Wisconsin bill would provide health care services to unaccompanied teens

Wisconsin bill would provide health care services to unaccompanied teens

A homeless Wisconsin youth needs a set of severed arms. An abandoned Wisconsin youth needs mental health treatment. An estranged Wisconsin teen needed a chipped tooth repaired.

Can any of them get treatment?

Under Wisconsin law, the answer is no—without parental consent, parents can be imprisoned, die, or lose contact permanently. Young people in Wisconsin do not have the right to receive their own health care without the written consent of a parent or legal guardian. Wisconsin is one of 15 states without any laws allowing unaccompanied teenagers to obtain health care.

Now, Senate Bill 704 and its companion Assembly Bill 729 will allow unaccompanied minors to consent and receive medical, dental and behavioral health care services without the permission of a parent or legal guardian. These bills are directed by Youth Action Councils in nearly every county in Wisconsin and are specifically designed to address the needs of unaccompanied minors under federal law.

Unaccompanied children must be 14 years of age or older to consent to medical care and may not be subject to the supervision of a county department of human or social services, a licensed child welfare agency, the state Department of Children and Families, or the state. Department of Corrections.

Last year, USA TODAY Network Wisconsin brought widespread attention to the issue, telling the story of an unaccompanied minor who had to rely on his abusive father’s signature to receive any medical assistance. Her story, along with the situation currently faced by more than 2,000 other unaccompanied young people in Wisconsin, was later used in educational settings by Joli Guenther, executive director of the Wisconsin Association for Homeless and Runaway Services.

Below is information about your bill.

Why are these bills significant?

Wisconsin is one of the few states that still recognizes the “infancy defense,” a law derived from English common law and which states that juveniles are protected from criminal prosecution in most cases. It also protects minors signing up for credit cards or consenting to other types of paperwork (such as health care).

Guenther met last year with the Youth Action Council, which represents 69 of 72 counties, to learn about the needs of unaccompanied minors. Young people spoke passionately about the importance of being able to access their own healthcare.

“We’re talking about very, very basic health care,” Gunther said, noting that young people in Wisconsin have access to reproductive health care and substance use disorder evaluation, evaluation or treatment.

Subject to these exceptions, a young person may receive medical care without the consent of a legal guardian only in life-or-death situations. But most people can attest that taking care of non-life-threatening health problems is a key element of basic needs.

It leaves every non-life-threatening illness, injury, or harmful condition to occur by chance.

State Rep. Jodi Emerson, one of the authors of the Assembly bill, said if left untreated, bronchitis can turn into pneumonia, which can be life-threatening. Vaccination can help curb the spread of infectious diseases and save lives.

related: Minors in Wisconsin require approval for physical and mental care. What if parents say no?

“Preventative care — early treatment — saves money and can save lives,” Emerson said. “That’s one of the frustrating things about government sometimes. Why can’t we deal with things before they become big problems, when they’re smaller, when they’re cheaper, when they’re less harmful to individuals and to society as a whole?”

These bills are also important because they reflect the lived experiences of young people.

Katie Polasky, 17, a member of the Brown County Youth Advisory Council, hopes more people will listen to young people’s voices on issues that affect them. Polaski was not unaccompanied — her mother was present when she spoke to the USA TODAY Network in Wisconsin — but she was invited to be part of the Youth Advisory Board because she was born in Guatemala and worked as a Spend time in a foster home.

“Young people are the ones who are going through it. I think in order for adults to make decisions, they need to hear from young people,” Polaski said.

Who is considered an unaccompanied youth?

Federal law defines an unaccompanied minor as a “homeless youth who is not under the supervision of a parent or guardian.” But it also includes children living in the care of a family member who is not technically their legal guardian.

Gunther said the bills cover a variety of situations, including grandparents caring for their grandchildren. She spoke with many caregivers who were in this situation, caring for their grandchildren as the parents dealt with a personal health crisis, such as alcoholism.

Emerson said it can be a slow process for a family member to become a legal guardian because of the current court support.

“So even if mom and dad agree that grandma is watching, without a signed document, the child can’t get any form of health care unless it’s life-threatening,” Emerson said.

