For 15 years, Madison attorney David Knoll has been representing parents who are in danger of having their children taken away because of neglect or abuse.
It's never been cheerful work, but late last year, Knoll started noticing a stark change. Not only did his caseload increase, he began seeing more severe abuse cases. Worse, the waiting lists for social service programs have gotten longer, meaning it takes months if not years for families to get the help they need.
"It used to be you'd see cases that were almost mere neglect," Knoll says. "Mom or Dad leaves the child with somebody for a night of drinking and doesn't come back for a few days. But oftentimes the child was left with a grandparent or an aunt or a friend."
The cases he handles now are more serious. "This year, I saw the worst facts in an abuse case I've ever seen," says Knoll, adding that he can't go into details.
"From a cynical point of view, I'm in the business of human misery - I've got no worries," he muses. "I'll never be unemployed. Miserly wages, but reliable wages."
Data for CHIPS cases - the acronym stands for Children in Need of Protection or Services - do not show an enormous increase in Dane County. But others echo Knoll's perception that the cases are getting worse.
Sharyl Kato, director of the Rainbow Project, a family counseling center, says children are being abused at younger ages, including some who are just infants. She says last year, the Project counseled three children who had been intentionally burned. Sometimes it's worse than that.
"Kids are having to watch as a favorite pet is tortured. Or the kids are being tortured themselves," Kato says, noting that this leads to more school violence. "That exposure is adding to this view that the world is not safe and I'm going to act in a violent way first. We've seen kids at the kindergarten level being expelled."
Lynn Green, Dane County director of Human Services, agrees the cases seem to be getting worse: "We believe we have seen an increase in the severity of the reports, but not an increase in the numbers."
Bert Zipperer, a guidance counselor with the Madison school district, offers this perspective: "The thesis that it's getting worse...I think it assumes that it used to be fine. It's always been a challenge. Now it's an insane challenge."
According to Dane County Juvenile Court, CHIPS petitions have held fairly steady since 1994, fluctuating between about 250 and 350 a year. In 2007, there was a large jump to 376 (up 101 from the previous year).
Last year, the number fell back down to 264. Knoll notes that although the caseload hasn't changed drastically, the number of cases in which courts act to permanently take children away from parents has grown, suggesting the system is failing families in crisis.
In 1994, there were 333 CHIPS cases. Ninety-three of those eventually led to termination of parental rights (TPR), about a quarter. Last year there were 126 TPR cases - almost half the number of CHIPS cases.
Brenda Nelson, program director at Safe Harbor Child Advocacy Center, reports an increase in case volume, as well as severity. Physical abuse includes "whuppings with belts and whuppings with extension cords." There's also been an increase in family sexual abuse.
"Our overall caseload level is roughly the same this fiscal year as the previous year," says Safe Harbor staffer Tamarine Cornelius, "but child physical abuse is making up a much bigger proportion of our cases." The agency has seen a 48% increase in these cases, from 27 to 40, over a comparable period last year.
Pinpointing reasons for the increase is difficult, and Nelson admits her theories are "largely gut feeling." But she believes the economy is leading to more physical abuse.
"We've seen a few families come through lately where you don't know how much more the family can manage," she says. "They already had financial stress."
Knoll thinks the county is facing a "perfect storm" of problems: The number of cases is going up and the cases are getting more severe at a time when the government is strapped for cash, the economy is tanking and services are in high demand.
"We're sitting on the cusp of this tsunami of need," he says. "We're about to be awash in people not doing terribly well."
Knoll wonders if the county is being forced to disregard some of the more minor cases of neglect that years ago it would have opened.
"We used to get a lot of what we call 'dirty house' cases. The house is full of garbage, there's inappropriate food for the child to eat," he says. "I haven't seen a dirty-house case in I don't know how long. That leads me to believe they're not bringing dirty house cases anymore."
Kato agrees there's been a philosophical shift in deciding when to open CHIPS cases on a national level. She says years ago, kids were often removed from homes when they shouldn't have been, adding, "It shouldn't be easy to take kids out of a home."
Now, it seems, minor cases can quickly become major ones. "If you take away funding for early intervention programs," says Kato, "[and] couple that with the economy, you're going to see increasing severity, and that's what we're seeing."
Knoll recalls a time when a parent in crisis could get into drug treatment or counseling within a couple of days. Now, that could take months or a year.
That sometimes leaves county caseworkers overseeing people who aren't being helped, which Knoll thinks is pointless: "All you end up doing is chronicling their desperation."
Knoll says he's "had two IV-abusing clients die waiting for treatment to come available. Addicts can't live with a waiting list."
The delay in getting services also makes it harder for families to get their children back. When a CHIPS case is opened, the system has about 15 months to work out the family's issues. Without treatment, the family can't show the court that it's addressing its problems.
And it isn't just service providers who are stressed. The courts, county social services and attorneys have also grappled with budget cuts.
Zipperer blames state and federal officials for cutting funding to county and school programs. Democrats and Republicans are both responsible, but he's especially scornful of the Democrats. "The reason Democrats are so in favor of stem cell research is they're hoping it will grow a spine for them," he says. "We and the children and the families are inheriting the results of that cowardice."
And Knoll fears the consequences will reverberate. "The number of my clients who are CHIPS parents and were CHIPS kids themselves is huge," he says. "And we're about to produce another bumper crop."