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home : news : vilas county July 27, 2015

3/25/2014 9:02:00 AM
Vilas County, Lac du Flambeau tribe embrace more cooperation
Tribe in early stages of feasibilty study for a possbile new facility

Brian Jopek

Vilas County will do what it can at this stage to help a detention/safe house facility in Lac du Flambeau become a reality. 

Part of that effort on the county’s part will be in the form of a letter of support signed off on by Ed Bluthardt, chairman of the county’s Law Enforcement and Emergency Management Committee. 

That was the consensus of other committee members as the result of a special meeting Mar. 19 at the courthouse in Eagle River. 

Also attending the meeting were Lac du Flambeau police chief Bob Brandenburg, Mike Zimmerman of the Juvenile Justice and Youth Services for The Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Indians, and Eric Swanson, Vilas County’s juvenile intake coordinator. 

Bluthardt said the meeting was being held in response to another meeting held a month before with members of the tribe regarding their “concerns about juvenile activities.”

Those concerns, committee member Al Bauman said, had been something brought up in his discussions with people like Brandenburg and Vilas County Sheriff Joe Fath. 

Bauman also serves as chairman of the county’s Tribal Concerns Committee. 

“Their concern was ‘How can we improve?’” he said. “As you all know, the numbers in problems arising have been going up drastically. In my estimation, it’s caused mostly from drugs.”

Bauman mentioned an article in a recent edition of The Lakeland Times about a 54-year-old Lac du Flambeau woman who was found dead in early March from a suspected heroin overdose. 

“Our concern is we know Eric and his people are overwhelmed, we’re overwhelmed,” Zimmerman said. “We trying to be able to collaborate and work together to help improve the whole situation.”

Zimmerman said an application for a federal grant was due Mar. 24.

He said one of the hopes he had was to get a letter of support from the Vilas County board, from whichever committee, to “help remedy the issue a little better.”

“One of the things we’re going to try and get out of this grant is some pre-trial services positions so that we have people right in the community that are there,” Zimmerman said. “I know sometimes it’s hard for Eric and his guys to get there immediately where we could have people that would be there all the time.”

He said his agency was also looking at getting bracelets that could be worn by juveniles to detect, through their sweat, alcohol or drug use.

“That type of thing,” Zimmerman said. “Those are some of the things we’re trying to put into the grant. We’re looking at [adding] two positions ... one for sure but possibly two positions.”

Zimmerman said in addition, the tribe was in the initial stages of looking into the possibility of building a facility “out there for the kids.”

“A unique facility where we would have a place to lock them up, if need be,” he said. “A place for them to get treatment and a safehouse type environment and then a transition house all in one.”

He said he had come from another meeting where tribal council members had been talking to tribal family resource  personnel about putting together a facility for adults with drug and alcohol problems.

“Because we have so many adults ... they’re chronics,” Zimmerman said. “It’s costing Vilas County money and it’s costing the tribe money. It doesn’t do any good sitting them in jail for a week and they get out, walk home, and drink again. We pick them up in the ambulance and we’ve got ambulance bills. We take them to the hospital and we’ve got hospital bills. It’s the same thing with our youth.”

He mentioned, as an example, a couple of juveniles in treatment in South Dakota. 

“They’ll do great out there for 30 days,” he said. “They’ll come back and two days later they’ll be partying with their friends. We have to have something in place and those are the concerns we have out there.”

Zimmerman said he does have programs ongoing and would like to increase those. A facility like he described would help. 

“I know I have other tribes that are interested in helping us with that,” he said. “I don’t know how much the county can do to help with that. It would save you guys money in the long run.”

Brandenburg said his thought was things could begin with a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Vilas County and the tribe. 

“Or develop some policies where juvenile intake can work better with juvenile justice,” he said. “Right now, we’re in the middle of restructuring the Indian Child Welfare program and we’re trying to get some of these kids out of the environment they’re in ... a safehouse. Somewhere they can be safe from the drugs and alcohol.”

Brandenburg said there’s been an effort to move some of the court cases to tribal court instead of all of them being in county court. 

“We do swap with Vilas County,” he said. “Court systems, the jail and stuff like that. But we’re trying to do more out in Lac du Flambeau using our tribal judges and tribal prosecutors.”

An MOU between the county and the tribe, he indicated, maybe would get more of the cooperative effort going. 

“Just a little more coordination I think, in trying to alleviate the problem before we have the problems,” Brandenburg said. “You can get grants for first time offenders but who does that affect in La du Flambeau? Not too many kids.”

Even though they’re in the system, Brandenburg said, “maybe we could back off.”

“We don’t have to keep going with a kid,” he said. “More severe, more severe. Maybe there’s something different we can do. Get them out of that home.”

Committee member Chris Mayer, pointed out the involvement of Vilas County Corporation Counsel Martha Milanowski in the screening process of juveniles that had been apprehended and then the decision making for where to put those juveniles. 

Milanowski wasn’t at the meeting. 

Mayer indicated part of the problem had been communication with law enforcement in that screening process. 

“You can cost an awful of money in a short period of time by making the wrong decision,” he said. “And it’s probably ... possibly not the healthiest one for the child.”

He wondered if the policy that was being considered regarding greater cooperation between the county and the tribe was within the parameters of current statutes.

Noting Milanowski probably should be at that meeting because of the major role she plays, Mayer said he wondered how the matter could be taken to the next level.

“With ICW are we looking at some statutory issue as far as when do we [the county] pick it up and let the native side of the government let it go?” he asked. “I’m wondering if we’re not working together, are we making the right decisions and who is making those decisions? When does the tribal government give up the responsibility to make sure when the placement is? When does the county step in?”

Swanson said what Mayer was referring was the child welfare side of things.