Under the bill, one of the following persons must confirm in writing that the minor is an unaccompanied youth:

  • An agency designated under federal law to serve as a liaison between local educational agencies for homeless children and youth.
  • School social worker or counselor.
  • An employee who is institutionalized in a shelter or transitional living program where the minor has been admitted as an unaccompanied juvenile under existing law.
  • A director or designee of a governmental or non-profit entity that receives public or private funds to provide services to homeless or unaccompanied youth.

Do SB 704 and AB 729 have bipartisan support?

not yet.

In theory, the bills should have clear bipartisan support, Emerson said, but “hot-button political topics” like gender-affirming care and immigration have clouded the conversation even though the bills focus on women’s health and well-being. Vulnerable youth groups.

Gunther said the bills would not affect the standards of care already in place to prevent minors from undergoing gender-affirming surgeries.

Gender-affirming care also is not covered by Medicaid for minors and is not a service provided by the Wisconsin Free Clinic, which would limit unaccompanied minors’ access to those services, Gunther said.

“We’re talking about poor young people who don’t have the financial resources to pay for elective surgeries and care,” Gunther said. “This bill is about access to existing care and standards of care.”

Immigration raises its own set of issues, but that’s not Emerson’s concern because “that’s not the intent of the bill.”

Emerson emphasized that this is to remove barriers for unaccompanied minors to access existing medical services, including free clinics. It has nothing to do with creating new medical programs.

What if an undocumented, unaccompanied teen receives medical care?

“What if we saw thousands of children in need of medical help and someone else from another country slipped through and got care? Oh my gosh,” Emerson said. “This is really about consent to medical care. , not who pays for it.”

What other bills should I know about unaccompanied minors?

Overall, Wisconsin is an exception when it comes to protecting vulnerable youth populations from harm. Shared Hope International, an organization that works to end child and teen sex trafficking, gave Wisconsin an “F”, making it one of the worst states in its 2023 annual report.

Several agencies, including the Wisconsin Association for Homeless and Runaway Services, drew on the experience of unaccompanied youth to advocate for passage of Wisconsin Act 22 of 2019, which would have allowed 17-year-olds to seek medical treatment before they turned 18. Emergency shelter. They still don’t have access to medical care.

In addition, Emerson has introduced legislation that would provide stronger protections for teenagers who run away from home. Current Wisconsin law states that if a teen runaway seeks a homeless shelter like House of Hope that accepts youth, they cannot stay if the agency cannot obtain parent or guardian consent within 12 hours. Come down. That’s a quarter of the time under federal legislation, which sets the consent period at 72 hours.

Adding extra padding to the consent window could be crucial for young people trying to get off the streets. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in three teenagers is at risk of being lured into sexual exploitation within 48 hours of leaving home.

The bills died in committee.

There’s another inconsistency: Wisconsin law recognizes that children cannot legally consent to sex. However, they may be prosecuted for prostitution. Additionally, Wisconsin is one of 20 states without “safe harbor” laws that prohibit the arrest, detention, charging and prosecution of children in prostitution, even if they are victims of human trafficking, according to Shared Hope International.

“That faith stays with them throughout their lives,” said Shannon Wienandt, executive director of House of Hope.

Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay, introduced a bill last year that would have banned the criminalization of prostitution among minors, but the bill is unlikely to be introduced this session.

Although the bill received strong bipartisan support, previous versions of the bill died in committee.

What’s next for these bills?

Gunther plans to organize educational sessions in the spring to help people better understand the situation and foster dialogue. That need can be “very, very invisible,” Gunther said.

“People can assume it’s not there and it shouldn’t be there. We assume our young people have people keeping them safe, but unfortunately we know from the data that’s not the case,” Gunther said.

It currently appears that no action will be taken on these bills until next session or next year, but to Emerson, this bill corrects systemic flaws that leave young people vulnerable.

“In my opinion, if we’re going to take care of kids who slip through the cracks, let’s take care of kids who slip through the cracks,” Emerson said. “I’m not willing to have this surgery but I’m not willing to have other surgeries. We (politicians) need to stop pretending we are doctors.”

The Press-Gazette’s Danielle Duclos contributed to this report.

Natalie Elbert covers mental health issues for the USA TODAY Network in Wisconsin. She welcomes story prompts and feedback. You can contact her at [email protected] or check out her Twitter profile: @natalie_eilbert. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text “Hopeline” to the National Crisis Text Line at 741-741.

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