest concerns related to the drug’s resurgence.
“Perhaps the biggest worry in those situations is the safety of kids,” he said during a recent interview.
Eau Claire schools Superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck echoed that sentiment. As of Tuesday, 46 students in the district were in out-of-home placements at that time, she said, noting that number varies as children move in and out of those alternate situations.
“We are seeing more families in crisis,” Hardebeck said.
The growing number of children in need of new homes because of meth use is straining an overburdened alternate care system in the Eau Claire area, officials said. That system already faced shortages of appropriate homes for children removed from their living situations because of meth use and a wide range of other issues deemed to endanger kids’ safety.
According to Eau Claire County Human Services Department statistics, the number of cases involving child protective services has doubled between 2010 and 2015. The percentage of those cases involving alcohol or other drugs also has grown, officials said.
“Our alternate care system was already stretched,” said Terri Bohl, social work manager for the department’s child protective services division. “Now you add this big number of cases where kids are removed from their homes because of meth exposure, and we just can’t keep up.”
The prevalence of meth in the county is borne out in statistics. In 2010, 67 percent of child protective services cases here involved alcohol and other drugs, a figure that grew to 82 percent last year. That increase was driven almost exclusively by meth, figures show, as 94 percent of those cases in 2016 involved the drug.
Eau Claire County isn’t alone in experiencing far more meth-related cases in recent years. In Chippewa County, meth-related out-of-home placements for children have grown from 10 in 2014 to 83 last year.
Tina Buhrow and her husband live in Chippewa Falls, where they are foster parents and provide crisis care in their home for children from eight counties in need of immediate relocation. She called the increase in meth-related cases in recent years “alarming” and said it is overwhelming an already maxed-out child protective services network.
Our system simply isn’t designed to handle the numbers we are seeing,” Buhrow said.
Eau Claire school board member Joe Luginbill said he has become all too familiar with the shortage of alternate placements for children. Last year he founded the Luginbill Children’s Foundation to address the lack of foster care services. The shortage of those services means in too many instances children are moved from this community to unfamiliar settings, sometimes in other states, he said.
“Tearing those kids from the community they know can be traumatic for them,” Luginbill said.
Hardebeck said the district would like to keep relocated children in their same schools, or within the district, when possible. “We know it is so disruptive for those kids to be relocated, to be bouncing from place to place,” she said.
After working with law enforcement and others to verify meth use in a home, county human services workers attempt to find placement of children with relatives, first within the same school attendance area, and then elsewhere in Eau Claire or a nearby community, Bohl said. That often isn’t possible, she said, and foster homes are sought. But the large number of children needing relocation because of arrests for meth has overwhelmed available foster care homes, she said.
“More and more we aren’t able to keep children here in Eau Claire,” Bohl said, noting sometimes they bounce among several homes and schools within one school year, depending on their placement situations. Arranging visits between children located elsewhere and parents incarcerated or receiving treatment here also is challenging, she said.
Meth is nothing new to western Wisconsin. In the early 2000s, the drug ravaged this part of the state as people combined an unlikely list of compounds to make the highly addictive drug. In 2006 the state Legislature enacted regulations designed to limit the amount of pseudoephedrine, one of meth’s ingredients, that residents can purchase. Meth arrests in the area plummeted in ensuing years.
Then, several years ago, police noticed a resurgence of meth in this region as the drug made its way here from other places. To combat meth, agencies in Eau Claire County formed the Drug Endangered Children Initiative in 2014. It consists of the county Human Services Department, the courts system, the district attorney’s office, law enforcement and others.
Police spokeswoman Bridget Coit, a Drug Endangered Children Initiative member, said the agencies working together “are better able to come up with specific ways to address (meth).” Among useful tools devised to fight the epidemic was obtaining search warrants to conduct hair follicle tests that show the presence of meth, she said.
“That has been a big help for us,” Coit said. “Before, without catching someone in the act of using meth, we didn’t have a definitive way to show that meth use was happening. Now, with the tests, we can show that, yes, these kids have been exposed directly to meth, and they need to be relocated.”
Of the eight Longfellow students removed from homes in December and January because of meth use where they lived, only the group of three sisters remains in the Eau Claire school district. They wound up living with a grandparent who resides near Lakeshore Elementary School, which they previously attended. “It has been a nice transition for them,” Hinden said.
Others are farther away, the last time Hinden, the Longfellow counselor, knew of their situations. Two brothers were placed in Eau Claire foster care briefly before their mother relocated them to the Twin Cities. The kindergartner and her younger sibling, not yet in school, also wound up in the Twin Cities, where a relative took them in. And two brothers removed from their home because their mother used meth went to Black River Falls with their father.
Since the December-January outbreak, Hinden hasn’t dealt with any other cases of students having to be relocated because of meth use in their homes. But it’s only a matter of time before it happens again, he said.
“Given the magnitude of the meth problem in this community, I fear this is going to be something we face for a while,” he said.