“What we’re talking about here, and correct me if I’m wrong, is more the juvenile justice which would involve Mike and I, it involves the sheriff and also the chief [Brandenburg],” he said. “I think this [an MOU] is a fantastic idea.” 

Swanson said he had been thinking about the issue quite a bit. 

“What I’m hearing ... I don’t think is going to be a hard thing,” he said. 

When a person is hired for the county’s juvenile intake program, Swanson said, they go through a five-day training session to become a certified intake worker. 

“What that entitles them to do is to take kids into custody to place back at home, to place with a willing relative, to place in a group home or a foster home or ultimately, to place in a secure facility,” he said. “When we determine secure facility space, for instance, there are statutory requirements that are indeed involved in making those decisions because it has to be [done according to] the severity level. When you’re talking a felony grade offense, that would fit.”

Swanson said sometimes, making that type of determination depends on a juvenile’s past history. 

“My whole point in this,” he said, “was if it’s a possibility of looking at the five-day training ... having Mike and his staff be certified intake workers, that would help, too. Because if it’s something that involves kids that are on supervision through Vilas County and we’re collaborating on this, I see no problem with it.”

Swanson encouraged letters of support from all over, including various county committees, such as the tribal concerns committee and social services committee. 

“I think that’s going above and to a positive level with collaboration,” he said. “We’ve worked very hard in our office of working toward those collaborative efforts and we’ve done a good job.”

Swanson mentioned the current effort to get a part-time person added to the county’s juvenile intake staff and the people, including Zimmerman, on the tribe’s juvenile justice staff.

“That’s one heck of a juvenile justice program that involves the whole [of] Vilas County,” he said. “I’m in full support of it. Whatever we need to do to collaborate to make this work, I’ll make it work on our end.”

He said whatever is done won’t preclude him from doing things like going out at two o’clock in the morning to handle a situation. 

“But if it’s something Mike or one of his workers can handle for us, or with us, that’s what we’ll do,” Swanson said. 

“That’s the thing,” Brandenburg said of Swanson’s staff. “They do show up. And then they still have to come into work at seven o’clock or eight o’clock, I’m sure.”

Bauman said around five or six years ago, Vilas County already had a building set up for juveniles. 

“The county working alone could not support the juvenile detention facility,” he said. “This ... what these guys are talking about is a workable solution. They [the tribe] have the grant writers, they’re asking for cooperation with the county, and I think we should work with them and get these letters of support. To house these kids locally is going to save the county and the state a hell of a bunch of money.”

Bluthardt echoed some of Mayer’s statutory concerns regarding cooperation between the county and the tribe and indicated his concerns were more specifically geared toward the facility mentioned earlier in the meeting the tribe was looking at. 

Brandenburg said the tribe had hired a consulting firm for $175,000 to do a feasibility study into the building issue. 

“Part of the feasibility study was a collaborative effort between the sheriff’s department and Vilas County government,” he said. “They’re doing a lot of that research right now.”

Vilas County Sheriff Joe Fath said he had been contacted by the firm, Venture Architects, but hadn’t had a chance to respond. 

“I’m a little behind in getting back to them,” he told the group. “But I’ve got it [the questionnaire].”

“What’s that in reference to?” Bluthardt asked Fath. “A facility?”

“A facility,” Fath responded. 

“A juvenile facility?” Bluthardt asked.

“Yes,” Fath said. 

Zimmerman said it wouldn’t be just a secure facility. 

“That’s not our goal,” he said. “I want to keep kids out of jail as much as possible. But, there is a need for that secure piece of it.”

He said the hope was juveniles would go from the secure portion of the facility and then go into a “safe house” type environment where they would receive counseling and other services. 

“And then into the transitional end of it and before working back into the community,” Zimmerman said. “Those kids would get the treatment they need and their family would be able to be there and help and hopefully, we can turn some of those family members at the same time because that’s a big issue as well. Kids go back into a home where mom and dad are still using ... it doesn’t do any good.”

He said at the moment, the county is paying to send juveniles to places out of state or to Marathon County for lock up. 

“You [the county] would end up saving money that way,” Zimmerman said. “We would also have some of the other tribes involved with it so they would help us be able to run it because we would take some of their kids as well. They’re in desperate need as much as we are.”

Bluthardt was told a good part of the funding would be federal in nature from government agencies such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs and he was assured by Brandenburg that this type of local government/tribal cooperation was something the federal government was looking for. 

“They’re excited about the collaborative effort,” he said. “That’s all part of the feasibility study. This is going to be a couple years in coming.”

Bluthardt said he still had concerns about the ability to get something put together in the way of agreements that would last and said that ultimately, it would no doubt mean some sort of larger financial commitment from Vilas County. 

“It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight,” he said. 

Mayer said it would actually more than likely mean a reduction for the county and pointed to the intensive supervision program put in place as a pilot program five years ago that over time has resulted in savings for the county. 

“A couple hundred-thousand dollars a year,” Bauman said. 

Fath said all those factors are part of the feasibility study by Venture Architects. 

Brandenburg, when Bluthardt asked what the time frame was for completion of the feasibility study, said he believed the tribe had contracted with the firm in January.

“They’re early in the information gathering stage,” Fath said. 

Because neither the MOU or a letter of support for the grant were actual agenda items, no formal action could be taken.

It was ultimately decided, however, to have Bluthardt, as chairman of the committee, sign off on a letter of support as soon as possible given the Mar. 24 due date of the grant application. 

The MOU between the county and the tribe, not considered as time sensitive, is an agenda item for this Thursday’s meeting of the Vilas County Tribal Concerns Committee at the Peter Christensen Center in Lac du Flambeau.

That meeting begins at 9 a.m. 

The MOU would ultimately be subject to approval by the entire county board.

Brian Jopek may be reached at bjopek@lakelandtimes.com.

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