Backpacks sit on shelves in a storage room off of the TRY Mediation office at the Eau Claire County Courthouse.
Inside them are items most of us take for granted — pajamas, shampoo, toothpaste and maybe a teddy bear.
But to children in Eau Claire County, the backpacks and their contents might be the first things that are truly their own.
“The intent of the backpacks is to give kids two or three days of living supplies,” said Bridget Coit, a public information officer for the Eau Claire Police Department, as she showed off the contents of the storage room.
Other shelves included stuffed animals, blankets, socks, school supplies, some hygiene products, water bottles and diapers. Several bags contained additional items, which would be placed on the shelves and later into backpacks.
The backpacks are part of the Eau Claire County Drug Endangered Children Initiative, which aims to provide the most current evidence-based training and resources available to investigate cases involving drug-endangered children in the community.
The National Alliance for Drug Endangered Children defines those youth as children who are at risk of suffering physical or emotional harm as a result of illegal drug use or possession, manufacturing, cultivation or distribution of drugs. They might also be children whose caretaker’s substance misuse interferes with his or her ability to parent and provide a safe and nurturing environment.
The number of cases involving drug endangered cases has been growing, said Coit, who has responded to cases where an infant needs an immediate diaper change, but there are no diapers in the home.
In 2013, two counts of child neglect were filed by the Eau Claire County district attorney’s office, Coit said. In 2017, 57 counts were filed.
The Eau Claire County corporation counsel office filed 106 Children in Need of Protection and/or Services petitions in 2016, said Sharon McIlquham, an attorney in the office who handles the petitions. Of those, 66 were related to methamphetamine.
If a parent can’t or won’t take care of a child properly, the juvenile court may step in to grant the child the needed protection or services. When this happens, the child may have to live with relatives or another family for awhile.
In 2017, the office filed 83 CHIPS petitions, 52 of which were meth-related, McIlquham said. As of May 1 this year, 41 CHIPS petitions had been filed, 33 of which were meth related.
“When kids are taken out of contaminated environments, they often have nothing,” said Eau Claire County District Attorney Gary King, who is part of the Eau Claire County Drug Endangered Children Team. “The (backpack) program is an opportunity to at least provide them with things to help them get through that transition process.”
Last year, the team decided to better serve youth, they needed to organize the backpacks better, so they broke children down by gender and age group, Coit said.
In December, more than 100 backpacks were packed — four in each age and gender category — and each backpack had a tag affixed to it listing the contents.
It was apparent many of the backpacks have been depleted since then during an effort involving team members and members of Leadership Eau Claire to organize the area.
“The hard part is we never know what cases will come in, so we can’t say the 4- and 5-year-old category is the most popular because next week we could get a case involving all middle- or high school kids,” Coit said.
“It’s very heartbreaking to have to take a child from his or her home,” said Amy Reggin, a social worker with the Eau Claire County Human Services Department, “but at least we can give them something comforting like a stuffed animal or a blanket.”
People have been generous in their donations to the effort, McIlquham said as she placed stuffed animals on some of the shelves.
Last year, the DEC team got shelving from the Clerk of Courts Office, and the employees in the department sent along “bins and bins” of supplies for the backpack program, she said.
The team aims to have items for children size 8 and below and uses gift cards to purchase items for older children, Reggin said.
“Everyone is heavily invested in the program,” Coit said of the team, “and it’s very supported by our community members.”
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The Eau Claire County Drug Endangered Children Team accepts backpacks and donations, including gifts and monetary, to fill the bags.
The following are needed:
• Baby bottles and sippy cups.
• Boys’ and girls’ pajamas up to size 8.
• Gift cards in the amount of $20 or $25 to ShopKo, Target or Walmart.
• Hygiene products: Men’s and women’s deodorant, packs of baby wipes and travel sizes of the following: Baby shampoo, baby lotion, diaper creme/petroleum jelly, shampoo, conditioner, soap or body wash.
• Other: Activity books, coloring books, packs of crayons and small children’s toys.
To donate, contact Amy Reggin of the Eau Claire County Human Services Department, at 715-839-6712 or Amy.Reggin@co.eau-claire.wi.us.