McDonell Central High School-Notre Dame Middle School

McDonell Central Catholic High School-Notre Dame Middle School is seen in this June 5, 2015 file photo.

ROD STETZER, The Herald

At a Tuesday meeting at McDonell Central Catholic High School in Chippewa Falls, Larry Winter envisioned a better future for 42 percent of families in Chippewa County.

It would be a time where a single mother with two disabled children wouldn’t have to give up her plans for a bachelor’s degree to support her children, Winter said. It’s a future where that hypothetical woman wouldn’t need to keep track of 14 different service programs to get help with food, rental assistance, mental health, substance abuse and after-school help for her children.

Winter, director of Chippewa County’s Department of Human Services (DHS), said he hopes the department is moving in a new direction: integrating those different service plans — from FoodShare to addiction treatment — into one cohesive master plan, customized for each family.

Winter presented the plan to teachers, board members and school administrators from both the Chippewa Falls School District and McDonell Area Catholic Schools on Tuesday.

“The thing that was most disturbing for me is… the poverty needle in this country has not changed since the early 70s. It really began to bother me,” Winter said.

Winter’s opportunity happened when the DHS joined the American Public Human Services Association, a national nonprofit dedicated to helping families.

DHS interviewed 19 families between May and October, said Connie Fedie, lead social worker with DHS’ Children, Youth and Families department. Based on that data, Winter and his team mapped Chippewa County’s neighborhoods and identified five hotspots, two in Chippewa Falls, where calls for medical assistance and FoodShare (a program to help low-income families buy food) were high. Those same hotspots also had high rates of substance abuse and criminal activity, Winter said.

Winter’s plan would pool the DHS’ resources in those hotspots.

“La Crosse County has done this in the geographic location where most of their Child Protective Services calls come from, and they’ve significantly been able to reduce (those calls) in that community,” Winter said. “How can we do that and change that trajectory the other way?”

Housing is one of the top factors in determining a family’s need for DHS services, Fedie said. “When they’re on the bridge of eviction, the outcomes of the whole family just aren’t there.”

“They could get rental assistance, but that might only last a few months,” Winter added. “We’ve had families paying 60, 70 percent of their income toward housing. How are they to do anything else?”

Winter said there is an effort to alleviate the housing crisis at the federal level, but families all over Chippewa County need local help.

How quickly will Chippewa County DHS’ map begin to help families in the five hotspots? It’s a process, Fedie said. But integrating several service plans into one master plan for each family will go a long way, according to Winter: “Our regulations (can) get in the way of outcomes.

“There’s such a sense of hopelessness out there. We have to change that.”

Later Tuesday evening, the Chippewa Falls School Board was slated to discuss a 5-year budget forecast, as well as discuss potential workshops for an April 2018 referendum. The board’s next monthly meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 19.

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Sarah Seifert covers the city and community of Chippewa Falls. Contact her with tips or story ideas at 715-738-1608 or at sarah.seifert@lee.net.

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